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The Globe and Mail

Embattled Ignatieff offers passionate defence of Liberal vision

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff arrives for a news conference Sunday, April 24, 2011 in Toronto.

Paul Chiasson/The Globe and Mail

Languishing in the polls, challenged on his right by the dominating Conservatives and on his left by a resurgent NDP, Michael Ignatieff says he entered the final week of this federal election campaign in a mood of "serene optimism."

But it was exasperation that appeared to come through more often in his meeting Sunday afternoon with The Globe and Mail's editorial board: Exasperation that his commitment to Canada could still be questioned six years after his return from abroad.

And exasperation that his Liberal vision of a federal government - uniting Canadians behind a new generation of national programs targeting workers, caregivers and students - is being ignored by Canadians who may prefer the managerial competence of Stephen Harper or the full-throated restructuring proposed by Jack Layton.

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Over the past four weeks of the election campaign Mr. Ignatieff has seen "an energized party, full rooms, people understanding how important the election is to them."

He brushed off questions about why so many voters were drifting toward the NDP, which currently rivals the Liberals in the polls in a race for second place.

"Sixty per cent of the population doesn't want to go on with the Harper government," he said. "Now they're figuring out who can get us there. That's what happening."

But "it's choosing time," he added. "We have to remind Canadians that we have the experience of government."

And he continued to emphasize his party's proposal to subsidize college tuition, enhance child care and fund home care when family members fall ill.

Mr. Ignatieff entered this election at a disadvantage, his public profile damaged by relentless Conservative attack ads questioning his commitment to Canada after he spent 35 years outside the country.

He bristled when asked why he had come back to take up federal politics.

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"It's my country," he replied, then paused. "It's my country. (Pause.) It's my home."

He had been raised in a home dedicated to public service. (His father, George Ignatieff, was a prominent diplomat.) "Public service is not an abstraction to me."

"… And I've had two and a half years of people questioning that. And you can imagine how deeply I feel about this question."

Mr. Ignatieff was at his most passionate when it was pointed out that "passionate" is a word he uses frequently. Is the choice, he was asked, between his dream of a possible Canada and a hard-headed calculation of how best to apportion federal revenues?

"The Canada you dream of - dammit, this is the country I grew up in!" and he pounded the table.

Canadians, he said, have always understood the importance of equality of opportunity between region, races, classes - the Liberal nation-building exercise stretching from King through Trudeau.

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"This is what worked," he insisted. "This is what made us so successful. This is what we have to rediscover and re-dedicate ourselves to."

"You'll hear reason from Harper. That's not the issue. What you will not hear is a vision of the country. You will not hear that from him. He doesn't have it. It's not there."

Between passion and pragmatism; vision and prudence; Ignatieff and Harper.

Or perhaps, some Canadians are pondering, someone else entirely.

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