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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks at the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, June 15, 2010.

NATHAN DENETTE/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Michael Ignatieff remembers her name. Zeena. "For that was what was written on her nameplate," he says in the odd, wooden syntax he uses in speeches.

He tells a million-dollar Liberal Party fundraising dinner in Toronto - more than a thousand people in the audience - that, as Zeena is frisking him after he has passed through the security scanner at the Ottawa airport, she says: "Mr. Ignatieff, you did the right thing about that coalition business."

He continues with the Zeena tale: "'You're doing well,' she said. Then she added, 'The Liberals are coming back. You're the party for us, the party of the people.' 'Yes, Zeena,' I said. 'That's what we're trying to be.' The party of the people."

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Soaring Obama-ese it is not. "We have a very anti-rhetorical political tradition in Canada, and I think that's a strength, not a weakness," Mr. Ignatieff observed recently.

It's an interesting story for him to tell. What is the message, apart from self-congratulation?

Perhaps an attempt at vindication for using the backlash against the Liberal-New Democratic coalition that tried to bring down Stephen Harper's minority government to engineer the palace coup that made him party leader. Coalition champion Bob Rae, his rival for the leadership, is sitting just a few metres away, having only moments before given him a glowing introduction.

Or maybe it was a momentary step outside his usual oratorical plod, designed to persuade his audience that, as Zeena said, the Liberals are coming back ... and Michael Ignatieff is bringing them back.

An Ekos Research poll published this week shows the Liberals seven points ahead of the Conservatives nationally. With an election almost certain in the next 18 months, Canadians are beginning to envision Mr. Ignatieff as their prime minister.

Two years ago, when he lost his first leadership race to Stéphane Dion, he was an outsider to his party and an unknown to the public. Now, he and his team are working hard to erase that notion.

On the Web, he Twitters, Flickrs, blogs, Facebooks, YouTubes, IggyTubes (on his site) and Diggs. You want to know his musical taste, what books he reads, his favourite movie ( The Godfather, Part 1) and what he looks for from others (friendship)? It's all there.

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He travels the country to give speeches, meet Liberals and be in front of television cameras. Since moving into Stornoway, the opposition leader's residence, he and wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, have entertained vigorously - inviting members of the parliamentary press corps, among others, for canapés and tête-à-têtes.

And although political observer Peter C. Newman wrote recently that the media lie in wait ("Ottawa-based reporters resent him … he has been too successful too fast"), favourable stories about him have blossomed. He appears on the cover of magazines for everyone from seniors (Zoomer) to students (University of Toronto's Hart House publication), while Maclean's features a long interview, and another news organization has been promised exclusive photos of his new kitten.

This week marks the launch of his latest book (Mr. Rae, in introducing him at the fundraiser, said he has written more of them than the entire Conservative caucus has read), part of the choreography leading up to his drum-roll unveiling at the Liberal Party convention in Vancouver at the end of the month.

True Patriot Love is about his mother's family, the intellectual, nationalist Grants. He has said he gives himself away when he writes about his family and, in truth, for him it's a near obsession.

"It's all about creating the ground under your own feet," he has said. "It's kind of a process of self-invention, so that you're standing with your feet planted, you know who the hell you are, you know where the hell you came from, you know where the hell you're going."

The book is not just about the Grants. It's also a detailed look at his own beliefs about his country, its government and his political ideology.

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When we meet to talk about the book, he tells me he wants Canadians to see him as a patriot. That's the word he uses. The book's subtitle, Four Generations in Search of Canada, refers to his great-grandfather, grandfather, uncle and him, Michael Grant Ignatieff, fourth-generation nation-builder.

If ancestry informs identity like a stain, Mr. Ignatieff's remarkable heritage is well worth examination - an exercise that may reveal just what kind of patriot he is.

DESCENDED FROM NOBLES

He turns 62 next month. His life has confirmed every bit of what was achieved by his forebears, every notion of breeding and superiority that someone might have in a fantasy.

Educated at Oxford and Harvard; an acolyte and triumphant biographer of Isaiah Berlin, one of the great liberal thinkers of the 20th century; a novelist, philosopher, historian, political theorist; a war correspondent, a television celebrity. He moves in the world of great ideas and power; he walks with princes.

Canada has not had a political leader like this (Pierre Trudeau's father was in trade). It isn't just that Michael Ignatieff is an aristocrat; he is an aristocrat who is not, as the French say, the fin de la race - the clapped-out, end-of-the-line Eurodreck, assuming superiority and privilege that are unearned.

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Twenty-two years ago, he wrote, in The Russian Album, a history of his Ignatieff forebears.

His great-great-grandfather, Paul Ignatieff, an army officer, won favour with Czar Nicholas I for remaining loyal during the 1825 Decembrist revolt, sometimes called the first Russian revolution. He and his family were ennobled in 1878 by Czar Alexander II, who was a witness at the baptism of Mr. Ignatieff's great-grandfather, Count Nicholas Ignatieff.

The count grew up to lead a life of derring-do, executing dangerous secret missions for the czar, almost becoming king of Bulgaria and being fictionalized in the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser. He also, as minister of the interior under Alexander III in 1882, issued the notorious May Laws authorizing discrimination against Jews.

Mr. Ignatieff's grandfather, the second Count Paul, married a princess and became a minister to the last czar, Nicholas II. When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, the couple and their five sons fled, eventually settling in Canada.

The youngest son, George, was Mr. Ignatieff's father, a Rhodes Scholar who later served around the world during Canada's golden age of diplomacy. When he visited Moscow in 1955, Soviet officials, including leader Nikita Khrushchev, addressed him as "Count." At the United Nations headquarters in New York, a young Mr. Ignatieff was with his father when they met a Soviet diplomat who doffed his astrakhan and said, "As the son of a peasant, I salute you."

Now, in True Patriot Love, we have the Grants.

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There is great-grandfather George Monro Grant, principal of Queen's University, friend of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who is part of the first group of Canadians to cross the country in 1872 with Sandford Fleming, surveyor of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway.

There is grandfather William Lawson (Choppy) Grant, lecturer in imperial British history at Oxford, long-time principal of Toronto's Upper Canada College and author of the most widely used Canadian history textbook in high schools before the Second World War.

And there is Uncle George Parkin Grant, philosopher, author of Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, listed by the Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most influential books ever written in Canada.

In The Russian Album, he recalled his grandfather's favourite phrase: "Life is not a game, life is not a joke. It is only by putting on the chains of service that man is able to accomplish his destiny on earth."

Of the Grants, he writes: "I can see how vain and distorted our family myth making could be, but for all that, I cannot disavow it. It is part of me. Given this family, given its presence in my early life, the question for me was always: What can I add? Is there anything of my own to say? It has taken me a long time to figure out what that might be."

And then he doesn't say what it is.

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So I ask him.

"I think what distinguishes me from the others," he replies, "is that I've gone into elected office."

Destiny.

THE COMEBACK KID

Invited by the tyrant Dionysius to guide him in becoming a wise ruler, Plato discovers what happens when a philosopher enters political life, with all its mistrust and competitiveness. He is jailed and, as the story goes, threatened with being sold into slavery before escaping back to Athens and the Academy.

Fleeing back to the academy is just what many political observers thought the philosopher prince would do after his 2006 leadership loss to Mr. Dion. His defeat surprised him. He had been the front-runner; he had raised the most money, run the splashiest campaign, bathed in the most media sunshine. He was Michael Ignatieff, who could explain the world to anyone, who had returned to the country 18 months earlier with a kind of Churchillian vision of entering and transforming Canadian politics.

He didn't win primarily because he knew no more than 100 Liberals outside his Toronto riding and next to nothing about politics - and because too many party members harboured a deep suspicion of someone who had been outside the country since 1969.

What he did next was dust himself off and begin learning about what made the party tick. Appointed deputy leader by Mr. Dion - to the annoyance of old friend and former University of Toronto classmate Mr. Rae, who had placed third in the race - he embarked on a two-year political training course, travelling the country and meeting every Liberal who came to hear him.

He broke out of the shell of reserve and edginess that friends and family say he had first put in place as an adolescent and thickened as a journalist and academic. He became more open, more at ease with himself, less defensive, more aware of what he didn't know.

He adjusted his image. When invited in 2000 to give the CBC Massey Lectures, he had said in the preface to the published version: "I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider … these lectures are my attempt to catch up with the turbulent history of my country in the very years I was abroad." In 2007, when the collection was reissued, Mr. Ignatieff removed all reference to Martians and to being absent from Canada.

He and Mr. Rae began a rematch for the leadership after Mr. Dion's dismal performance in last fall's election. It appeared to be another contest between two old friends.

The truth was different. Contrary to media mythology and public hugs, the friendship had largely turned to dust years before Mr. Ignatieff's return to Canada. It had been noted at the 2006 convention that, when Mr. Rae was knocked off the ballot, his brother John physically blocked Mr. Ignatieff from making his way to the Rae camp to recruit supporters.

Last December, when Mr. Dion behaved clumsily in the parliamentary furor and the caucus was in turmoil, Mr. Ignatieff, now a true party guy, seized the leadership in what amounted to a palace coup.

He pushed aside both Mr. Dion and Mr. Rae. Then, over the Christmas holiday when few were paying attention to Parliament Hill, he blowtorched the opposition leader's office, firing all but a few members of Mr. Dion's staff, bringing in a corporate team to restructure operations and moving in his own people, most of them new to Ottawa but with a history of working seamlessly together.

When we meet at the Royal York Hotel, I ask Mr. Ignatieff why The Godfather is his favourite film. He says it is because of the great scene with Marlon Brando as the aged Mafia don Vito Corleone in the tomato patch with his grandson.

So it's not when Michael Corleone, the don's son, arranges a series of ruthless assassinations?

He laughs and says no, not at all.

After Christmas, he went to Florida to finish writing True Patriot Love, adding one chapter on his Uncle George and finishing up with his own political declaration in a chapter titled The Inheritance.

The book shows off all of Mr. Ignatieff's masterful written eloquence. It's so puzzling that his speeches don't. An academic specialist in rhetoric who read several of them was struck by the leaden words, the clichéd declamations, the mixed, if not mashed, metaphors - in sharp contrast to the rocketing rhetoric of some of the country's greatest patriots. Sir John A., D'Arcy McGee, Laurier, Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau.

Not to mention Uncle George.

NO CAUSE TO LAMENT

Of George Grant's famous political treatise, his nephew says: "You can still read Lament for a Nation now, 50 years later, and disagree with every page, and still think it's the greatest 90 pages ever written about our country.

"And I don't agree with it. But it has grandeur. You know, that quotation from Virgil at the end. You can't read it without brrrrrr," Mr. Ignatieff says, doing a mock shiver.

The quote was: "Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris admore: "They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore" - Prof. Grant's image of true patriot Canadians lamenting the disappearance of their country.

The most riveting part of Mr. Ignatieff's True Patriot Love is his chapter on Prof. Grant.

In True Patriot Love, Mr. Ignatieff treats his grandfather and great-grandfather as iconic heroes; for the most part, they are frozen in the past, cemented into hagiography. But his essay on his uncle is vintage Michael Ignatieff, a probe into the relationships between family members that leaves him publicly undressed.

It is in his denunciation of Grant's political philosophy and repudiation of what he sees as his uncle's mythological notion of Canada that he reveals his own beliefs.

Lament for a Nation, published in 1965, was gasoline poured on the coals of English-Canadian nationalism for which it was meant to be an obituary. It immediately became a bestseller.

Prof. Grant's premise was that Canada's capitalists and its federal politicians and public servants had sold out the country to the United States and, in so doing, had destroyed both its autonomy and its unique culture, an organic political society anchored by the state.

He warned against the hazards of untrammelled technology emanating from the hegemony of American liberal capitalism. And he argued that the cultural, economic and political absorption of Canada into the U.S. resulted in part from the idea that human progress is inevitably homogenizing, prodded by the forces of government, corporations and technology.

Not surprisingly, although George Grant was a conservative - he had virtually defined Red Toryism as much as he disliked the term - the book was enormously popular with the Canadian left.

In True Patriot Love, Mr. Ignatieff whacks at it, page after page. Its real purpose, he writes, was a defence of Christian conservative Canada.

Within the family, he says, it was seen as a wild and cruel reckoning for personal slights, real and imagined, going back to the Canadian circle to which Prof. Grant belonged in wartime London - a circle that included his sister, Alison, and her future husband, George Ignatieff, as well Grant's uncle, Vincent Massey, who would become the first Canadian-born governor-general and whom he didn't like, and future prime minister Lester Pearson, a onetime friend he targeted in Lament as the ringleader of the vendus.

Mr. Ignatieff accuses his uncle of claiming to channel the voices of his ancestors, when in reality he was presenting his voice alone - the ancestors had never been so uniformly anti-American, so hostile to science and technology, so opposed to everything that went by the name of progress.

He erred, his nephew says, in thinking that the differences between Canada and the U.S. would die, he mistakenly believed that Canada's Britishness distinguished it from the U.S., and he gave up on the country just as it was about to reinvent itself.

"So he was wrong. Wrong. Wrong again," Mr. Ignatieff writes.

Yet, in the preface to the 1970 edition of Lament, Grant writes of feeling a spike of optimism for the country under Pierre Trudeau. He declares that "many simple people (particularly journalists and professors)" - bang-bang; both barrels fired at his nephew - had erroneously interpreted his book as a lament for the passing of the British dream of Canada.

He writes: "Our hope lay in the belief that on the northern half of this continent we could build a community which had a stronger sense of the common good and of public order than was possible under the individualism of the American capitalist dream. The original sources of that hope in the English-speaking part of our society lay in certain British traditions which had been denied in the American Revolution."

And, indeed, Mr. Ignatieff raises the banner of the state and the common good in laying out his own vision for the country.

All of which piques the curiosity about what may have swirled beneath the surface between uncle and nephew …

Prof. Grant, who died in 1988, was unkempt, obese, foul-mouthed and loud. He chain-smoked, had appalling teeth and would tell Americans he encountered casually to get out of the country.

He was exceedingly self-dramatizing. He revelled in the role of renegade and eccentric in his family. Indeed, his lack of elegance was arguably a disdain for his roots. His own mother, Mr. Ignatieff's grandmother, called him a poseur.

Although his relationship with his sister was often difficult, the two were close. He never forgave his nephew for writing publicly about the intensely private Alison as she descended into Alzheimer's in later life.

And he did not like Mr. Ignatieff's father. George Ignatieff was debonair, stylish, a foreign-born cosmopolite likely seen in his brother-in-law's eyes as corrupting the purity of the land-rooted Canadians and making them feel like yobbos, as well as rising high in the ranks of power, high in the Liberal establishment that George Grant loathed and blamed for the demise of the country.

Mr. Ignatieff, on the other hand, idolizes "my mum's and dad's people" - the internationalist Canadians with ties to the country's wartime High Commission in London, people proud that Canada stood virtually alone beside Britain in the war's early years and who later returned home believing their country had an important role to play in the world.

"I think my idea of Canada is formed more by that than anything else," he says. "Because these people came out of the war with such a sense that their country mattered. You can't understand the Pearson generation of which my father is a part without that sense."

We continue talking about George Grant until Mr. Ignatieff abruptly draws a line in the sand between his uncle's thought and his: "He thought capitalism is godless, materialistic and morally relativist. It's not my problem. It never was my problem. I don't mean to dismiss that lightly. But this is where we had substantial arguments when I was young and he was older and wiser.

"I like market society because I like its freedoms, and freedom is a very chilly thing. It doesn't give you a metaphysics. It doesn't give you a community. But it gives you freedom. And then you have to decide which of these values in life you want.

"He longed, I think, for community. Community mattered maybe more to him than freedom. Freedom matters more to me than anything else. Why I value these kinds of societies is actually not that I think they're godless, it's that they leave you the choice of your gods, the responsibility of choosing your gods, the responsibility of leading a moral and disciplined and purposeful life - faced with pluralism, faced with a series of choices, some good, some bad. I like that. I'm at home in this world. He was deeply and profoundly not at home in that world.

"Why am I in politics? I'm in politics because of the dream of creating something here is what I want to do. But it's got to be a free community, it's got to be based on freedom. And it's got to be based on acknowledging where we live. We live next door to the United States of America, and where he sees defeat, sellout, fusion, I see a remarkably tenacious defence of difference. I just do."

NOT A BAD CARD

Michael Ignatieff has always romanticized his life. He wrote about his Russian aristocratic ancestors two decades ago because, as he said, he was his cosmopolitan father's son. Now, he has written about the Grants after coming back to Canada to be in public life, completing the circle.

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask him, "For Canadians reading this book, what image do you hope they take away of you as a potential prime minister?"

His answer: "I hope as a patriot, someone who is anchored in the country and whose investment in the country is more than a personal matter, more than just a matter of my personal career. This is a four-generation project."

There's that sense of destiny again.

In fact, patriotism is not a bad card to play in Canadian politics, says Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based Ekos Research.

"In international surveys," he says, "Canadians' level of attachment to their country - particularly English Canadians' - is as high as virtually any country in the world. We think we have problems with national attachment, but we have an extremely strong connection. We tie with the Americans. They score higher than us on pride, on chauvinism, but we are equally attached on most measures.

"And there is a correlation between those who find themselves more patriotic, more nationalistic, and those who see themselves as Liberals."

George Grant would have been shocked. His cosmopolitan nephew, the patriot. His cosmopolitan Liberal nephew. "Even cosmopolitans need a state," Mr. Ignatieff told journalist Richard Gwyn more than a decade ago.

What shocks Mr. Graves is the virtual absence of any political champion of Canadian nationalism since Jean Chrétien's early years as prime minister. "In the last election there were five parties vying for power, and there wasn't a single leader of any of those parties who came even close to being a identified as a strong Canadian nationalist," he says.

Now, maybe - Canadians have yet to see how deep his words go - there's Mr. Ignatieff.

His book begins with a graceful essay on the country as an imagined community, the notion introduced a quarter-century ago by U.S. social scientist Benedict Anderson.

"Loving a country is an act of the imagination," Mr. Ignatieff writes. "We start from what we know - the street where we grew up, the brightly lit skating rinks at night, the tingle of the lake water when we first plunge in, the feeling when we set our feet back on native soil - and we make these parts stand for the whole.

"What we know is only a fragment of what is there. We have to imagine the expanse we have not seen. We have to imagine the ties that bind us to our fellow citizens, many of whom may not even speak the same language. ...

"We engage in this act of imagination because we need to. The lives we live alone do not make sense to us unless we share some public dimension with others. We need a public life in common, some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live."

His idea of some of the mythologies that run deep in Canadians' lives seems a little musty - the North, the land, the constitutional mantra of POGG: peace, order and good government. He writes at one point that because Canadians are three peoples living in a single state without sharing the same sense of country - English-Canadian, French-Canadian and aboriginal - they cannot create a single, uniting national myth, as Americans have done.

STEPHEN HARPER'S FLAW

What, I ask him, does that say about our shibboleths of pluralism, of a culture of rights, of a more communal approach to life than the Lockean individualism of Americans?

On the last issue, he tells me, this nephew of George Grant: "You can't run this country without government, without a federal government that has an inciting, promoting, stimulating role in pulling the country together.

"And the job description of a prime minister, the job description of a federal government, is just one job - hold the country together, make it stronger. That's all it does, and Canadians have a deep understanding of that. They don't like big government. But they do think we can't have a country unless we have a federal government that does some of this stuff.

"And this is, I think, the fatal ideological flaw of Harper's conservatism because it fits a country that is finished, but it doesn't fit a country that is not yet done. … Part of what I like about our country is the sense that we're unfinished business. We're not there. The dish is not done, and that creates a project for us, which to imagine it finished, imagining the building done, the pie cooked."

It's got to be done, he says, by "imagining what it's like to be in the helmets of other people and then imagining a common project we might do together and doing it in a free society."

The country has been bruised, he says. Pummelled by the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords and the near-death experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum.

Then came deficit-slaying. "Then we had a government that said, 'Let's lower all expectations down basically to zero. We're going to give you retail politics. We're going to get the government off your back.'."

He believes it's time for government to build again. He says the markets have always run north-south - "It's not just a dire capitalist plot; that's where our standard of living comes from" - while the country runs east-west, and the task of Canadian nation-builders has been to balance the two.

He talks about building the high-speed rail line between Quebec City and Windsor, building a national energy corridor.

At the end of our conversation, he says: "The most important line in the book to me is somewhere near the end of the introduction, I think I say that one of the reasons why these people [the Grants]are inspiring to me is that they believe in us more than we do ourselves. There's a part of the faith they had in the country that I find inspiring.

"So, you think, 'Okay, let's see what happens.'."

Ottawa airport's Zeena - who recalls her encounter with Mr. Ignatieff but declines to say any more about it - no doubt will be watching.

Michael Valpy is a writer with The Globe and Mail. His 2006 profile of Michael Ignatieff was nominated for a National Newspaper Award.

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