Diary

Michael Ignatieff

On 4 September, the night of the Canadian Election, friends of mine were gathered around the live radio-feed listening to the results in Canada House, cackling as the tumbrils bore each Liberal Cabinet Minister to the electoral guillotine. By about four in the morning, the dimensions of the Liberal catastrophe had revealed themselves: expelled from its Quebec bastion, reduced to a small-town Ontario rump with only two seats between Thunder Bay and Vancouver. It is difficult to say which pebble set off the landslide: reaction against Trudeau’s high-minded highhandedness, the prospect of change without risk, the attractions of a Tory leader who grew up in an iron-ore town on Quebec’s north shore and had a popular touch in either language. For many people, however, it was the stink of the pigs in the trough which finally did the Liberals in. Trudeau, ever the master of the contemptuous parting gesture, had forced his successor, John Turner, to approve over a hundred and fifty patronage appointments among the bagmen, hangers-on and courtiers of his reign. Cabinet Ministers accused of influence-peddling were pensioned-off as ambassadors to small unwilling nations and loyal apparatchiki were raised from obscurity under the garden stones of politics and given the Canadian equivalent of life peerages. Patronage is the gift ritual which binds together the tribal alliances of modern states, but this potlatch was gross, the last straw. At Canada House the pleasure of the night was more in punishing the losers than applauding the winners. The choice before the electorate was uninspiring: one high-priced lawyer with a lantern jaw and a hand on the ladle of the public trough, versus another. When the new man, Brian Mulroney, appeared on the screens in the small hours, waving in ragged colour from a hockey auditorium in his home town, Baie Comeau, Quebec, there were ripples of mockery in Canada House.

Canada is a difficult country to govern and the electorate seemed exhausted by the difficulties. The habitable area of Canada is 4500 miles long and about seventy miles wide, strung out along the American border and divided by mountain, lake and prairie into five regions. Other societies – Italy, for example – are as intensely regional, but they are older and the weight and substance of their civil society knits them together beneath the torn fabric of their politics. In Canada, we do not have a common civil society – language, tradition, history – to knit us together. It is the vain manoeuvring of politicians – ceaseless regional bargaining over language rights, resource ownership, federal-provincial jurisdiction – which keeps the elongated line of settlement together. Trudeau’s raison d’être was to integrate a modern nationalist Quebec into this regional bargaining structure, and he succeeded, but the price of the interminable haggling was ultimately paid in some degree of electoral cynicism towards the political process itself. The sight of Brian Mulroney glad-handing with a posse of provincial premiers, the dishevelled chain-smoking René Levesque included, seemed to promise at least a lull in our dreary family quarrel. Canadians voted for a little peace and quiet. They are unlikely to get it.

After the Election was over and the radio-feed had signed off, my friends at Canada House, being journalists, set off on a prowl through the vast basements. Had they been stopped, they would have said they were in search of the tools of their trade – telexes, wire-service copiers and telephones. Actually they wanted a closer look at the Augean stables beneath Trafalgar Square. At the end of one darkened corridor they came upon a strong room with a door marked ‘Do Not Close This Door’. It was shut. Glad to oblige, they swung it open and found inside boxes of Agricultural Department leaflets on wheat and potato blight, framed portraits of Mounties on horses, hockey sticks and, in one corner, the holy grail of Canadian identity itself, a life-sized birch-bark canoe.

O Canada, our home and native land,
True patriot’s love in all thy sons command.

Canadians are great frauds about their national symbols, full of sophisticated mockery yet comically susceptible to their lure. It’s been twenty years since I last sat in a canoe, but I still wake up some mornings in North London and remember slipping through the back-channels of Georgian Bay in the early-morning haze, feeling the plumb of the craft’s balance down my spine and the silver drops from the lip of the paddle breaking the stillness of the lake.

A country works its way into one’s affections through the unconscious grace of small acts: the slow torsion of a gondolier’s arm, dark eyes glimpsed through an Arab veil. Canada is short on grace. But it does have canoes. It also had big Jean Beliveau. You had to be there on a Saturday night at the Montreal Forum, watching that man circle languidly behind his net before starting one of his majestic rushes down the ice, to know why he was such style as we had in our country when I was growing up in the Fifties. He had a great athlete’s dispensation from the rules of gravity, and his grace was ours as surely as Mickey Mantle’s belonged to Southern whites and Bobby Charlton’s belonged to the North of England. Beliveau is an old man now, a public-relations executive for a brewery. He comes on television from time to time, but I do not watch. I prefer the memory of perfection.

Hockey is the Canadian state of grace. You can see the school rinks at night from every highway and railway line, cubes of light with boys in Canadiens jerseys, circling in the blissful self-absorption of being masters of their bodies, lost in the trance of the hard bright air and the sound of the blades on the ice. I might have stayed in Canada if I had been a good hockey player. I would have belonged. But the sense of exclusion from the central mystery began early. My ankles wobbled. I fell. Such is the lure of those nights on the ice, however, that I still dream of skating. I am alone on an ice-field stretching to infinity. It is the moment of winter when the clouds meet the snow and abolish the world. I am skating with the languid ease which eludes me in life. My skates make no sound. Out of the whiteness all around me, someone else’s blades are approaching, a lethal lulling swish. A Canadian dream – God on skates.

The dreams would not be worth the telling, were it not that the English – and some Canadians too – doubt that Canada has the stuff of which dreams are made. Our history is a mere adventure story compared to the Dostoevskian proportions of Russian history or the Dreiserian drama of the American. We are a genial and unmarked people, envious of the grander traditions to the north and south of us, yet relieved that we do not have to bear the murderous self-importance of imperial destinies. We are refugees from revolutions, subjects of the Crown, not citizens: we lack the republican self-assertiveness which makes possible a Freedom of Information Act, but also the fanaticism of the ‘right to bear arms’. We were spared the lunatic individualism of the ‘Wild West’: the settlement of our West was conducted under the rough decorum of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Mounties. We had no Wyatt Earp, nor Jesse James: just the frozen endurance of the homesteaders, the struggle against the permafrost, the wind and the banks. It is not a mythic story, and when I once taught Canadian history, I had a hard time telling it. The great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of these homesteaders had their heads filled, as mine was too, with other people’s stories.

The size of our economy gives our prime minister a seat at the summit of the major industrialised nations, but it is a shallow backwater of the American market. Our industry is owned by other people; our resources are sold raw and shipped back to us as door-frames and transistor radios. We spend less on research and development than any major economy in the world. We are living on borrowed time, with a decaying industrial base and no competitive advantage in the sunrise technologies. Our native capitalists and union bosses look over their shoulders to the head-offices in Los Angeles and New York. The only compensation to be had for the weakness of our local élites is that we have no Carnegies, Rockefellers or Fricks, no monsters of accumulation to lecture us on the values of free enterprise. As a result, the axis of our politics is several degrees to the left of the American. Such mastery of our economy as we have we owe to an indigenous tradition of state capitalism. It has given us a national broadcasting system, a national airline, a national energy corporation, publicly-owned utility companies and the most generous social welfare system next to Scandinavia. We have our accomplishments, but they remain curiously invisible to us. We lack a political culture of our own, and so we lack the words to name the things we feel are worth defending. The new prime minister’s first act on taking office was to hasten to Washington to exchange grins with Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden. We sustain our sense of self from the benign glow of the imperial gaze.

It is hard to love a country if it doesn’t also awaken a measure of awe and fear. Soviet exiles love Russia because and not in spite of the fact that it devours so many of its finest citizens. Americans love America because, in part, they also fear it. In Europe, the sources of fear are historical: History with a capital H rifling the writing desk, smashing up the cabinets, yanking the children out of bed. In Canada, history happens somewhere else. Most of us went there in the first place to get out of history’s way. We do not fear our history as the Russians do, or love it as the Americans do. But we found our own fear: the scrabbling of the black bear’s claws at the screen door, the creaking silence of the woods, the cold. In Europe it is the hand of human labour, the millennial arts of settlement and civilisation, which awaken awe. In Canada, the hands have done so little. Instead, there is the silent immensity of the cold.

I remember one Christmas several years ago, arriving in the Eastern Townships still in our London clothes on the last train from Montreal. The tracks ran right down the middle of the town and the big diesel’s bell clanged as it made its progress down the darkened streets like a ponderous, majestic bear whiskered with icicles. When we reached my uncle’s farm on the outskirts of town, there was a wild pair of eyes awaiting us in a corner of the woodshed: a snow owl three feet high, driven by hurt, hunger and the cold to seek shelter with another species. He had flown into a fence in a snowstorm, clipped his wing and hobbled into the farmyard. He wore his white speckled plumage like a wounded warrior’s greatcoat and his fierce yellow eyes in the corner of the shed seemed to burn a hole in the dark. When we went out for a walk before bed, the temperature was 35 degrees below zero. The sky was clear and blue in the moon’s glacial stare. We slipped and slithered along the highway, afraid of what the cold can do to flesh, afraid of the vice which holds this thin sparse country in its grip seven long months, squeezing the people apart, pressing them low to the ground in little cubes of warm light strung out in the darkness along the ribbons of highway. That was the last time I went home. It is one of the ironies of expatriation that the Canada which was once known, familiar, to be escaped from, has now with the passage of time become lost, impalpable and mysterious, its lure beckoning me back – like the hard unmoving flames of the owl’s eyes.