Monday, May 25, 2009

The ongoing battle for Canadian identity: Ignatieff and the Tory commercials

With a federal election certain to be called in the next few months, the Conservatives have taken to launching pre-emptive attack ads at Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a public intellectual probably best known in North America for his work in Security Studies - work that he did, the Tories point out, almost exclusively outside Canada, in the UK and USA.

The Liberals contend that attacks, based on a 34-year absence from the country, are simultaneously an attack on all expat Canadians (Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella lists Wayne Gretzky, Neil Young, and Celine Dion as figures who must then be equally problematic) and naturalized immigrants, who may have also spent the majority of their lives outside the country. Tory strategist Tim Powers counters that it's not that he left, or necessarily the length of time, but rather "it's what he said when he was outside the country" - referring to his explicitly identifying as an American and a Brit while residing in those countries.

Kinsella's analogies are hardly perfect; neither is Powers' response convincing. Kinsella's examples include people who represent Canada in an official capacity at international events (Gretzky) and keep a Canadian residence (Dion), and all three actively and repeatedly assert their Canadianness - none of which could be said of Ignatieff during those three and a half decades. As for Powers' argument, it doesn't escape the latter charge made by the Liberals, as a huge number of Canadian immigrants (and, as has been my experience, even many 2nd and 3rd generation Canadians) likewise don't identify themselves primarily "Canadian".

That Ignatieff (and Gretzky, Young, Dion, I'm sure, if they were challenged in a similar fashion) can convincingly, if not unproblematically, liken himself to both the celebrity expats and the marginalized (and presumably non-white) immigrant is no small feat and has everything to do with which of those two groups he more closely resembles. Those same immigrants couldn't look to Gretzky and Dion in order to legitimate their own tenuous hold on Canadian identity - they were, after all, born Canadian ("natural" Canadians vs. "naturalized" Canadians) and, tellingly, are all white. Ignatieff can invoke an analogy of oppression but the reverse, an analogy of privilege that should theoretically be open to non-white immigrants, seems somehow a harder sell.

Consider, too, that Ignatieff is able to reinforce his own claim to Canadianness (though not without a certain element of danger, as I'll explain) by way of an appeal to people who are considered provisionally Canadian without reciprocal increase in their Canadianness. But were a non-white Canadian lobby group to attempt to increase their access to Canadianness by way of appeal to white Canadian figures like Ignatieff, I suspect that a) the simile wouldn't be as convincing, b) they would do little to advance their own cause, and c) that they would actually damage Ignatieff's own status as Canadian. Rather than improve their own standing relative to hegemonic ideas of Canadian identity, they would problematize his.

There's an analogy to be made here to American racial politics - the "one drop" rule of racial blood - which Canada has regrettably absorbed: Ignatieff's whiteness can't whiten the immigrants' non-whiteness, but the reverse - the loss of Ignatieff's Canadianness (which is bound to his whiteness) - remains an ever-present risk. And it's precisely that danger that the Conservatives are invoking - and that Ignatieff, in drawing out what the Tories themselves could not say explicitly, is inadvertantly reinforcing.

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