In 1968 Pierre Trudeau captured the hearts of young Canadians during his bid to become leader of the Liberal Party. Current contender Michael Ignatieff is trying to draw on the same romanticized notion of Canadian politics. He’s already reeled in Carla Wintersgill, but she is wondering: Why isn’t everyone experiencing… Iggymania?
I have a crush on Michael Ignatieff and I don’t care that he’s 59, or that he’s married.
My pining started last year in politics class while watching an episode of his miniseries about exploring nationalism. A much younger Ignatieff quizzed Québecois about their feelings for Canada.
There was something about his heavy brows, his precise French, the way his long fingers tapped the table to emphasize his questions. I was instantly smitten. There is a part in the movie where he is in a pub drinking beer with a group of young Québecois. He laughs at their jokes and takes cautious sips of his pint, but he looks awkward and out of place. I saw the video after Ignatieff had won his seat in the House of Commons. At the time there was unconfirmed speculation that he would run for the Liberal leadership and as I watched him unsuccessfully attempt to blend in, I knew that I was looking at the future Prime Minister of Canada.
I shifted in my seat and tried to gauge my classmates’ reactions. Were they not as excited as I was? I expected students to be erect in their seats, their minds afire. Instead, I saw exhausted students dozing in their desks.
I ignored their ambivalence. Soon they too would be enamoured with Ignatieff, I was sure of it. I began to wonder whether I was watching the next Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Could Ignatieff inspire the same hysteria as Trudeaumania?
In 1968, a newly elected Prime Minister Trudeau came to power. He was a dashing figure — a rakish intellectual who wore a beret and drove a Mercedes around Ottawa.Trudeau had a theatrical style, he had a vision for Canada and he was a refreshing change of pace from the typical Canadian politician.
Trudeau was especially popular with young people and this helped re-invigorate the Liberal Party. He was also an unabashed bachelor. Before his marriage to the much younger Margaret Sinclair, Trudeau dated frequently. His girlfriends included Barbra Streisand and Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in 1978’s Superman. After his marriage to Sinclair ended, he briefly dated Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City fame.
“Young women at the height of Trudeaumania were treating him like a pop star,” says Robert Logan, a professor at the University of Toronto and a former Trudeau policy advisor from 1975-77.
He remembers watching television during the height of Trudeaumania and seeing young girls screaming over the PM.
The idea of getting hot and bothered by a prime minister is completely foreign to me. I imagine Stephen Harper with his cold blue eyes and his questionable hair. I don’t want to be in the same room as him, never mind the same bed.
But Ignatieff is another story. I know there’s something special about him. I turn to Nancy Coldham, the head of Ignatieff’s women’s campaign, to find out what’s so appealing about her candidate.
Coldham asks me why I’ve decided to write about Ignatieff and I confess that I have a crush on him. She tells me that I am not only “the best judge of horse flesh,” but she also assures me that Ignatieff is “more than cute, he’s a great guy.”
Coldham uses many of the same buzzwords that are used for Trudeau. He’s new, he’s exciting, he’s refreshing, he’s intellectual, he has vision and he has passion. Like Trudeau when he was elected PM, Ignatieff is fairly new to politics. Coldham sees this as an advantage.
“He’s coming in and he doesn’t know the script. He has a blank slate,” she says.
Coldham gushes about Ignatieff to the point that he sounds more like a candidate for sainthood instead of leader of the Liberal party. We speak briefly about Peter MacKay allegedly calling Belinda Stronach a dog. She assures me that it is something Ignatieff would never do.
“Not only would the words not come out of his mouth, they wouldn’t enter his mind,” Coldham says.
It sounds like she has a bit of a crush on Ignatieff too, but I don’t bother asking. Instead I ask her if she is seeing the same kind of excitement at Ignatieff’s appearances that Trudeaumania inspired.
“It’s not a screaming Trudeaumania,” Coldham says.
My mother was 11 when screaming Trudeaumania was in full tilt. She is not particularly interested in politics, but remembers Trudeau well and the influence he had on the country. I was 16 when Trudeau died. My mother sat at the kitchen table with the morning’s paper, shaking her head. “He’s dead. Trudeau’s dead. I can’t believe he’s gone,” she kept repeating.
I shrugged. I only had a passing knowledge of Trudeau. At 16, I didn’t really care about old dead guys. I left for school with my mother still in her bathrobe, drinking her coffee and reading Trudeau’s obituary.
She doesn’t remember doing this when I told her she acted strangely that day. “I was probably in shock,” she says. “Trudeau was the biggest political influence of my generation.”
It wasn’t until I took a first year politics class at the University of Victoria that I really understood the importance of Trudeau. The CBC miniseries about his life had come out, and for the first time I had a sense of what I had missed out on.
One day in class, we got onto the subject of Trudeau. People took turns putting up their hands and talking about how great the man had been. Eventually, my professor got frustrated.
“OK, OK, let’s not turn this into a Trudeau lovefest,” he protested. “Remember, he put in place a lot of policies that were very unpopular, especially with people out west.”
One last student put up his hand to comment. “But he believed in something,” the student said. “And that’s better than believing in nothing.” The class nodded its support. My professor sighed.
“That’s enough about Trudeau,” he said.
We were disappointed. There was something thrilling talking about how great Trudeau had been. We were all too young to actually remember the man from first-hand experience. He had been practically canonized in the wake of his death and there was no other politician in Canada who came remotely close to having his impact. We had no one else to idolize.
Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto, doesn’t see Ignatieff inspiring the same kind of slavish devotion as Trudeau. He thinks Ignatieff’s campaign has been carefully calculated and calibrated. And, unlike Trudeau, who grew more and more popular, Ignatieff’s campaign doesn’t appear to be picking up steam.
Logan thinks the same way. He says that calling Ignatieff the next Trudeau is really just a “convenient rumour” for Ignatieff’s camp. When I tell Logan that I went to see Ignatieff’s policy speech at the University of Toronto, he quizzes me about my experience. “Was your heart palpitating?” he asks. “Were you short of breath?”
I can’t admit to either. Truthfully, I found him a little boring. Not once did he say something that particularly inspired me. I only knew that he was making an important point by the frenzied clapping that began with his aides.
A few months ago, the homepage of Ignatieff’s website had a picture of him with the word “Believe” emblazoned over top of it in red. I interpreted it as a response to the many criticisms he had received. I thought about his website when I went to see him speak at the U of T. I got lost on campus and I was a little late. I couldn’t find my way into the auditorium and ended up going in through the stage the door where Ignatieff was waiting to go on.
Even though I was clearly out of place, he smiled at me and shook my hand. I looked carefully into his eyes before hustling through the door. Maybe he’s not the next Trudeau. Maybe he doesn’t even come close. But this country is due for a great leader, and it might just be Ignatieff. And while I shook his hand, that’s what I chose to believe.