Shaking the family tree for Liberals
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 April 2009)

In 1945, when Alison Grant married George Ignatieff, two eminent family lines came together, one from Presbyterian Ontario, the other from czarist Russia. The most public result of this union is Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader and prime-minister-in-waiting, who wrote a fine book about his Ignatieff side 22 years ago and has now set down an account of the Grants, their world and their effect on him -- True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada (Viking).

This time Ignatieff begins with material that's less obviously rich and certainly less exotic than the story he unfolded in The Russian Album. But Grants have been prominent in Canadian public life since the 1880s and the author's current stature gives them fresh relevance. No one can read True Patriot Love without realizing that this family memoir will also play a role in the next federal election.

In 1987, the 40-year-old Michael was an academic and a journalist, little more than a footnote to a narrative focussed on his grandparents, Count Paul Ignatieff and Princess Natasha and the revolution that forced them into exile. But in 2009 he's a star. He's the fourth generation mentioned in the subtitle and his prose indicates that he's conscious at every moment of the impression he's making on potential voters. Even the title qualifies as an election slogan. Five years ago "true patriot love" would have been an ironic or hopelessly banal label for the work of a sophisticated intellectual like Ignatieff. But now that he's in politics those words, while still mawkish and obvious, seem almost appropriate.

Enthusiastic flag-waving and empty generalizations, the daily bread of politics, apparently no longer bother Ignatieff. At one point, mentioning certain failures of Canadian life, he says: "Despite these challenges, or because of them, most of us [Canadians] are quietly but intensely patriotic." How the hell can he know that? Did he do a poll? And if someone's patriotism happens to be quiet, how can he know it's also intense? He can't, of course, and probably wouldn't even try to defend that sentence if challenged in public.

A few pages later political enthusiasm carries him into the realm of ersatz poetry: "We [Canadians] are still a band of incorrigible romantics. We still believe in that imagined Canada, just beyond the horizon, which one day we could make our own." Those lines are for reading to a willing mob of power-starved Liberals, desperate for a reason to leap to their feet in applause.

Michael's maternal great-grandfather, Rev. George Monro Grant (1835-1902), a Presbyterian minister and the foundation stone of Grant family eminence, would not be among them. He was a Victorian liberal who didn't much bother with party politics and relied on charisma and rhetoric to spread his ideas. The principal of Queen's University for 25 years, he personally raised the money that changed it from a small denominational college into a major secular institution.

In the least interesting part of True Patriot Love, Ignatieff follows Ocean to Ocean, Grant's 1873 book on a journey to the Pacific with Sandford Fleming's survey of possible routes for a cross-Canada railway, straining without success to recapture the original Grant's enthusiasm over the grand future of the West. The great-grandson passes over lightly the old fellow's political beliefs, which combined fervent Canadian nationalism with passionate loyalty to Queen and Empire -- a position familiar in those days but now extinct.

The reverend's son, William Grant, was another Empire man. During the First World War he wrote a book, Our Just War, arguing that the Empire had to participate in the battle "to vindicate our character as a fighting race." At age 42 he signed up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was badly injured in France when his horse was shot out from under him.

Back in Canada he became a legendary principal of Upper Canada College, where he was always called, for unknown reasons, Choppy Grant. He hoped UCC would shape the leaders of "A nation of prophets, sages and warriors." During one Sunday night prayer meeting he suddenly delivered a striking paraphrase of Martin Luther: "Live in the large! Dare greatly, and if you must sin -- sin nobly." One of the boys, Robertson Davies, remembered that all his life.

The author tells us that William Grant's son, the philosopher George Grant, respected William's judgment: "George knew his father was a liberal, both small L and big L, who sometimes voted for the socialist CCF from sheer exasperation." Perhaps Ignatieff wants his grandfather to have been that sort of liberal but he confuses the wish with the fact. The CCF (precursor of the NDP) was founded in 1932 and didn't contest a federal election till the autumn of 1935, some months after William Grant's death.

George Grant, the most famous Grant of the 20th century, presents a problem for the Liberal leader. Uncle George was distinguished among Grants by his visceral hatred of Liberals, especially the most liberal of them all, prime minister Lester B. Pearson. Grant's famous polemic, Lament for a Nation (1965), attacked Pearson and his ilk for selling out to the Americans. Grant insisted, from the depths of his pessimism, that Canada had no future in an age inevitably dominated by U. S. technology.

In discussing that book, Ignatieff exhibits a desire to dance at everybody's wedding. He says Grant was wrong about everything from Grant family history to the future of Canada. Nevertheless, he finds a way to call Lament for a Nation a masterpiece -- "a masterpiece of grief and anger."

Uncle George "gave up on the country. He should not have. The country is not done. The story has only just begun. There is so much more to tell, so much more to do." Even so, he thinks Lament for a Nation still speaks to an elemental anxiety, the fear that there may not be enough here to make a great country. He wants to honour his celebrated relative and still keep a safe distance from him.

In True Patriot Love, Ignatieff has vigorously shaken the family tree to see how many Liberals fall out. At the end there's only one, Michael Grant Ignatieff himself, but that's plenty.

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