How the race affects the West
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 25, 2006

John Turner was the only Liberal party leader the West ever produced and if, historically speaking, you blinked you’d have missed even his brief appearance.

Saskatchewan’s Ralph Goodale notwithstanding, the Liberal party leadership race today remains characteristically Western-Canada challenged. Will any of the currently spotlighted candidates have any impact in Western Canada?

Setting aside the shallow and the callow, the pretty good and the not so good, four stand out. Call them the academic bluebloods of the race, if you will. These have the potential individually, in debate with each other and, ultimately, in debate with the Conservatives, to lead the Liberal party through its metamorphosis from an Old Canada party into a modern political vehicle and so shape the Canadian conversation well into the 21st century. They are human rights scholar and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff; Rhodes Scholar and former Ontario premier Bob Rae; Quebec federalist Stephane Dion (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris); and Oxford graduate, one time history professor and national newspaper editor, John Godfrey.

Despite a controversial premiership, Bob Rae’s entry into the race could have the biggest and most tangible effect. Successful promotion of his thesis that Canada’s left should unite could end the vote splitting that has kept the Liberal party an afterthought in western Canada and would fundamentally alter the political landscape in a way that even wholesale electoral reform couldn’t.

The leadership race is an obvious platform for the politician-turned-statesman which would also benefit from the perspective he has gained as chair of the Forum of Federations and constitutional adviser in Iraq.

Stephane Dion won a place in the hearts and minds of all Canadians when, as minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, he faced down Quebec sovereignists through single handed federalist advocacy culminating in the Clarity Act of 2000. It was on environmental issues, however, that he embarked on his most creative ministerial endeavour.

Addressing an assembly of Calgary oilmen and other elites in September of 2004, he spoke of a new industrial revolution in which the environment is the key driver and in which Canada can be a world leader. As oil-rich Alberta gears up to become Canada’s economic engine, his action plan deserves scrutiny and debate.

With antecedents that include the Russian aristocracy and some of Canada’s greatest educators, Michael Ignatieff offers not only a pedigree but the cache of being an internationally respected commentator on human rights and the abuses of nationalism. His positions on the Iraq War and torture make him no stranger to controversy. This experience was tested anew during his candidacy in Etobicoke-Lakeshore by Ukrainian-Canadians and could be revived by western Canada’s larger community during a leadership bid. But from riots in France to Italian-Canadians seeking Senate seats in Italy, the world’s diasporas are gaining new dimensions and producing new problems. If Michael Ignatieff cannot navigate this minefield no one can.

Of the four, only John Godfrey has so far announced his candidacy. Operating below the radar screen, he’s quietly prepared for this opportunity through 15 years on Parliament hill. Now that it’s arrived, he’s wasting no time. The book he co-authored in 1999 with Rob McLean entitled “The Canada We Want” provides necessary insight:

A roller-coaster commodities-based economy, a hostile environment and vast distances has rendered Canada a co-operative rather than a competitive society, he argues, and nowhere is this more evident than in its national (as opposed to federal) projects. From Macdonald’s National Policy to medicare to the CBC, these have defined the nation. Since the Second World War, however, “instead of focusing on the vision, we’ve been rummaging around in the plumbing.” One answer: a National Project on Developmental Health, starting in a child’s earliest years. For Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s burgeoning aboriginal populations, this idea has profound implications. Given his familiarity with Canada’s social and physical infrastructures as well as its political and economic cultures, Godfrey could deliver.

Conservatives will disparage what could be costly or social engineering ideas but for the West as elsewhere their impact holds potential for good too. Certainly no democrat will begrudge their right to be heard or the leadership qualities that gave them life: original thinking, global perspective, maturity, and an ability to synthesize and articulate it all. Let the race begin.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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