This is a transcription of the speech Michael Ignatieff gave to the Canadian Liberal Convention on Thursday 3 March 2005. It is presented here courtesy of, partially because I was surprised to not see it reproduced anywhere else.

However, after getting this together I found the official transcript here where they suggest to 'check against delivery'. Well, this is the delivery.

Transcript and markup by Timothy Comeau
March 6-7 2005


Related Links:
Michael Ignatieff profile in Macleans magazine.
Introduction by Janice Stein

I am very pleased this evening to welcome Michael Ignatieff ... [Michael] needs no introduction to the room. So in a way, I'm superfluous. He holds the unique title of Professor of the Practice of Human Rights, which shows us how grounded he is, unlike the rest of us in academic life, and he's also the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

Many of us know Michael well, as a remarkably literate and versatile writer. He's a biographer - I'm sure some of you have read his wonderful biography of Isaiah Berlin. He's a novelist, and he was the winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize for Non-Fiction. Michael Ignatieff is the only writer worldwide who has been nominated twice for that prize. And this time, for his wonderful book, The Lesser Evil, Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

Michael is not only an innovative thinker and writer, he actually gets involved in policy discussions, and he's helped to push some very big issues to the top of the international agenda. He's served, for example, as a member for the international commission and convention on state sovereignty. A commission that was hatched, encouraged and supported by Canada. He is one of the most influential voices on the global debate on human rights.

And Michael, although this is a very large burden to bear, many of us in this country think of you as the voice of our conscience, one that speaks with intelligence one that is always laced with common sense, and most of all one of those unrelenting and unremitting honesty. What we hear from you is rarely black and white, rather you give us lots of thoughtful discussion about some of the most troubling issues we face. Michael pushes all of us to think harder, to think longer, and to think deeper. And so, if you have not already done so, read The Lesser Evil and see what I mean.

The best part of this story is that Michael Ignatieff is one of us. A Canadian, deep in his bones. He is the son of a very distinguished diplomat, George Ignatieff, who I remember with great fondness and he studied first at Upper Canada College, and then went to that absolutely marvelous institution, the University of Toronto, and I am not at all biased when I make that comment.

Like many of us whose parents and whose grandparents are to Canada from somewhere else, Michael cares deeply about this country, its past, its heritage, and its future. He has written with both brilliance and passion about the challenges Canada faces in the 21st Century and the urgency of making Canada's voice, a liberal voice, and a strong and a credible voice. He wants us to speak this way because he knows that this kind of voice is so important in a world that's increasingly shrill, at times self-righteous, and intolerant. It is with great personal pleasure and pride that I ask Michael Ignatieff to come to the podium.


Michael Ignatieff

Mes cheres amis, bon soir. I'm absolutely delighted to be with here this evening. Let us be honest with ourselves. Something very sombre happened in our country today. I think we're all shocked by it, and we're shocked for a very good reason. There are few countries, I think, I can't think of any country in the world which has a national police service that is a symbol of who we are. That symbol of who we are was attacked today. It's not just that we lost four fellow citizens in the line of duty as Minister McLellan said, something was attacked that goes to the root of who we are as a people. I want to register that sorrow as a citizen which I know we all feel. Beyond our heartfelt wishes to those who've lost family members must come a determined notion that our country does allow, does not stand for, attacks on a police service that doesn't just protect us as individuals but symbolizes who we are as a people and I hope that message will go out from this convention. Not only sorrow but my dear friends, a certain anger.

I want to thank you all for this invitation, and I want to thank the party for the invitation. I want to thank Janice Stein for that touching .... misdescription of me. She's got me wrong but there's one thing about Janice that's very important. Academics are supposed to be tremendously smart, but one of the things about Academics is that they often cruelly and comically lack good political judgement. The kind of good political judgement that's all through this room. Janice Stein is one of those professors who's an inspiring teacher to her students and a constant demonstration of good sound political judgement. In my view, that makes her a national treasure. Thank you Janice.

It's very nice to be here my friends because I work in the United States where liberals are in the wilderness, and in Canada, it's amazing, Liberals are in government. Down there, where I earn my living, being a Liberal can be a burden, even in a Blue State. Up here, it's a badge of honour thank god. No wonder I'm glad to be home.

I've been a Liberal all my life. I knocked on doors in the Mike Pearson election of 1965 as a high school student, in 1968 I was a delegate at the convention here in Ottawa that chose Pierre Trudeau as our leader. In the June election of that year I was a national Liberal organizer and I campaigned coast to coast, and I stood in the crowd as a young man and I watched a great man become a great politician, and let me tell you if you weren't there, all I can say (I hope some of you were there) but if you weren't there, the words of the poet apply, 'blessed was it in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven'.

Today we have a Prime Minister, Prime Minister Martin, whose leadership is given to sound public finance, enviable economic growth, and most importantly, the capacity to fund the social programs that make us a decent society. But let's be honest here. It's a nervous time in our party, running a minority government is tough, the competition is yapping at our heels, and a policy conference is a moment to centre ourselves, to slow it down for a weekend, and renew the convictions that made us the governing party of the 20th Century, and I'm sure will make us the governing party of the 21st Century.

I'm not here to tell you anything you don't already know. I'm not here to tell you anything tonight that's new, I'm here to tell you something that's already in your bones as Liberals. My job tonight is to remind you of the fundamentals of Liberal belief. I'm not going to talk to you about programs and policies tonight. We talk too much about it, and we don't talk enough about the fundamentals.

So what are the fundamentals to me? As I see it, the Liberal party has 3 essential purposes. The first, to protect and to enhance the national unity of our country. Secondly, to preserve and to defend our national independence and sovereignty. And third, most fundamental perhaps, to advance the cause of social justice for all Canadians. I'm talking of the moral basis, the ethical basis of our political action. First, national unity, then Canadian sovereignty, and last, social justice for every Canadian. Sovereignty, justice, the three fundamentals, and everything else ladies and gentlemen, is detail.

Let's get our minds on these fundamentals. Other parties represent regional grievances and regional interests, other parties represent sectional, class interests. Our party represents the nation, ocean to ocean. Our party has never been just a machine for winning elections, though they were the best machine for winning elections in the world. But we've never, my friends, just been a machine for winning elections. We are the governing party of our nation. We are the coalition. It's in this room, I see it in front of me, the coalition between regions, languages, peoples, that holds our nation together. Our mutual commitment, as a party, is to stand by the common standards, the national programs, that make us our nation. We don't defend federal power for its own sake. We all know that Canada is just too big, too various, to be run from Ottawa [he actually said 'Ottawa is just too big...' but that must be a mistake]. I certainly learned that because I spent two very happy years in Vancouver, and one of the things you learn in Vancouver, you can't run a country from Ottawa, you can't even run it, my friends, from Toronto, that's another thing. We Liberals stand for a strong federal government, not to feed the bureaucracies in Ottawa, and not to dominate the region, but to defend the indivisibility of Canadian citizenship. That means each Canadian citizen, wherever she may come from, wherever he may live, has the same rights, the same responsibilities, the same entitlements. Common citizenship means national programs, standards, rights and responsibilities that define us as Canadians and maintain our distinctness as a free people.

Other parties will claim that they want a strong Canada too, and god knows we have no monopoly on patriotism, but what makes this party distinctive is that we have the discipline, the burden, of office. We know that to govern is to choose. We understand that no party can remain in office, endure in office, if it pretends to be all things to all people. Liberals know that there are times in politics, and they try our souls as a people and they try our souls as a party, when politics means saying a clear no, and a clear yes. So my friends, the word is 'no', no to national division, no to the nationalist blackmail, no to the mean spirited gaze of the Block Quebecois. No, no, to the false utopia of the Separatists, no to separatism, no, no, forever. But my friends, yes, a big yes, yes to the renewal of federalism, yes to the updating of our national institutions, yes to Canada.

Our party has never regarded Quebec as the problem because we've always known that Quebecers will always be part of our solutions together. From the days of Baldwin and Lafontaine, MacDonald and Cartier, the partnerships of two peoples has held our country together. Yes, we've had some tough times, but we overcome these obstacles together, and we will always continue to overcome them. The party of government, faced difficult new challenges to the national unity of Canada. These come from provinces wanting to use resource wealth for the exclusive benefit of their people. Atlantic provinces have had a hard time historically and they should be able to use their new wealth to overcome economic deficits. But beware my friends, we must take care not to weaken our federal union, and I know that the people of the Atlantic provinces don't want to weaken our Federal union, our national union. Any national government worthy of the name must ensure that new resource wealth strengthens, not weakens, our federation. We've got other challenges too, provincial ones. They want to reduce their transfer payments, essentially keeping the wealth to themselves. I understand these demands, but Liberal's answers to them is that without burden sharing, without resource sharing, there simply cannot be equality of Canadian citizenship.

There are Canadians who are talking to us now.....

You know what's happened? Amazing thing has happened, I missed a page from my speech. So you're looking at a panic stricken speaker. In the middle of a struggle to find a missing page of his speech...whatya know about that? Um, let me try to remember what I would have said to you had I had my wits about me...

It is very important for us to understand that we've got complaints from the provinces about fiscal imbalances, between a cash rich federal government and cash strapped provincial governments. That's a real problem. I accept it's a real problem. And we must address it, but not by weakening the common national standards that hold us together as a people.

Let me say something else now. About other realities. I put national unity at the centre of our project as a party and as a people. But it matters not just to us. It matters to the world. This is something I see from afar. From afar, we're a very special and precious experiment. We're an experiment as to whether a multicultural, multilingual society can survive and prosper. If we can't do it, ladies and gentlemen, no one else can. And the future of all multiethnic multicultural societies will be grim indeed. That's why there's a global stake in us getting this story right.

We are a ray of light in a gloomy world, a ray of hope in a world which is in fact ravaged by intolerance and by hatred. Let's get it right. The world does look to us, the world does ask us, 'get it right, show us how'. Communities of difference, communities of different languages can live together, can forge a unity together. You're doing it in this hall tonight but never forget that we truly are a light unto the nations, and we must never forget that in the daily life of our politics.

Now, there are countries to the south of us that believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And these countries that shall remain nameless want to export freedom and democracy to the world. And because we're Canadians, we're skeptics. We don't like rhetoric that's that high flung. We got some doubts about the project. We have doubts about the American dream. Ok. But let's remember that we have a dream. Because we are the people of peace, order, and good government.

From Sri Lanka to Iraq, from South Africa to the Ukraine, we can help promote democratic federalism for multiethnic , multilingual states. Exporting peace, order, and good government has to be the core of a Canadian foreign policy, that doesn't try to be everything to everybody, doesn't try to do everything, but focuses on what is the unique achievement of this federation, on our national history together. That's the story we want to sell and promote to the world. If we we're divided, we have no dream to share. If we're fragmented, we have no story to tell. But united, believe me, we will be a light unto the nations, and a beacon unto the world.

I've said something about why unity matters to us, and why it matters to the world, let me say something about the issue of sovereignty. As Canadians, we face the geopolitical reality unlike any country in the world, because the greatest challenge to our sovereignty comes not from our enemies, but from our oldest, dearest, and best friend. And that is the essential paradox of our existence, and the central dilemma of our foreign policy. And that's why Canadian-American relations are the central issue of our politics, in our country, in the next generation. And here too, Canadian Liberals need to understand when to say no, and when to say yes. Liberals have always said no to anti-Americanism. Leave that ladies and gentlemen to the NDP. Little bit of free political advice - anti-Americanism is an electoral ghetto, and we should leave the NDP to wither inside it.

At the same time, Liberals have always said no to continentialism, so we leave other parties to sing 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling' with US Presidents. That's not the Liberal style. We've always chartered a different course. We are reliable neighbors, we are good and loyal friends, and we are firm defenders of our national sovereignty.

And a Liberal is at home in his skin, in her skin. Being anti-American is a lousy way to be a good Canadian. Superiority complexes toward the Americans are as dumb as inferiority complexes, because the reality, ladies and gentlemen, is our identity is perfectly secure, and is rooted in our institutions. Parliamentary government, la langue et culture francaise, our aboriginal heritage, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We've always done things differently here, and we always will. Let's remember our history. We've never been afraid to chart our own course in world affairs. In the first half of the last century we fought for European freedom in two world wars years before the Americans were even on the beach.

And that's why we remember the sacrifice and service of our veterans with particular pride, because they vindicated our identity, our distinctiveness as a people, in battle, and so we honour them forever.

In the second half of this century, in my lifetime, Canada has also preserved its own independent course. We recognized Cuba, we recognized China, we supported the International Criminal Court - I don't think the International Criminal Court would exists without us. These were choices our neighbor disagreed with, but our neighbor also respected us when we said no, because they know that when we do say yes, our word is our bond. They respect us, and much more importantly, we respect ourselves, when we back commitments with the abilities, rhetoric with resources. Liberals know you can't defend the sovereignty of Canada with sermons. And you can't hand your defense to anybody else. And that's why this government knows that we have to have our own military, and our own intelligence capability, and our own immigration and border patrols, and our own control of our airspace. We know that sovereignty costs money, and this government, and Liberals everywhere, are willing to pay that price and make that sacrifice.

Our independence depends on us being a credible partner in the struggle to keep North America safe from terrorist attack. Like it or not, we are next door to the primary target for global terrorism. And that just means one thing, we have to invest to ensure that we are never a terrorist transit point and we will never be a terrorist haven, and that means building up - and this has been Minster McLellan 's work - building up our anti-terrorist forces, and we've also, crucially, been building up the combat capabilities of our military.

People sometimes as why a human rights teacher is such an adamant defender of a robust military for our country. I'll tell you why - in the failed and failing states of our world where I spent the better part of ten years walking around getting shot at, the one thing I learned was that the most urgent human need, the central unmet human right, is what? Security.

Security. People at the mercy of tyrants and gunmen need protection before anything else, before food, water, shelter, and clothing. In fact, food, water, shelter and clothing isn't possible without security to protect them. If we are asked as Canadians to protect them, we have to have the capacity to fire back. It's just as simple as that. We do not want to repeat Rwanda, when a brave Canadian soldier, I'm privileged to call a colleague at Harvard this year and a friend, Romeo Dallaire was sent out on a U.N. mission to protect civilians, and he didn't have the arms, equipment, and troops to stop the slaughter going on in front of his eyes. We must never have that happen to a Canadian soldier again.

A Liberal government knows it has to balance commitments to be a good citizen abroad with the defense of its citizens at home. And the government recently announced it's decision on ballistic missile defense. And this is a subject [applause] ... and as your applause suggests, the decision is popular in the party. The government has listened to the feeling in the party and the party has listened to the country. That's what's going on. The only advice I give you, my dear friends, is that we need clarity, we need clarity in our national defense policy. We need to balance a principled opposition to the weaponization of space with an equally principled commitment to participate in North American defense now. We do not want our decisions to fracture the command system of North American defense. And we do not want a principled decision, that is, the decision to resist the militarization of space, to result, without our intending it, in having less control over our national sovereignty. We can't afford ... we can't walk away from the table. We must be there at the table, defending what only we can defend.

And let's be clear about something else, as we go into debates, and I hope they'll be deep and passionate in the party this weekend. This is not a debate between patriots and continentalists, between anti-Americans and pro-Americans. Liberals do not make their policy choices to a referendum on people's patriotism or on their internationalism. The issue is, what to best defend the national sovereignty of our country. That's the issue, and that's what we have to understand and focus on, and get right.

Now, unity and sovereignty are the core values of our liberal politics and as I've been trying to say they are hard matters, they require us to make hard choices. The great thing about the Liberal party and Liberal governments is they're not afraid to make hard choices.

Finally, my friends, we are also ... this is the third element I wanted to bring to the discussion. We're a party of social justice. As the Prime Minister said, these are Prime Minister Martin's words, they're very good words, 'we want to build a society based on equality, not on privilege, on duty, not on entitlement.' Liberals understand you can't have a united country unless you have a just society, and a just society is an equal society. For Liberals , just to take one issue that you will be discussing this weekend, gay marriage in an equality issue. The Government's position - I commend Minister Cotler, gets the balance right here. As Liberals, we will not compel religious communities to perform ceremonies that go against their beliefs, because Liberals have a profound respect for religious belief and religious freedom. But equally, we will not deny marriage rights to Canadians on grounds of sexual orientation. The ethics of this to me is clear: for Liberals, what counts is not orientation, what counts is conduct and character.

We also believe that the party is an institution of justice. We believe that this is an essential way to channel commitments to equality from the grassroots to the cabinet room, which was a vote 20 minutes ago, and judging from the draft resolutions at this convention, it's clear how much everyone in the room cares about social justice. You care about justice for farmers, rural communities struggling with depopulation, and cross border competition. You care about poor families struggling to make ends meet in our inner cities. You care deeply about seniors, fighting to maintain their standard of living after a lifetime of contributions to our country. These claims are overdue and we need to meet them, but we can only meet them if our economy is competitive and efficient, if our levels of taxation are sensible, and the government doesn't spend more than Canadians earn. And that means that it's one of the tremendous electoral strengths of this party. Liberalism is, and always has been, a politics of responsibility, a politics of competence. This government has been a competent manager, and because it's been competent, it can afford to be just.

Liberalism is also a politics of honesty, and being honest is looking ourselves in the mirror and asking tough questions. Here's a tough question: can we really say that the prosperity that has swept over our country in my lifetime has been equally shared? We look in the mirror, we know it has not been equally shared. It's just a fact. We know that there are more than 1 million children living in poverty in Canada. We know that these children come from families of recent immigrants, minorities, and aboriginal peoples. A Liberal doesn't turn away from inconvenient facts, a Liberal looks them in the eye, and a Liberal does something about them. And this government's commitment to early childhood education amounts to a moral commitment to give all Canadian children an equal start in life.

On education, I think we should go further. I've been a teacher all my life, I was in a classroom this morning at 11 o'clock. I come from a long line of teachers on my mother's side. So I love the classroom, and I know that classrooms changes human lives. Just as Janice Stein knows, you can change people, it's the most exciting job in the world, let me tell you. And you know if you're a primary teacher, a secondary school teacher, a university teacher, and we need to build on the inspiration that education can give. Just as Prime Minster Pearson used federal power to create a national health system for all Canadians, I think in the next generation we need to use federal power to invest in education, especially post-secondary education, and set national standards that we'll need in order to make education ... [applause]. We need to use federal power to make education a ladder of mobility for all our people and an engine of productivity for our economy. Let's not, my dear friends, let's not get tangled up in federal/provincial battles over jurisdiction. Let's just do it.

Let's get the federal governments, the provincial governments, the municipal governments working together to make Canadians the best educated, most literate, numerate, and skilled people on the face of the earth. To realize this dream, we should develop together national standards for excellence. Standards which will unite us and which will organize the work that we have to do together. It is possible to do that, it can be done. It's obvious that we have to do this in coming generations...[missing words due to translation crossover] ...that a government program is the solution to do every injustice in our society. We think that injustice can only be remedied when individuals take responsibility for themselves. We know that individuals need programs that help them to bear the burden of loosing a job, loosing their health, loosing their way. We're a party that does believe in a market economy, we just don't believe in the law of the jungle.

Finally my friends, mes cheres amis, there's one value we almost never mention on a political podium. But it seems to me a key liberal value, and I learned it from my mother. When my mother passed the pie over the table, she would say, 'have a liberal helping'. 'Liberal' means generous. When my Russian ancestors arrived in Montreal in 1928, they didn't have much of anything apart from what most immigrants have. Courage to try a new life, and the hope that their new country would take them in. My Russian family found a home, a pays des iles, a foyer nouveau, un espoir nouveau au Quebec. Ils parlaient bien Francias ... they were quickly welcomed by the people of Quebec, they spent the rest of their life in Quebec. They're all there - my Russian grandparents, now my father, my mother, my uncles and aunts, all together in a cemetery on a hillside overlooking the St Francis river. So, if you ask me what Canada means to me, I think of that little graveyard, and I think of the generosity of strangers who became friends.

Generosity is more than a welcome to strangers. It is an attitude toward ourselves. It means trusting each other, helping without counting the cost, taking risks together. Generosity means leaving our hearts open to others, it means dreaming together that we could be better than we are. That's how this country has always been, and it's the job of this party to keep it like that forever.

Generosity, unity, sovereignty, justice. The courage to choose, the will to govern. Those are the beacons of liberal politics.

I've had my chance tonight to light up these beacons for you, tomorrow and the rest of the convention belongs to you. You've been kind enough to listen to me, tomorrow I do believe the leadership will be listening to you, and the whole country will be listening to you. Thanks for your attention.