A Generous Helping of Liberal Brains

March 4, 2005
Michael Ignatieff

The Globe and Mail

In the United States, where I work, liberals are in the wilderness. In Canada, Liberals are in government. Still, it's a nervous time in the party. Running a minority government is tough. The competition is at our heels.

I'm here to remind you of something you've always known: the fundamentals of Liberal belief. A party that tries to be all things to all people cannot succeed. We've succeeded as a party of government, because we know that to govern is to choose. We've always known when to say a clear Yes, and when to say a clear No.Our first task as a party is to preserve the national unity of Canada. Today, that is challenged by provinces wanting to use resource wealth exclusively for the benefit of their own people. Atlantic provinces should be able to use their new wealth to overcome economic deficits, but any national government worthy of the name must ensure that new resource wealth strengthens rather than weakens our federation. Some provinces are asking why they should keep paying out to help less prosperous ones. They want to reduce their transfer payments, keeping their wealth to themselves. The Liberal answer to these demands is that without burden-sharing and resource-sharing, there cannot be equality of Canadian citizenship.

Provinces are now complaining about a fiscal imbalance between a cash-rich federal government and cash-strapped provincial governments. Let's address that imbalance, but not by weakening federal authority or diluting national standards of common citizenship.

Federal Liberals say yes to strong provinces, but no to a balkanized Canada, in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. We stand for one country, not 10.

Liberals understand that we cannot have a country at peace with itself, if justice has not been done to aboriginal peoples, if acknowledgment has not been made of the tragedy that has haunted our national experience together. We cannot have second-class citizens in our midst. We cannot have pride and self-reliance if peoples are dependent for their survival on government handouts.

The country has embarked on an experiment in aboriginal self-government that the rest of the world is watching. In this experiment, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples have said no to paternalism and dependency, yes to self-reliance and self-government.

Seen from afar, Canada is a noble experiment: whether peoples speaking different languages, divided into five regions, can survive and prosper as a united country. If we fail, the future of the multilingual, multicultural state in the modern world will be grim indeed. From Sri Lanka to Iraq, from South Africa to Ukraine, we can help promote democratic federalism for multiethnic, multilingual states. Exporting peace, order and good government should be the core of a disciplined foreign policy that shares the Canadian dream with the rest of the world.

Our second task as Canadians is to preserve our national independence. We face a geopolitical reality unlike any other country: The greatest challenge to our sovereignty comes not from our enemies, but from our best friend. Canadian-American relations are the central issue of Canadian politics in the next generation. Liberals have always said no to anti-Americanism — but also to continentalism. We are reliable neighbours, good friends, but firm defenders of our sovereignty. In the first half of the past century, that meant fighting for European freedom in two world wars before the U.S. joined in; in the second half, it meant recognizing Cuba and China, supporting the International Criminal Court and promoting the land-mines treaty.

But we cannot defend our sovereignty with sermons. We must have our own military, intelligence-gathering capacity, immigration and border controls, control of our air space. Our independence depends on our 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 of global terrorism. We must invest to ensure we are never a terrorist transit point or a terrorist haven.

In the world's failed and failing states, the most urgent human need is security. People at the mercy of tyrants and gunmen need protection first of all. To protect them, we have to have the capacity to fire back. We do not want to repeat Rwanda, when a brave Canadian soldier, Roméo Dallaire, was sent out on a UN mission to protect civilians, without the arms, equipment and troops to stop the slaughter in front of his eyes. We owe this to our men and women in uniform. And to the world.

The government has recently announced its decision about ballistic-missile defence. The decision will be popular in the party. But we need clarity in our national defence policy. We need to balance a principled opposition to the future weaponization of space with an equally principled commitment to participate in North American defence right now. We don't want our decisions to fracture the command system of North American defence, and we don't want a principled decision to result in us having less control over our national sovereignty. We must be there, at the table, defending what only we can defend.

Our third task is to stand as a party of social justice. You can't have a united country unless you have a just society, and a just society is an equal one. Can we really say the prosperity of the past 30 years has been equally shared? We know there are more than a million children living in poverty in Canada. We know that these children come from the families of recent immigrants, minorities and aboriginal peoples. Just as prime minister Lester Pearson used federal power to create a national health system for all Canadians, so we, in the next generation, need to use federal power to invest in education, especially postsecondary education, and set the standards nationally that we need in order to make education an engine of mobility for our people and an engine of productivity for our economy.

Liberals don't think a government program is the solution to every injustice in our society. Injustice can only be remedied when individuals take responsibility for themselves. Individuals need programs that help them bear the burden of losing a job, losing their health, losing their way. We believe in a market economy, not the law of the jungle.

There is one liberal value we must not forget. When my mother passed the pie over the table, she told us to have a “liberal” helping. Liberal meant generous.

Generosity means trusting each other, helping without counting the cost, taking risks together. Generosity, unity, sovereignty, justice: These are the beacons of a liberal politics.

Michael Ignatieff is Carr Professor of Human Rights, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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