Ignatieff Remains Unconvincing

By Christina S. Franko

Earlier in May, a meeting with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, spearheaded by Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj and his former executive assistant, Yvan Baker (now, UCC-Toronto Vice-President) took place with representatives of Toronto’s Ukrainian community. With a possible election looming, the fact that such a meeting took place surprised no one. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj finds himself in an unenviable position, with a party leader most Ukrainians distrust, and many dislike intensely. Some had hoped that Mr. Ignatieff might redeem himself as a politician by withdrawing, once and for all, the derogatory remarks that so many Ukrainians found offensive. Alas, this was not to be.

Just as in Edmonton one month earlier, by the end of the meeting in Toronto, notwithstanding his long litany of standard remarks on issues of foreign policy and immigration, Mr. Ignatieff failed to do the one thing he needed to in order to repair his image in the eyes of the Ukrainian community—he failed to withdraw his offensive historical assessment of the Ukrainian people.

It was back in 1993, two years before the release of his controversial book, that Ignatieff produced the documentary mini-series Blood and Belonging for the BBC. The series later aired in Canada on TVO, provoking a backlash from Ukrainian-Canadian viewers who were insulted by Ignatieff’s portrayal of Ukrainian ethnic tribalism and its alleged genetic proclivity towards anti-Semitism. A panel discussion ensued and viewers called into TVO, featuring among others, Canadian historian Orest Subtelny, who challenged Ignatieff’s warped presentation of Ukrainian history. Ignatieff’s response to these criticisms was: “I am simply providing an unbiased analysis of Ukrainian nationalism.”

Before he needed our votes, Ignatieff, the historian, questioned the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence, by writing in his book Blood and Belonging:

“My difficulty in taking Ukraine seriously goes deeper than just my cosmopolitan suspicion of nationalists everywhere … I am also what Ukrainians would call a Great Russian and there is just a trace of old Russian disdain for these “little Russians.” The thought of their independence conjured up only “images of embroidered peasant shirts, the nasal whine of ethnic instruments, phony Cossacks in cloaks and boots, nasty anti-Semites.”

Many of us wanted to give Ignatieff the benefit of the doubt, but his stubborn arrogance underscores why the Bloc Quebecois recently called him “a scornful aristocrat.” During his Toronto public appearance on May 8, there were ample opportunities for Mr. Ignatieff to offer an apology for these remarks, but he chose not to amend his position. Instead of recanting what he said, Mr. Ignatieff merely regrets how he said it.

Ironically, while Michael Ignatieff refuses to withdraw the smear of anti-Semitism which he places on Ukrainians, he conveniently fails to address his family’s complicity in Tsarist-era anti-Semitic pogroms. His great-grandfather was Count Nikolai Ignatiev, who instituted the Tsar’s notorious May Laws against Jews. Yet, according to Ignatieff’s family biography, The Russian Album, “rounding up all the Jews” was a necessity “to protect them from outraged peasantry.” So much for historical objectivity.

Grandfather Pavel was governor of Kyiv gubernia and served as Minister of Education to Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.  Mr. Ignatieff is not likely to change his opinion of Ukrainians, molded by his family’s Tsarist, imperial past, who have seen Ukraine as nothing more than a part of a once Great Russia.

I am reminded of a public event I attended years ago at the University of Toronto where I engaged Michael’s father, the late George Ignatieff, in a lively debate on nuclear disarmament. I mentioned that I was Ukrainian. George Ignatieff’s response was sadly patronizing: “Oh, I have fond memories of that province,” he said. “I was just a boy, but I still remember the peasant servant girl who worked on our family estate. She was a kind and simple girl who used to sing the most wonderful songs.” Flash forward twenty years and we see that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Michael Ignatieff may want to be Prime Minister, but real leadership requires a dose of humility and political sensitivity that Ignatieff is dearly lacking. While no politician is perfect. if pressed, I would choose PM Harper over Ignatieff. Not only has the PM never insulted the Ukrainian people, in responding to the concerns of the Ukrainian community, Harper has consistently delivered on issues that previous government’s failed to address by providing millions of dollars in internment redress; declaring unequivocal support for Ukraine’s right to NATO membership; and recognizing the Holodomor-Famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Mr. Ignatieff, it’s time for you to realize that the days of Counts and serfs are long gone. By refusing to recant your offensive views on Ukraine’s historic struggle for independence, you’ve failed to salvage your image in the eyes of the Ukrainian Canadian community.

Christina S. Franko is a Canadian political scientist of Ukrainian origin.