On the road to suicide awareness

Ben Verboom initially resembles an ordinary student: 20 years old, studying Physical Education and Health at U of T. Approximately five minutes of conversation with him, however, reveal he is anything but average. Currently, Verboom is cycling across Canada to raise awareness about mental health, an issue he has direct and gripping experience with.

“I grew up in Ajax, Ontario,” said Verboom, “with my parents, my older brother, and my younger sister, and yeah, we were a normal, middle-class family. I had a very close relationship with my father, and how we bonded was through cycling—that was how we got away from everything, how we built our relationship.”

That all changed when Verboom was in grade 9.

“Everything was normal, family going great, and in January of 2004 […] I came home to find a police car in my driveway. I asked them what was up, and they said ‘oh, we’re just doing a routine check around the neighborhood, don’t worry too much about it.’ […] I thought it was kind of weird.

“A few hours later my brother, mom, and sister had all arrived home, and the police came back. They sat us all down, and told us that my dad had been found—that he had died. It was a gunshot wound. And they took my mom outside, and […] then she came in and told the three of us that he had taken his own life.”

Verboom’s father had suffered from clinical depression for several years prior, a fact that took Verboom and his siblings by surprise at the time of his death.

“For me it was extremely sudden,” said Verboom. “Because I was completely unaware that he did suffer from depression, and I didn’t know too much about mental illness—and I don’t think the average 14-year-old really does—which is [why] I guess what I’m doing is raising awareness.”

Immediately following his father’s death, and for many years after, Verboom felt mainly “anger, fear, and confusion—those three were big.”

“Because it’s one thing to lose a parent,” he continued, “that’s a terrible tragedy. But the confusion associated with someone choosing to end their own life [is] very hard to deal with, because you do question the role you played in it—what you did to cause it, and what you could have done to prevent it.”

In the past year, Verboom came to realize that the emotion and awareness his experience has brought him could be used to help others.

“The bottom line, I think, is that people suffering from depression feel isolated from society—pushed to the margins. There’s this stigma surrounding mental illness. The general public doesn’t know the basic facts about it.”

Verboom maintains that his primary goal is not to make the people surrounding a depressed individual aware of that depression, but rather to promote a shift in the nature of the dialogue concerning mental illness. He hopes to educate people about depression and the resources available to those suffering from it.

“We have to start looking at [clinical depression] as another disease,” insisted Verboom. “A physiological disease, like cancer, or AIDS, and not a moral issue—it’s a chemical imbalance in their brain, and like any other physiological disease, it’s not something you decide to have, it’s something you have, and you live with, and you try to cope with.”

In cycling across Canada discussing clinical depression, Verboom is attempting to reframe the dialogue in this manner in order to de-stigmatize the disease, allowing for an open and empathetic discussion of it.

Over the span of his trip so far, which began on May 20 in Cape Spear, Newfoundland, and will end in Victoria, B.C. in mid-August—9000 kilometres in 90 days—he has been amazed at the prevalence of depression.

“Basically every day I run into a few people who have gone through something similar to what I went through, or what my dad went through. And really, the reason we don’t realize how prevalent it is is because we don’t talk about it […] I suppose the number-one goal of this is to start a dialogue—a compassionate, and empathetic dialogue, where people who are suffering from depression can come out and speak comfortably, and get the treatment and resources that are available.”

WITH FILES FROM NAUSHAD ALI HUSEIN

For more info, or to contribute to the Cycle to Help campaign, see cycletohelp.org

Breaking up is hard to do

Imagine you’ve just suffered a devastating breakup. You’re heartbroken and still pining for your ex. Your friends tell you that hastily entering a new relationship is the worst thing to do. But current research says otherwise: for some people, rebounding may be a helpful and effective way to get over an ex.

Stephanie Spielmann, a PhD student in psychology at U of T, studies romantic relationships under the supervision of associate professor of psychology Dr. Geoff MacDonald. Her current research on how certain types of people cope with rejection from their partners is soon to be published in the esteemed Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Specifically, Spielmann has found that anxiously attached individuals—those who chronically need other people and have the most difficulty dealing with breakups—may actually benefit from rebound relationships. In fact, even just thinking optimistically about finding a new partner may help these people get over an ex. Spielmann talked to The Varsity about her current research and her background in psychology.

The Varsity: How did you become interested in psychology?

Stephanie Spielmann: I actually thought that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, so I took psychology just to learn more about people. I took several developmental [psychology] courses as well. But then I had a great experience doing research with Dr. Anne Wilson [associate professor of psychology at Laurier], and I realized I loved research and I decided to stick with psychology in grad school.

TV: What sparked your interest in studying romantic relationships?

SS: I started researching romantic relationships for my undergrad thesis. Then when I came to grad school to work with Geoff [MacDonald], he already studied romantic relationships as well, and it just seemed like a natural progression to work from what I found in my honours thesis. And that’s how Anne Wilson is an author [on the paper] as well, because it all started from my undergrad and then we moved on and she stayed with us, working on the project.

TV: Why did you choose to attend U of T for grad school?

SS: Geoff’s research really interested me, and we just seemed like a really great fit. U of T has such a great research program and really great social psychology professors, and we meet regularly, so we’re kind of mentored by all of them. But [Geoff and Anne] are my primary mentors.

TV: Can you tell us about your current research?

SS: Basically, anxiously attached individuals are the ones who have the most difficulty letting go after a breakup. Most people with time tend to get over relationships and move on, but these people seem to get stuck for some reason. We are interested in why that is. Past research has also found that they’re not as optimistic about future relationships, but these are the kinds of people who really need relationships. So we wondered, maybe if they’re not optimistic about finding someone new, they’re going to feel like their ex-partner is the only one they have, and so they hang on to that ex for that reason. If that’s the case, we wondered if we helped them feel optimistic about future partners, maybe they’d be able to let go, and that’s what we found. When people read a magazine article that suggested that it’s really easy to find a new partner, then these anxiously attached people were able to let go of their ex-partners. But, it’s just the beginning. It’s a very temporary effect most likely. In real life it might take something a little stronger than reading an article to fully let go of your ex, but it’s heading in a positive direction to help [anxiously attached people] let go.

TV: How did you initially come up with the research idea?

SS: We’ve all experienced breakups. And just talking with my girlfriends and guy-friends about their breakups, it seemed to be a big issue. Some people just kept going back to that ex-partner. They knew they weren’t right for them, but they kept going back, and it was sort of like “why are you doing this?” It didn’t seem logical to me. So I’m really interested in finding that out.

TV: What are your plans for future research?

SS: Beginning this summer, we’re going to start talking to people who are in a relationship, and see how they feel about their ex-partners, and see how the quality of a current relationship affects how you feel about an ex. These are going to be people in new relationships. Because these insecure [anxiously attached] people might not be very choosy about who they start a new relationship with, that relationship might not be of the best quality. If they’re not in a very good relationship at the time, does it really help them get over an ex? We’ll see all kinds of people because it’s really great to compare how more secure people react, and see whether these anxiously attached people are responding in a different way that suggests it’s more maladaptive.

TV: Do you think that researchers will ever find a foolproof method for getting over exes?

SS: We’re such social people, and we all really want relationships and to be loved. So I don’t know if relationship problems will ever go away. Every little bit that we find can help people move on, and behave more adaptively. Breakups are always going to be hard, but if people can cope with them more effectively then that will improve everyone’s situation.

TV: Outside of an experimental setting, any advice you’d give to people going through a breakup?

SS: I think one of the important things about this is that even when we make these people feel optimistic about finding a new partner and say they even do find a new partner that’s not really helping them to solve their own personal insecurities. It’s sort of like a band-aid solution. I think that it is important even for insecure people after a breakup to not just focus on finding a new partner and getting over the ex, but to really focus on their own feelings about themselves. The more you can take care of yourself after a breakup and the better you feel about yourself, you might not feel like you need someone else to validate you. You’re not jumping into something that could in the end be even worse than hanging on to your ex.

TV: Is there any advice you’d give to undergrads and aspiring researchers?

SS: I had such a great mentor in undergrad. I feel like that’s really important to really get in with some professors, learn about what they do, and learn about how research works. Research isn’t for everyone, but it’s very important to get some experience with that in undergrad. You don’t want to commit to grad school and be stuck in something that you’re not interested in. Professors are there for you, they’re a great resource for you, and they’re willing to help.

First Nations uni a mess

Saskatchewan’s troubled First Nations University of Canada has yet to publicize a taskforce report–due on May 11–containing recommendations on restructuring the university’s board of governors. The taskforce was struck after threats from the province to withhold $200,000 in funding.

FNUC, established in 1976 as the only university in Canada with the majority of its leadership composed of First Nations chiefs, has been steeped in controversy for years. On Feb. 17, 2005, Morley Watson, then FNUC board chair and vice-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, took over the campus in what some have likened to a “coup d’état.” Watson suspended three employees, immediately replacing them with a former Liberal candidate, an FSIN employee, and his sister-in-law. He seized the central computers at FNUC, copying the hard drive that contained all faculty and student records. He ordered a forensic audit, following which two of the former employees were charged with fraud.

Since then, the university has lost a president, two VPs, a third of its teaching faculty, half the administration, and almost all of its students. Enrolment has declined from 2,500 students in 2005 to 787 today. Last year, the provincial government stepped in to bail out the university in the face of a $1-million deficit.

Current board chair Clarence Bellegarde was optimistic when the taskforce was struck in March: “We’re confident that we made positive and significant progress in responding to CAUT’s [Canadian Association of University Teachers] concerns over our governance issues,” he said to the Leder-Post. “We’ve come closer together on exactly what the issues are and what it’s going to take to resolve these issues.”

However, FNUC is not famous for listening to its taskforces. An All Chiefs Task Force, set up soon after Watson’s takeover of the school, reported in November 2005 that the FNUC’s board of directors was politicized. The taskforce recommended a smaller board that would be responsive to the FNUC and wider academic communities, but the taskforce’s recommendations were not implemented. In response to the school’s disregard for the taskforces’ recommendations, the CAUT censured FNUC by discouraging faculty in Canada and around the world from working or speaking at the university.

The FNUC board of governors has 26 members, 18 of whom have voting power. Of those 18, 14 are council chiefs of various Saskatchewan First Nations. In January 2008, a second internal report recommended a 12-member board with four chiefs, leaving more room for students, faculty, and provincial government. The report also recommended creating a university senate to provide a voice for chiefs and other interested parties. This recommendation was also not implemented.

Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Supreme Court overturned an earlier academic freedom ruling against FNUC. In spring 2005, indigenous studies professor Blair Stonechild’s invitation to an Assembly of First Nations conference at the university was rescinded without cause. Stonechild requested that the university president raise the issue at a board of governors meeting, but his invitation was not reinstated due to Watson’s opposition.

“Watson demonstrated personal irritation or antagonism toward Stonechild, all seemingly associated with the events that began to unfold on Feb. 17, 2005. He linked his feelings about Stonechild to the question on the table concerning the symposium. This meeting ended with no decision having taken place regarding the matter raised in Stonechild’s letter,’’ Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Ross Wimmer told the Leder-Post.

University of Regina Faculty Association Executive Director Patricia Fleming, whose organization brought the case against FNUC, recalls the February meeting and says that Stonechild never said anything inappropriate. “I was personally at the meeting, and Blair Stonechild categorically did not make a derogatory statement towards the chairman of the board,” she said. She claimed many professors at FNUC are choosing not to speak up for fear of retaliation, something she calls “self-censorship.”

Science Rendezvous: Where people and science meet

It’s eleven o’clock on a rainy Saturday morning. What would usually be a sleepy St. George campus is, at the moment, a medley of PhDs and kids in lab coats. The place is buzzing, even under threatening skies.

From archaeology to astrophysics, the city-wide Science Rendezvous has something for everyone. As I make my way through the Science Carnival on St. George Street, I encounter a lab coat-clad volunteer who asks if I know what a polymer is, and whether I want to make silly putty. In a live chemistry cooking show, I witness can-can-dancing carbohydrates and get to taste apple pie made without apples.

In the street, I’m accosted by Einstein and what seems to be a molecule on legs. Marie Curie follows in tow. The biology pavilions are bustling as people line up to measure their lung capacity, take part in a cell lab, or check out the glow-in-the-dark worms.

Further on, the technology tents are displaying U of T’s latest robots and video games from the Computer Science and Electrical & Computer Engineering departments. At the physical sciences pavilion, people are making planispheres and checking out the liquid nitrogen train. Volcano Alley has—you guessed it—volcanoes on display, that go off every hour.

That wraps up the St. George carnival, but the science doesn’t stop there. The espionage-themed Amazing Science Chase has teams running around campus solving problems and finding clues, all with a scientific twist.

Over in Hart House, the day-long SciBarCamp has scientists, artists, and technologists discussing everything from consciousness to the social impacts of smart technologies. Most accurately described as an open-science “unconference,” the event consists of break-out sessions of previously selected discussion topics. In its second year, SciBarCamp has already gone a long way to attracting wider audiences to discuss science, and has its next instalment coming up in Palo Alto, California this July.

The brainchild of U of T chemistry and physics professor Dwayne Miller, Science Rendezvous is proof that science is important for everyone—not just scientists.

“Without science, our world could not advance,” said Charles Darwin, wandering down St. George Street. “For example, if I hadn’t come up with the concept of ordinal species, then everyone would still be wondering where we came from.”

What’s more, Science Rendezvous helps to strip away the barrier of complexity surrounding many scientific concepts, making them accesxsible to a wider audience.

“A big problem in our society is that there’s not a lot of understanding of science,” said event volunteer and undergraduate science student Ashley Quan. “People don’t see it as fun, or interesting, or accessible, and so they leave it in the hands of other people to make decisions for them. But science is integral to every part of our lives, and people should have a greater understanding of it. Science is really fun, and hopefully Science Rendezvous will help people realize that.”

Incoming students divided on flat fees

Reaction to flat fees is mixed among incoming first-year Arts and Science students, the first in their faculty on the St. George campus to be billed for five credits if they take as few as four.

“To my understanding, this compulsory flat fees is contradictory to what U of T has previously said: that students are recommended to take four courses in their first year as they’ll adapt into the new environment,” said Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School senior Daniel Bao, who turned down U of T’s offer of admission, and is planning to attend University of British Columbia instead.

However, incoming Qatar Academy student Tariq Hussein isn’t bothered about flat fees.

“To be quite frank, I’m a Canadian and $5,000 per year is still a relatively low amount to pay, thus the flat fee proposition did not affect my decision at all,” he said.

The universities that Hussein had refused were all outside Canada with higher tuition fees. Even with flat tuition fees, U of T was the cheapest option on his list.

“However, it did affect some of my friends’ decisions as they are now considering other universities,” he added. “I was not aware of the implementation of the flat fees till May; as the university did not share this vital piece of information with me until after I accepted their offer.”

The university informed students with offers of admission about the new flat fee structure on May 23 after the Governing Council meeting where the proposal was approved. The university justified the timing of the announcement saying that students would not be required to commit to their choice of university in Ontario until May 28. Starting in September 2011, all incoming full-time Arts and Science students will pay for five courses, where the threshold for full-time status will be lowered to three courses.

“I don’t agree with flat fees, purely because of the financial strain it puts upon part-time students,” said incoming Humberside Collegiate Institute student Tori Hoszka.

Though she wasn’t aware of flat fees when she accepted her offer, Hoszka concludes that they won’t affect her as she plans to take a full course load anyway.

Students taking fewer than three courses, designated as part-timers by U of T, will continue to pay on a per-course basis. However, the part-time students’ union has argued that those taking between three and 3.5 courses, who were formerly categorized as part-timers, still share the same needs as those taking less than three courses, as many are part of the same demographic: often parents and mature students.

During the GC meeting where the flat fees motion was passed, Dean Meric Gertler reiterated the main argument in support of flat fees: the precarious financial condition of Arts and Science, which has incurred an accumulated deficit of almost $40 million. Provost Cheryl Misak assured the council that revenue acquired from flat fees will be re-invested to benefit students.

The application of flat fees is contingent upon the July 11 decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on the legal case advanced by the University of Toronto Student Union, former Arts and Science Student Union president Colum Grove-White, and sociology professor Judith Taylor.

For more on flat fees, check out thevarsity.ca

Jays soar beyond expectations

This year’s Toronto Blue Jays could perhaps be taken as a parable for baseball itself: completely surpassing all expectations, experiencing crushing disappointment during a horrendous losing streak, finding unexpected superstars seemingly from nowhere, and getting continuously dominating performances from star players.

The Jays tore out of spring on top of the always competitive AL East. Impressive as their early season play was—a .666 winning percentage for most of the first two months—the biggest shock comes from putting those results into context. Heading into the season, team officials publicly talked down expectations for 2009, referring to it as a rebuilding year and stressing that fan focus should be on 2010. It was tough to blame early cynics as the Jays’ only certain starting pitchers heading into spring training were Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch.

Perhaps even more surprising is the list of players who have stepped up and made the Jays a winning team. Twenty-nine-year-old rookie Scott Richmond, who not so long ago was playing semi-pro baseball out west and working on ships in Vancouver, has been phenomenal, racking up Cy Young-calibre stats against right-handed hitters and giving the Jays a chance to win nearly all of the games he has started. Brian Tallet, a career reliever, was thrust into the starting rotation by injuries and has been outstanding, dominating some very good offensive teams, and, like Richmond, keeping the Jays in the game in the majority of his starts.

Ricky Romero, a long-developing yet highly touted prospect, was spectacular before hurting himself in late April. Despite looking shaky after coming back from his injury, he put up solid numbers in his last start against Kansas City and could still contribute greatly.

Offensively, Aaron Hill has emerged as the superstar many thought he could be. Prior to slumping badly for the past week, Hill’s batting average was a surreal .350 for most of the season, and he is on pace to obliterate his career highs in all offensive categories. Marco Scutaro, a utility infielder for many years, has inexplicably turned into a starting shortstop and everyday leadoff man.

There have been a few disappointments, both on pitching and offence. David Purcey, another long-anticipated prospect, was sent to Triple-A after he seemed to lose the ability to throw strikes. He was expected to be a consistent contributor throughout the year. Litsch, despite projecting as the Jays’ number-two starter, strained his forearm during the third series of the season back in early May and won’t be back until July.

Vernon Wells and Alex Rios—both fresh off signing mega-contracts and widely considered essential to the Jays’ success—have struggled badly. Wells’ offensive numbers are nothing short of awful, and his lack of home runs (he has only five) has surely cost the Jays a few games. Rios has been very streaky this year, with far more bad than good. Both players are usually better in the second half of the season; whether or not it will be too late for the Jays by then remains to be seen.

A bright spot has been the performance of Roy Halladay. The first pitcher in the majors to win nine games this year, “Doc” has dominated opponents and has been as reliable an anchor for the Jays rotation as ever. Many American commentators now readily identify him as the best pitcher in baseball.

It is not difficult to identify why the Blue Jays sit about three games out of first place as of press time. After sweeping the Chicago White Sox at home in a four-game Victoria Day weekend series and looking poised to take off, they hit the road and a nasty skid—one that saw them lose nine straight games in total, including a three-game sweep at the hands of divisional rival Boston. If there had managed to muster only a couple wins on that road trip, there is a good chance the Jays would currently be in first place.

Another point of concern is their 3-6 record against the Yankees and Red Sox, the teams they must beat to make the playoffs. Jays fans can take heart in the fact that they historically play far better against those two teams, and with many games remaining they will almost certainly pick up ground in the standings. All in all, it is tough for fans to complain too loudly. True, some players have badly underperformed, and with a bit of dumb luck and crisper play here and there, the team could well be in first place rather than third. But nearly everyone would have expected the Jays to currently be in fourth or fifth place and well out of contention at this point in the season, so the surprise thus far has been pleasant. There is also every reason to believe the team will get better: Wells and Rios will contribute, the starting pitching should stabilize, and they will play better against Boston and New York.

It could well be that by the time The Varsity is publishing regularly in the fall, there will be a playoff race to report on.

Feds fund new UTSC building

U of T at Scarborough announced plans for a new $70-million Instructional Centre, to be funded from the $151 million handed to U of T through the Knowledge Infrastructure Program. The facility will be the first building in a planned development of the northwest area of the UTSC campus, said UTSC principal Franco Vaccarino when he announced the project on May 25. Vaccarino said that the project allowed the university to “build on the exciting momentum” caused by the “unprecedented growth” in programs and community on campus. He boasted that UTSC would now lead the burgeoning innovation economy of the region.

Wayne Arthurs, MPP for Pickering-Scarborough East, also attended the announcement. He said that the investment would provide a dramatic short-term economic stimulus to the region.

The 13,990 square metres of the planned Instructional Centre will increase teaching and research space on the Scarborough campus by 25 per cent, and will include classrooms, labs, study areas, offices, and social spaces. It will also facilitate an expansion in co-op and other high-demand programs.

Additionally, the centre is designed according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design “Silver Standards.”

Vaccarino expressed his gratitude to the federal and provincial governments, and was enthusiastic that this would strengthen UTSC’s role in the tri-campus U of T system.

Ryerson gets $32,900,000, and the University of Ottawa $112,500,000 from the $1-billion Knowledge Infrastructure Program.

The inscrutable Iggy

Canadians could predict the Conservative “Just Visiting” attack ads long before Ignatieff took the Liberal leadership. The Internet smear campaign, venomous even by the standards of most attack ads (and, for some reason, hosted by a server in Montenegro) features a stern looking Ignatieff on the cover of a magazine entitled Me! with the headline “Elitist Exclusive.” A Youtube video charges, “Why is Michael Ignatieff returning to Canada after 34 years? Does he have a plan for the economy? No…he has no long-term plan for the economy, he’s not in it for Canada, he’s just in it for himself.” There are usually self-damaging consequences for running such ads before an election campaign has even begun.

On one hand, the ads are effective. The most dangerous element of the Tory campaign is the suggestion that Ignatieff is a “visionless” dilettante, incapable of fixing the Canadian economy or leading the country. This is ironic, given the Conservatives’ economic blunders. Throughout the last election, Prime Minister Harper insisted there would be no recession, dismissing warnings to the contrary; in January, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty conceded there would be a $34-billion deficit, and in May, revised this figure to “more than fifty billion.” It’s clear that opposition parties must present real alternatives to Conservative fiscal policies.

Then again, the Conservatives may find that their attacks achieve the exact opposite of their intent. In their attempt to play up Ignatieff’s elitism and American pedigree, they might bolster his image as a cosmopolitan figure: educated, refined, and tastefully aristocratic. Politicians of this nature have enjoyed great success (particularly in Quebec, which has been the key to forming any government since the days of Brian Mulroney). The most common criticism of Ignatieff in the press is that he always speaks in the abstract and has yet to reveal what kind of a Prime Minister he would be. But the appeal of an attractive figurehead—a reliable face upon which to project national ideals—is considerable. Recent examples have shown that abstraction can be vital to a politician’s career.

Politicians and policymakers around the world scrupulously followed the U.S. presidential race of 2008 down to the most peripheral of details. Of the many lessons learned from this grand example of representative capitalist democracy, the most significant was the need for balance and inclusivity. For all its opulence, the greatest triumph of the Obama campaign was in the lucid vacuity of its promise for “Change.” Though there was commendable substance to elements of the campaign—the promise of multilateral diplomacy, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, etc.—it was the blankness of this slogan that prompted so many in the ranks of the apathetic and indifferent to realize the potential of their involvement in the political system.

Most importantly, it provided voters with a blank slate upon which to project their dislike of George W. Bush and the Republicans, as well as their hopes and desires for the future. Ultimately, the tremendous failure of the McCain campaign lay in its inability to match these strategies with either tangible policy alternatives or an equally abstract counter-response. Rather, it desperately adopted the conventional strategy of loutish fear mongering, anti-intellectualism (as evidenced by the selection of Sarah Palin), and parroting populist right-wing orthodoxy. It remains to be seen whether the Ignatieff camp is attempting to repeat the success of Obama’s strategy.

The long and winding road

Canadian politics has seen its share of improbable figures since the end of the Chrétien/Martin dynasty: Belinda Stronach, the western entrepreneur turned kingmaker, Stephen Harper, the right-wing ideologue turned Prime Minister, and Stéphane Dion, the professorial federalist turned party leader. The first played a vital role in unifying the social and economic factions of Canadian conservatism, only to change parties and then leave politics altogether. The second has held this uneasy alliance together with ironclad discipline and staunch intransigence through three elections and two minority governments. The last failed to counter Harper’s obstinacy, suffered a crushing defeat and then came within a monarch’s breath of leading a nation even as it was writing his epitaph. Emerging unscathed from the nightmarish affair of last December was perhaps the most interesting, most enigmatic figure to appear in Ottawa for some time: newly crowned Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

Ignatieff’s initial leadership campaign was unsuccessful. The Liberal Party had no heir apparent following Paul Martin’s departure and eight candidates entered the race, including several with vastly superior credentials: Gerard Kennedy, who had served as Minister of Education in Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet, Stéphane Dion, who had been federal Environment Minister and authored the Clarity Act, and Ignatieff’s friend and college roommate, former New Democrat Premier Bob Rae. Though he remained frontrunner throughout the convention, Ignatieff never secured more than 34 per cent support. He was eventually defeated by a series of alliances and endorsements.

Outside of the party, he received a lukewarm response. While his international credentials were a draw to some, his critics dismissed him as an outsider intruding upon the Canadian political scene. After attending the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, he moved to Oxford and later Harvard where he finished his PhD in 1976. Two years later he returned to the United Kingdom, where he would remain until the turn of the century. He then became Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Both his support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the publication of his book The Lesser Evil reinforced the conviction within the Canadian Left that he was an opportunistic interloper, a pragmatic defender of American empire, and a sinister apologist for Bush-Blair policies.

For a while, it appeared that Ignatieff’s faults could prove fatal to his ambitions. But it seems that when held in contrast to the Conservatives, Canadians are willing to see past Ignatieff’s earlier American intellectual ties.

The tabula rasa

Ignatieff’s career as a correspondent, author, and internationally prominent public intellectual is both prolific and diverse, spanning from the dungeons of Victorian Britain to the Balkan battlefields in the twilight of the twentieth century. His family history literally speaks volumes. His paternal grandfather, Minister of Education in the court of the last Tsar, was a liberal who resigned his post on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution and escaped to the West. His uncle was conservative nationalist theologian George Parkin Grant, whose influential 1965 work Lament for a Nation predicted the collapse of the traditional, communitarian Canada and its eventual absorption into the United States through the forces of modernity and the rampant individualist tendencies of liberalism. George Monroe Grant, principal of Queen’s University from 1877 to 1902 and colleague of Canadian Pacific Railroad prospector Sir Sandford Fleming, was Ignatieff’s great grandfather.

But despite the richness of his family’s history—with its shades of Tolstoy and echoes of Robertson Davies, and the contemporary recognition of his own work—Ignatieff remains an unresolved figure for some and a complete blank for most. His sudden and audacious entry into the Liberal leadership race in 2006 electrified much of the party, still reeling from Paul Martin’s defeat and the ensuing power vacuum left by 13 years of unencumbered primacy. To the most fervent of Liberal zealots, he was the reincarnation of Pierre Eliot Trudeau: the globally renowned public intellectual, the cosmopolitan internationalist, and the outspoken defender of social justice and human rights. One Liberal enthusiastically declared “It’s like Garibaldi returning to Italy.”

Ignatieff was born into history, and has the regal bearing one would expect of a man of his lineage. Ignatieff the politician is natural. Ignatieff as policymaker is a question mark. His latest book, True Patriot Love (released on the eve of the Liberal Leadership Convention), is full of illustrious talk of nation-building and the meaning of Canadian identity, but absent from the book’s elegant prose are any mention of the recession, the environment, or the failures of the Harper Government. True Patriot Love is, by its own declaration, a family memoir and not a piece of pre-campaign literature such as Barack Obama’s treatise The Audacity of Hope—a discussion of national identity in the tradition of Ignatieff’s past work on ethnic nationalism, interwoven with his passion for studying his family. This does little to offset the Liberal leader’s remarkable blankness, as the national press has observed. The Globe and Mail, for one, dismissed the book as “a shameless attempt to promote [Ignatieff’s] apparently unquestionable Canadian pedigree.”

This frustration is shared by many of the political commentators in Ottawa: apart from demands that the government institute a national standard for Employment Insurance and several more minor policies, Ignatieff has yet to release an alternative platform. The pundits in the national press are essentially correct in this regard—the Ignatieff Liberals have yet to reveal themselves outside of the abstract—but this may be indicative of a calculated strategy and not a lack of vision.

Curiously enough, Ignatieff laid a similar charge against Pierre Trudeau in his youth. Writing in The Varsity in 1968, he says:

“My trouble is that I’m tired of talking about Trudeau, but somehow can’t seem to stop. Anyone who went to the convention or who worked in the election has discussed The Wit, The Charm, The Elegance, The Arrogance, The Just Society, The Women-In-His-Life themes for about 8 months…

I know why I can’t stop playing Trudeau-scan. He always wins. He remains inscrutable after eight months under the hot klieg lights of innumerable ‘InsightProbeAnalysisTheWayIt IsHere’sTheRealMan’ interviews. But we have probably been going about it the wrong way. Instead of attempting to rip off the inscrutable mask in search of the ‘real’ man beneath, we should accept the mask as part of the real. We should accept his inscrutability as the one solid piece of personal data upon which to base further analysis. We should regard the fact that we know nothing about him as significant.”

Ignatieff’s friend Bob Rae (who at the time attended University College) disagreed, writing in the same issue: “But the victory of style has been an empty, if not totally disillusioning one. The conservatism and legalism of this swinging new government have become an almost unbearable reality.” Just as some today maintain that the Obama presidency will be a triumph of rhetoric over substance, Rae viewed Trudeau’s perceived mysteriousness not as a great strength but as a sinister flaw. Whether Rae was right or wrong in this regard, Trudeau’s strategy made him one of the most successful and resilient political figures in Canadian history.

Return of the king

The ascendance of Michael Ignatieff to the podium at the Liberal Convention on May 2 marked a new era for the party. Gone was the tribalism that kept it divided under Chrétien and Martin, gone were the leadership posters and delegate blocs of 2006, and gone was the sense of abject frustration felt under Dion. The Harper government, suffering from its self-inflicted wounds, is seeing its support at an all-time low. Ignatieff, on the other hand, has shown great competence in reconciling and rebuilding the Liberal Party. In allowing his Newfoundland MPs to vote against the Conservative budget, he revealed his capacity for moderation and compromise. By not forcing an immediate election he has shown shrewd political judgement. Unlike John Turner and Paul Martin, he has ascended to leadership with a clean slate. And like Trudeau, he wears an “inscrutable mask.”

Since all three opposition parties must vote against the government to bring it down, an election might occur at any time. It could strike during the summer or elude us until fall, winter, or spring. Whatever the political climate of the next few months turns out to be, Canada’s latest enigmatic politician is poised to play a vital role in this country’s future.