Michael Ignatieff, U of T alum and leader of the Liberal Party, stopped by the UTM campus on Wednesday. Ignatieff is on a week-long, 11-campus tour across Canada to promote “Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge,” a “non-partisan” conference in March hosted by the Liberals.

Ignatieff spoke to a full house at UTM, with latecomers directed to an overflow room. The crowd, mostly students, asked about matters ranging from the Middle East and the environment to voter turnout, copyright, and accountability.

A few protestors urged Ignatieff to go back to Harvard. “Just so you know,” he told everyone in the packed lecture hall, “I’m not going anywhere, because I’m home.”
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Asked for his strategy to provide affordable and accessible education for all students, Ignatieff said, “We need to increase student grants as opposed to loans; spread out the repayment periods; lower the interest payments; and increase the investment we make in student loans.”

“The quid pro quo—this is the part some students don’t like—is that you’ve got to pay something for a world-class education. So you are not going to get me to talk about tuition freezes and that kind of stuff,” he said. “I believe […] passionately that if you get the grades, you get to go.”

The name of the Liberal conference is similar to one hosted by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, called “150!Canada.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Ignatieff explained his reasons for the “non-partisan” billing. “We want to open the doors, windows, and invite people who don’t necessarily support our party to contribute to the process of intellectual renewal,” he said. Robert Bothwell, a U of T Canadian history professor who attended U of T and Harvard with Ignatieff, had another explanation: “It’s PR burble—euphonious and empty.”

“The campus tour caused some surprise among Liberals,” Bothwell said. “Campuses are not the area where he needs to generate support—or to put it another way, maybe he went there because they are less hostile and skeptical of him than other areas of the country.”

Bigwig political science professor Stephen Clarkson took a gentler view. “Participants can call their thinkers conferences non-partisan if they invite speakers who are not party members or identified with the party. Having the same title as IPAC is probably a coincidence, if not a smart move,” he said. Clarkson made an unsuccessful run as a Liberal candidate for mayor of Toronto in 1969, and remained active in the party for six years afterwards. He was formerly married to past governor general Adrienne Clarkson.

Wednesday’s talk was proudly partisan, as Ignatieff opened with a shot at Prime Minister Stephen Harper for proroguing Parliament. “He gambled on your cynicism, he gambled on your disillusion, he gambled on your detachment from the process and, interestingly, he gambled wrong,” Ignatieff said. “Your presence today is a sign you care about politics.”

Ignatieff was presented with a U of T hooded sweatshirt before he left for another talk at McMaster University.

“Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge” takes place from March 26 to March 28 in Montreal. A website is coming soon.