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Trying to Win the West: Michael Ignatieff’s Town Hall in Edmonton

Ignatieff speaks at town hall meeting in Edmonton. June 30, 2009

Ignatieff speaks at town hall meeting in Edmonton. June 30, 2009

Last night, I attended Michael Ignatieff’s town hall meeting in Edmonton. He’s spending June 30 and July 1 here, and according to his intro at last night’s event, he has a packed schedule including meetings with various cultural and community groups, and participation in the Silly Summer parade on Canada Day.

Ignatieff had visited Edmonton once already since becoming leader in December, and in his introduction they made a point of mentioning that he has spent much time in the west since becoming an MP three years ago. The town hall was well attended; easily a few hundred in attendance, might have even pushed the 600 mark as noted here.

Shot of the crowd at Michael Ignatieff's Town Hall in Edmonton. June 30, 2009

Shot of the crowd at Michael Ignatieff's Town Hall in Edmonton. June 30, 2009

He led off by talking about his vision for Canada. As luck would have it, I was intending to ask him about his vision, though within the structure of a short paragraph length vision statement, similar to a non-profit or a corporation, rather than an extended statement that he gave.

What is his vision? He wants Canada to be:
– The most educated country. This starts with an investment in early learning and child-care. It means a huge investment in post-secondary education, and an investment in literacy at the adult level.
– The healthiest country. A healthy populace is necessary for being competitive and productive. He wants to focus on a national strategy for health prevention and promotion.
– The most competitive and most productive country, which means the most efficient users of energy. We need to get as green as we can as fast as we can.
– The most international country. This is where our future lies. We can use new Canadians as a bridge to the markets of the world.

On the last point, he noted that at any given time, there are about 2.7 million Canadians living and working abroad, of which he used to be one. He also counted Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux among them, and then he stated, “Since Stephen Harper can’t criticize Sidney Crosby, I guess he has to come after me”. It was a pretty good way of making light of the “Just Visiting” ads.

A questions and answer period of about 45 minutes followed. I really wish it lasted about half an hour longer, and not just because I didn’t get to ask the other question I’d come up with. A couple of moments that stood out for me:

– When asked about backing off from a carbon tax, he offered that Canadians rejected the green shift, and he doesn’t feel it’s prudent to add another burden on to people during the recession (points for not saying “tough economic times”). This was, for me, the only low point of the evening. Though he said we need to find other ways to promote the environment and clean energy, it nonetheless seems somewhat at odds with his statement a few minutes before about the need to “get as green as we can as fast as we can”.
– When asked about the manufacturing of asbestos in Canada that is then shipped to India, he gave a thoughtful, balanced answer, both condemning the practice, but also stressing the need to show respect for the workers manufacturing it, and the need to help them transition to other industries, likening this to how we have dealt with tobacco farmers.

Overall, I found him to be smart and engaging. The town hall format works to highlight his strengths; he didn’t come across as very charismatic, which leads me to wonder how he’ll do on the stump in a 5-week campaign.

A few more observations on the political end:

– This was much better organized than the Stephane Dion town hall I attended at the University of Alberta shortly before the 2008 election. For one, they were actually signing up new members and gathering contact information from everyone who attended. This is a necessary step to building up their potential supporter list.
– Following on this, I’m still not sure how they intend to translate these efforts into votes, and eventually seats in Alberta. The info sheet I submitted didn’t have a spot to list my riding, so I’m wondering if I’ll just get put on a general Liberal Party email list. The party is definitely improving on the organizational side, as evidenced by their dramatically increased fundraising totals so far this year. I’m interested in seeing if or how they follow up on the town hall with voter outreach efforts.
– I was struck by the lack of new faces, not amongst the crowd, which appeared to be a pretty diverse group, but among the Liberals featured in the program. Aside from recognizing provincial party leader David Swann, MLAs Hugh McDonald and Laurie Blakeman (along with City Councillor Ben Henderson), the prominent Liberals pointed out were all former MLAs and MPs, or Senators (I did see 2008 provincial candidates Nancy Cavanaugh and Dawitt Isaac, but they weren’t recognized).
– The program featured Senators Tommy Banks, Grant Mitchell, and Claudette Tardif. While all three Senators continue to make great contributions, the Liberal Party could also really use some new faces in Alberta, especially some who are likely to run for and hopefully win elected office.
– On the previous point, I understand the challenge in that they don’t have candidates of record yet, but what the Liberal Party could use is a Linda Duncan or Josee Verner. Duncan, after placing 2nd in the 2006 campaign in Edmonton-Strathcona, never stopped campaigning. She was featured prominently in NDP events, benefited from ten percenters coming into her riding, and eventually won her seat in 2008. Verner achieved the highest support of any Conservative candidate in Quebec in the 2004 election, and while she didn’t win her seat she was nonetheless appointed to the shadow cabinet to give it a Quebec presence. Ignatieff should consider those approaches with 1-2 candidates in targeted ridings.

Though I wasn’t a big fan when he first entered politics, I’ve grown to like Ignatieff over the past few years. I find him to be thoughtful, conciliatory, and forward thinking, which are all good qualities in a leader. Last night, he addressed one of my two concerns, which had to do with his vision for Canada. I think he hit on most of the important broad issues we’re going to be facing in the coming decades. The other concern is “does he have the skills and the team to implement the vision?” That can only be answered should he form government, though he has demonstrated a critical thinking and thoughtfulness that leads me to believe he could be a good Prime Minister, given the opportunity.

Michael Ignatieff speaking to media after town hall meeting in Edmonton. June 30, 2009

Michael Ignatieff speaking to media after town hall meeting in Edmonton. June 30, 2009

So what did I take away from this? While not inspired, I am encouraged by some of his comments, but also by his willingness to make efforts in Western Canada, and to face voters in a town hall format. This is a really encouraging thing if you are a supporter. But regardless of your leanings, it’s encouraging to see this type of outreach from the leader of a party, and more of these efforts and events from party leaders and prominent figures would be a good thing for our country. Given that it’s Canada Day, this seems like a good note to end on.

Thursday morning update: Daveberta’s recap of the event is worth a read.