After writing a number of posts deeply critical of Michael Ignatieff, I find I must now rise to his support.
Pursuing the "drunken Indians" meme, Quebec columnist Lysiane Gagnon recently launched an attack upon Ignatieff for his comments on the tragic Yellow Quill case in his recent book, True Patriot Love. First, here is what Ignatieff had to say:
Imagining what we share is not easy. Imagining this land is never just to imagine it as it appears to you alone. It is to imagine it as an Inuit person might see it ... To imagine it as a citizen is to imagine it as a resident of Yellow Quill reservation in Saskatchewan would have had to imagine it, this Canada where two half-naked children died in a snow-covered field in the subarctic darkness because their father tried to take the sick little girls to his parents and never made it, and all you can hope is that death was as mercilessly quick as the cold can make it. What does a resident of Yellow Quill imagine, what do we, Canadians, imagine our country to be, the morning we learn that children have perished this way? It is surely more than just a tragic story of one family. It is a story about us.
Classic bleeding-heart white guilt, sniffs Gagnon, in so many words. No mention that the father was falling-down drunk. No reference to his personal responsibility for the deaths. And Gagnon the proceeds to use her dubious analysis as a not-so-subtle entree to slag the First Nations as a whole, and implicitly defend the Harper government's effective scuttling of the Kelowna Accord.
But hers is a curious reading of Ignatieff's words. He is taking for granted that his readers know the story of Christopher Pauchay and his infant daughters--it occupied the national media, after all, for some time. And I see not a trace of "white guilt" in that passage.
Ignatieff is asking us to imagine, to dig deep, to see this tragedy through several lenses at once. What did this affair look like to a resident of Yellow Quill? How do others, across our country, conceive of our imagined community--how do we implicate this terrible event in our vision of that community?
Do we recognize that, because we are a country, this story is part of the on-going Canadian narrative--or do we excise it? Do we, like Gagnon, reduce it to one individual, and then, by a dubious synechdoche, use it to build walls around the First Nations as a whole? Or do we recognize that all of us are part of Canada, that our stories are held in common, and that what we are as Canadians, in a very real sense, is that many-threaded narrative?
What makes a man like Pauchay lead such a useless, irresponsible life? Those who claim that it's simply an individual matter don't really mean it--like Gagnon, they rather quickly move to a collective condemnation.
Ignatieff is inviting us to engage in a different kind of collective exercise: to understand, as Canadians, how and why this could happen in our community. It's not an easy task: to many, it's not even a comprehensible one. It's far, far easier simply to condemn and build fences and turn away. But do we not diminish our country--and ourselves--by so doing?
That's the question that Ignatieff implicitly poses. And it's a good one.