Jonathan Kay on Tigers, and Michael Ignatieff’s moral
rehabilitation of the Liberal Party:
Breaking away from tradition
The moral evolution of the Liberal Party of
Canada from the days of Jean Chretien to its current manifestation under
Michael Ignatieff can be charted in many ways. A decade ago, Liberal
ranks were full of America-bashers and noisy cultural nationalists.
The party supported anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations,
and adopted the fashionable, amoral posture of ‘honest broker’ in
international relations. Jean Chretien himself flippantly defended
slush-fund politics in Quebec, and disdained his successor’s efforts to
investigate the most disgraceful abuses. The party’s bosses had one goal
- to win votes, principles be damned.
All this has changed - slowly at first under Paul Martin and the
unpopular St‚phane Dion, and now decisively under Michael Ignatieff.
Like all political parties, the Liberals still often resort to cynical
messaging when it suits them (especially in regard to Stephen Harper’s
fiscal policies). But overall, the Liberals of today are night-and-day
compared to their 1990s-era forebearers. And nowhere is this more
apparent than in regard to the party’s relationship with the Canadian
One of the great low points for the Liberal Party of Canada came in
May 2000, when two Liberal MPs - Martin (then the Finance Minister) and
Maria Minna, then the Minister of International Cooperation - were
caught attending a fund-raising event for a group that had been
described by intelligence officials as a front group for the Tigers, an
insurgent group that uses hideous terrorist tactics in its long-running
campaign to carve out a separate Tamil State in the Northern and Eastern
regions of Sri Lanka. Yet when confronted about this episode in
Parliament, the Liberals refused to apologize, and instead accused their
critics of organizing a ‘lynch mob.’
Even after 9/11, the Liberals refused to list the Tigers on the
Government’s list of banned terrorist organizations. As a result, Tigers
bagmen continued to raise funds among Canada’s large Tamil community.
The Liberals’ primary concern was retaining votes from militant Tamil
nationalists who live in contested ridings on the periphery of Toronto.
Fast forward nine years, and the difference is striking. Following on
the Conservatives’ courageous and groundbreaking decision to ban the
Tigers in 2006, Michael Ignatieff has signalled a clear break on the
issue within his own party.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Tamil Canadians have
demonstrated in Ottawa, protesting the Sri Lankan Government’s
successful military campaign against the Tigers, and the cornering of
over 100,000 Tamils in a small area in the country’s northeast.
While many of the protestors no doubt harbour good-faith humanitarian
concern for innocent civilians caught up in the fighting, the appearance
of Tiger flags discredited the protest. On Tuesday, the Liberal Party
allowed a few leaders from the Tamil community to meet with Ignatieff
after he refused to address the larger Parliament Hill protest.
According to a report from a Liberal insider, there were about nine
Tamils at the meeting with Ignatieff, all known as moderates who do not
support the Tigers’ military and terrorist agenda.
Nevertheless, some of the Tamils begged Ignatieff to come out and
address the protest (with one of the visitors apparently breaking down
in tears) - or at least accept a petition from the protestors. Not only
did Ignatieff stand his ground and refuse to do either, he also
reportedly declared that no other Liberal MP would do so. Can anyone
imagine Jean Chretien, Paul Martin or St‚phane Dion - bald-faced
exploiters of ethno-politics, all - making a similar declaration?
In the Liberal press release concerning the meeting, Ignatieff echoed
the Tamil community’s plea for international diplomatic pressure on Sri
Lanka, and for a ceasefire (which Sri Lanka’s Government opposes, now
that it has the Tigers on the ropes).
But notably, the press release also deplored the use of ‘human
shields’ - an allusion to the Tigers’ ongoing practice of hiding behind
civilians, many of whom are being held by the Tigers (literally) at
And it is not just Ignatieff who is leading the charge for a more
principled foreign policy. Even before Ignatieff took control of this
issue, Bob Rae was appearing at Toronto-area Tamil-Canadian discussion
forums, telling the community - in blunt terms - that the Tigers’
militancy was part of the problem in Sri Lanka. It was a message that
Liberal MPs with strong Tamil constituencies - Jim Karygiannis of
Scarborough-Agincourt fame, most notably - would never dare deliver.
Between Rae and Ignatieff, the Liberal Party of Canada has reinvented
itself on this issue - and on other broad questions of foreign policy.
How refreshing it is to see a party leadership that puts principle
before electoral expedience.
It’s one big reason, we suspect, why so many Canadians are taking a
fresh look at this resurgent party.