Ignatieff courts Calgary students

Liberal leader discusses Darfur, Iraq and North Pole at town hall
Wil Andruschak

When federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff recently visited Calgary’s Western Canada High School, students didn’t ask him any predictable questions about the gun registry, the oilsands or the National Energy Program — the usual questions Liberal leaders face when they come to Alberta.

Nor did the students toss the softball questions one might expect at a stop like this. Instead, they asked for the former Harvard professor’s take on complex national and international affairs, ranging from the humanitarian disaster in Darfur to the war in Iraq and Arctic sovereignty.

“I think Canada could be part of an international agreement to make the North Pole and the whole area [around] the North Pole an international public park for the world,” Ignatieff told students. “It means that we keep our territorial claims to what is Canada’s, but the international zone at the top of the world should be for all mankind and should be protected for all mankind.” Stewardship, said Ignatieff, is what matters most in Canada’s North. “What we do not want is oil slicks, environmental damage and harm up there, and a kind of free-for-all.”

On Iraq, Ignatieff said he regrets having initially supported the American-led invasion. “I don’t think Canada can take part in international military operations overseas without the consent of the security council of the United Nations,” Ignatieff said. “So when Mr. Chrétien said we won’t go into Iraq because it doesn’t have [UN] Security Council approval, he was right and I was wrong.”

On Darfur, Ignatieff said he’d like to see Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir hauled before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, a move the Canadian government has said it supports. (Last month the ICC issued a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.) Ignatieff said that if he becomes prime minister, he will “use any international means” he can to get al-Bashir before the ICC. “I would also work with other African countries and other Middle Eastern countries to put pressure on Sudan to change its international behaviour.”

Grade 11 student Madelaine Thiel noted the “increase in partisan politics” during the last federal election, and asked Ignatieff how the government can be more co-operative. He agreed Canadians are sick of partisan bickering. “I think Canadians, interestingly, in the last six months have said ‘stop that,’” he said. “‘Put it away…. Stop attacking each other. Try and find a way to work together.’” He recalled the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition that threatened to topple the Harper government. “The coalition was very unpopular in Western Canada, seriously unpopular,” said Ignatieff. “I felt were I to lead a coalition government, it would divide the country. It would create that partisan divide that you’re saying we shouldn’t do.”

Warmly received by the crowd of students, Ignatieff encouraged them to get involved in politics regardless of their political leanings. “Don’t be a spectator in your own country,” he said. “What I hope most of all is that you don’t join the Apathy Party. The Apathy Party is the one bad party in the country.” He also encouraged students to learn more than one language. “The most important thing for young Canadians is to have language competence,” he said. “Three of them, please.”

Thiel, 16, was impressed by the Liberal leader. “It was really great that he took time to come to Western Canada to talk to young students and to encourage voting among a younger population, because it’s definitely something that is really important to our country,” she said. (In the last federal election, voter turnout hit a record low of 59 per cent.)

Conrad Behrman, a Grade 12 student at Western, isn’t sure who he’ll vote for in the next election, but was impressed by Ignatieff’s answers. “One important thing he said was that… he’s not just going to disagree for the sake of disagreeing,” says Behrman, 18. “It’s good to hear. Maybe politics are starting to mature a little.”

After the town hall meeting, Ignatieff praised the students for their considered questions. “They did a better job than you guys, I thought,” he told reporters.

Reporters then asked the Liberal leader questions about the gun registry and the oilsands. “This has got to be an environmentally sustainable industry,” said Ignatieff. “…I don’t see a contradiction between having a strong environmental commitment to make the oilsands environmentally and socially sustainable, and being a party that believes in a great national industry which is going to be driving growth right across Canada for the next century.”



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