This blog doesn't usually reprint Conservative talking points (because you only need to tune in to Parliament or a myriad of other places to find them), but I would like to draw your attention to the time, energy and scope of the governing party's response to an ad today about Michael Ignatieff and his family. Somewhere in here, they may well be claiming that he was born in Kenya.
Feel free to stop, have a coffee, go out and have life halfway through this screed, which seems to be dedicated to the idea that there are fake immigrants in Canada, and then ones that Conservatives like ("typical" immigrants). I leave you to figure out where the distinction lies.
Michael Ignatieff: Child of immigrants?
Or, “How the other half aristocrats immigrate”
“My dad was a Russian immigrant. Came off a boat in 1928 without anything.”
--Michael Ignatieff, Liberal Party video, post on March 18, 2011
“There's an issue of principle here to make sure that refugee is individual and you're looking at a guy whose dad was a political refugee.”
--Michael Ignatieff, Interview, CTV News Channel, June 9, 2010
"The part of my family story that means most to me now is that they never complained, they never sat back and waxed nostalgic about the vanished glories, they rolled their sleeves up," Ignatieff said.
"They just adored this country from the minute they set foot on it. And their parents, who had lost everything, just pushed them forward. And I feel that kind of gentle hand pushing me forward, too."
--Shereen Dindar, “How Michael Ignatieff became Canadian,” National Post, January 2, 2009.
FACT: Michael Ignatieff’s father came to Canada at the age of 15. His family had been living on a country estate in the UK for 11 years. Ignatieff was sent to the prestigious Lower Canada College and later attended the University of Toronto before going to Oxford.
In public meetings, in television interviews, and in print, Michael Ignatieff tries to portray himself as a child of immigrants whose family experienced the same hardships as other immigrant families when they immigrated to Canada. But was “the immigrant experience” of the Ignatieff family anything like that of most immigrants to Canada?
The Ignatieffs lived at the very pinnacle of Russian Tsarist society. Michael Ignatieff’s grandfather, Paul, had served as a Minister in the government of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his grandmother was born a hereditary Russian princess. Ignatieff was given the court rank of “Count of the Russian Empire” a couple of generations earlier and every male descendant was granted the right in perpetuity to the same title, including Michael Ignatieff himself. The Ignatieffs were not at the rank of the Romanovs, the dynasty of the Tsars, but they were not lesser nobility, either. And, they had exercised real, political power in Tsarist Russia since helping turn Napoleon back, early in the 19th century.
The Ignatieffs were not typical immigrants at the outset.
As the Bolshevik Revolution unfolded and the Ignatieffs fled Russia, they did not exactly leave penniless. As well as jewels and other valuables, the Ignatieffs departed Russia with assets already moved “off shore” from Russia to Britain and France. In 1919, Ignatieff’s grandfather, Paul Ignatieff, recovered some £25,000 sterling from the Midland Bank that had been on deposit to pay for an order of Egyptian cotton that had not been shipped. The exchange rate was such (1 Canadian dollar = 4 shillings and 1.1 pence) that £25,000 sterling in 1919 was valued at more than $120,000. Exiles? Yes. But if they were refugees, they were refugees with considerable wealth.
To put that amount in perspective, the average annual income for a Canadian production worker in 1919 was $920 and for a Canadian office worker was $1497 (Source: Statistics Canada). The cash the Ignatieffs had at their disposal was equal to the annual income of more than 130 Canadian production workers or more than 80 Canadian office workers. Also among the possessions the family took from Russia was a diamond setting necklace given them by a Sultan of Turkey who had made a practice of collecting the very best diamonds yielded by the diamond fields of South Africa.
According to The Russian Album (TRA), the assets of Michael Ignatieff’s grandparents were sufficient to purchase a Sussex country estate that included 80 acres of farmland, 170 acres of woodland, a dairy herd, a farm house and a large Victorian brick house known as “Beauchamps” (TRA, 150). Their sons were sent to St. Paul’s School (TRA, 151), one of the original nine English public schools for England’s elite, as defined by the Public Schools Act 1868, originally located in the City of London. At the same time, while living in a Paris hotel, Ignatieff’s grandfather worked with the Russian Red Cross, attempting to support the efforts of the White Russians and dissident Russian communists who were attempting the overthrow of the Bolsheviks. Clearly, these were no ordinary refugees or immigrants.
In 1928, with the farm losing money, Ignatieff’s Uncle Dima sold it and—with the proceeds--moved the family to Canada on the ship Montrose bound for Montreal. They did not arrive in Canada with “nothing.” (TRA, 159-160)
The family eventually settled on a rented farm north of Toronto. The school-age sons were sent to the private prep school, Lower Canada College. Ignatieff’s uncles were given first-rate university educations and pursued work in their respective professions. An uncle was Deputy Minister of the federal Department of Energy, Mines and Resources. Another uncle headed the University of Toronto’s Hart House. Ignatieff’s father was a senior diplomat who later headed the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. Ignatieff’s mother’s family, the Grants, are an illustrious family of educators that includes principals of Queen’s University, and the philosopher, George Grant.
While the Ignatieffs have made the most of their coming to Canada in their respective fields, they have never ceased to enjoy great privilege, as a function of the financial and educational resources and social status they brought with them, and which are theirs to this day. The Ignatieff immigrant experience is one of significant wealth, first-rate educations and privilege. Very few Canadian families can claim this “immigrant experience.”