The May 2, 2011 federal election turned Canadian governance upside down and inside out. In his newest and possibly most controversial book, Peter C. Newman argues that the Harper majority will alter Canada so much that we may have to change the country's name. But the most lasting impact of the Tory win, he writes, will be the demise of the Liberal Party, which ruled Canada for seven of the last ten decades and made the country what it is. Newman chronicles, in bloody detail, the deconstruction of the Grits' once unassailable fortress and anatomizes the ways in which the arrogance embedded in the Liberal genetic code slowly poisoned their former progressive impulses.
When the Gods Changed is the saga of a political self-immolation unequalled in Canadian history. It took Michael Ignatieff to light the match.
About the author
Peter C. Newman has been writing about Canadian history and politics for half a century. His previous works include the bestselling history of the Hudson Bay Company, Company of Adventurers, as well as books on prime ministers John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and Brian Mulroney. A former editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star and Maclean’s, Newman has won a half dozen of the country’s most illustrious literary awards, including the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize for his memoir, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion, and Power. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada. Newman lives in Belleville, Ontario.
Excerpt: When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada (by (author) Peter C. Newman)
Despite Michael Ignatieff’s best efforts—and at times he was unexpectedly impressive—when the 2011 election was called, the Grits were already dying.
This book has two purposes. The first is to reconstruct the Liberal party’s Ferris-wheel experience under the stewardship of Michael Ignatieff, who was on watch for the brief revival of its hopes and its stunning crash to earth. His reign was compelling in its Wagnerian symmetry. His genuine dedication to the party’s rebirth was offset by its state of disrepair, and the self-satisfied hibernation of its previous leaders. His failure was more a symptom of their careless stewardship than his doing—but try as he might, he could not halt the party’s disintegration.
My second purpose is to reconstruct the nation-building significance of the Grits in Canadian history, starting with their founding saint, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He picked up the torch originally lit by reformers such as the shy and introspective Toronto lawyer Robert Baldwin, who sat in the Assembly of Upper Canada for only one year but became an ardent crusader for responsible government. Baldwin influenced the visiting Lord Durham, eventually became co-premier of the newly united province of Canada (today’s Ontario and Quebec), founded the University of Toronto and reformed the judiciary. The alliance he established with Canada East’s liberal reformer Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine made them, in effect if not in name, the country’s first prime ministers. As well as popularizing the notion of responsible government, LaFontaine and Baldwin were the founding proponents of a bicultural nation. Today, few remember their names or mark their achievements.
The demise of the Liberals, if it comes, will be nothing to celebrate. We have a polarized, two-party system to the south, an example to be avoided by anyone in search of relatively civil and efficient governance. Much will be lost if this ship goes down. But the unsteady hands at the helm have been those of the Grits themselves. This mélange of tragedy and inevitability reflects the current of events—the party’s shining legends and hard truths on the one hand, and its most recent leader’s descent into hell on the other. The two strands cannot be separated, even by those who wish to evade responsibility for the party’s electoral collapse by doing the easiest thing: blaming Ignatieff. In the pages that follow, readers will taste the raw facts.
Ignatieff holds the narrative arc in place, but the book is less about him than about the looming disappearance of the Liberal party. Here was a man who had publicly blessed the worst of George W. Bush’s extra-territorialism, yet was also endowed with passionate love for his home country—as he frequently demonstrated on his 2010 bus tour and his 2011 election town-hall rallies. Every evening, right to the bitter end of the campaign, he displayed aspects of the humanitarianism and intellectualism for its own sake that we had so (rightly) admired in Trudeau. Ignatieff was an evocative writer, a trafficker in ideas; his intimate personal experience with Iraq’s gassing of the Kurds neatly paralleled Trudeau’s adventures during Quebec’s asbestos strike and his cohabiting with Central Asia tribesmen.
Why Ignatieff didn’t catch on is not hard to guess. Most voters learned the details of Ignatieff’s life and times through Harper’s attack ads, which portrayed him as a cynical visitor who had come home only to further his career. The besieged professor only truly understood how to connect with a crowd at the very end of his time in Ottawa, and could never undo the impression that he was an academic trout out of water, unsuited to wooing the general public.* He took every attack personally—as he did everything that happened to him, including forecasts of foul weather when he wanted to throw a picnic. Although the Tories were successful in portraying his lengthy absences as disqualifying him for high office, viewing the dysfunctional status of Canadian politics, it was doubtful whether being here would have been an advantage. It’s a bit of a stretch to place Michael Ignatieff as a direct heir to that long line of distinguished men and women who were instrumental in most of the events and decisions that made Canada great. But whatever his faults, he was a patriot and optimist about the country’s future, perhaps partly because he rediscovered Canada so late in life. Nothing stirs the blood more than “the return of the native.” He realized first hand that the immature land mass he had left behind as a junior assistant professor at the University of British Columbia had become a far greater country than logic would suggest possible.
The Ignatieff incumbency, of course, turned out to be less a game changer than a history-maker—well, unmaker really. The 2011 election campaign humiliated the Grits and allowed Master Harper, the triple-brick radical Tory, to attain a parliamentary majority—a personal achievement that he preferred to having been born a Beatle.
Harper’s victory meant that the country will never be the same— might even have to change its name since it will no longer be recognizable. Maybe we’ll end up living on the equivalent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, obedient beasties to Harper’s command. The plain fact is that for at least four years Stephen Harper can do anything that strikes his fancy: his post-election moves to cut the funding for political parties—his own having an established financing system—and his appointment of Tory senators who were rejected when they ran for office speak to power wielded without regard to the consequences to the democratic fabric.
At the same time, its fourth defeat in a row (and I’m counting Paul Martin’s short-lived minority government as one of those losses) changed the Liberal party from being an essential engine of social reform and economic progress to a swamped raft loaded with a newly endangered political species. Liberals made the country what it is—and understandably considered themselves to be its natural rulers. But their operational code belonged to another time and place—certainly not to the Canada of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Despite Michael Ignatieff’s best efforts— and at times he was unexpectedly impressive—when the 2011 election was called, the Grits were already dying.
Michael Ignatieff showed up in Belleville, the perky yet historic settlement on eastern Ontario’s Bay of Quinte where I now live, toward the end of what would turn out to be his last campaign. He came to preside at a Liberal rally in the Greek Orthodox hall, which was jammed by local Grits ecstatically welcoming their standard bearer.
He was accompanied by four flacks tucked into white shirts, who looked as out of place as altar boys in a mosque. Around here, most locals reserve white shirts for funerals—usually their own. I slipped into the hall’s back office where the Ignatieff entourage was preparing the leader for his gig. At that point he was still optimistic enough to believe he could salvage a sprinkle of grace from a hopeless dilemma, though I was pretty certain he was like the drowning man about to descend for the third time. It was my self-imposed mission to shock the candidate into some retroactive appreciation of reality. In grave tones I informed Ignatieff and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar (rarely out of his earshot), that I needed to share some uncomfortable truths with them. Ignatieff appeared startled (his eyebrows shot into the stratosphere).
“I know your secret,” I revealed. “In a past life, you were a torturer for the Spanish Inquisition.” Though his expression didn’t change, I could feel him thinking, “Who is this guy and has he finally flipped his lid?”
Once launched, I had no choice but to carry on. “Now you’re paying for what you did in another life. That’s why you get so little respect in the media, that’s why you’re so low in the polls. That’s why your destiny is to be the last leader of Canada’s once luminous Liberal party.”
He stood his ground, even showed me his perfect teeth, but he started looking around for someone to gently lead me away. He was saved the trouble, though, because it was time for him to be rushed into the hall. And I was stuck with yet another incomplete verbal transaction with Ignatieff—an all-too-common occurrence between us since I’d started closely following him in 2006, when he first ran for leadership of the Liberals. Back then, I’d been certain that history and his own unusual qualities had combined to make Ignatieff the answer to the Grits’ problems, and that he was destined to be our next prime minister. We had never met, but I had read a number of his books and had been impressed by both style and content. It was also blindingly clear that the party was lost in the woods, fractured by a decade or more of infighting, and bereft of new ideas.
"The finest journalist of his generation.... An important, timely and engaging book.... The only certainty of Canada, now and forever, is that the tireless Peter C. Newman will be there to tell our story." The Globe and Mail
"Reading a Peter C. Newman book is a bit like gobbling a delicious box of holiday chocolates: the writing is always rich with tasty anecdotes. The former Maclean's editor's phrases have a way of tickling the senses, and once you begin, it's often impossible to stop until you reach the very end." The Georgia Straight
"Verbally brilliant and devastating...colourful, highly readable." The Intelligencer (Belleville)
Other titles by Peter C. Newman
Hostages to Fortune
The United Empire Loyalists and the Making of Canada
Miracle at the Forks
The Museum that Dares Make a Difference
Maclean's on Justin Trudeau
The New Liberal Leader: A Life Lived in the Spotlight
We Gambled Everything
The Life and Times of an Oilman
The Last to Die
Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas, and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada
The Secret Mulroney Tapes
Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister
Here Be Dragons
Telling Tales Of People, Passion and Power