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Patrick Luciani: Michael Ignatieff checks his privilege


The Hub’s debut DeepDive took a long hard look at Canadian happiness. The authors evidently chose their subject well, given the discussion already generated about the article’s most important revelation: Canadian youth are far more unhappy than older age groups. Eric Lombardi, in his subsequent piece examining the data, offers the millennial perspective from the frontlines of the conflict. Boomers, he says, have definitively won the intergenerational war. 

For the boomer side of that story, we can look to Michael Ignatieff who has taken a critical look back at his own life. In a deeply personal essay, “The History of My Privileges,” published in the spring issue of Liberties, Ignatieff, who once led the Liberal Party of Canada (and who I should disclose I know personally), says boomers are now in the process of giving their children the most significant wealth transfer in history; much of it is in real estate and large houses where too many boomers refuse to leave. 

A common perception is that boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, had the good fortune to be born into a thriving economy: jobs were plentiful, housing and education were cheap, and in the process, they seized all the wealth they could. Though this perception is highly exaggerated, we should remember that each generation, including the boomers, played a part in shaping the current state of affairs. For better or worse, each generation grapples with the problems it inherits. Or, as the poet Philip Larkin reminds us, misery is passed from generation to generation. 

Ignatieff looks back over his generation and wonders if he could examine his life, not as an individual but as a cohort member. In trying to do just that, he discovered he wasn’t unique. Many who prospered as he did were mainly male, white, heterosexual, educated, well-housed, and pensioned. Extra fortune was bestowed if favoured with loving families while growing up. These conditions made him what he became: nothing special born in the generation after the war. He was blessed with all these undeserved advantages or accidents of chance and history. 

He then realizes that accidents of time and place have closed his eyes to the struggles of others who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in a prosperous country, in a tree-lined neighbourhood in Toronto, with successful parents, and with the opportunity to get an Ivy League education. From that privileged start, Ignatieff found a fulfilling career as a writer, scholar, and filmmaker, holding prestigious academic jobs and now living in Europe. He and others like him were “wafted along by the greatest boom in the history of the world.” As he says: “Privileges do that to you.”

Ignatieff says that he and those in his circumstances defended their hard work, pointing to the “universities, hospitals, law firms—as meritocracies when they were too often only reserved for people like us.” His cohorts did open up those institutions when challenged to make room for others of different races and classes—if only to make themselves feel better about their inherited advantages. But not everyone with similar privileges finished with successful careers and gold-plated pensions; just as many boomers fell to the wayside, ravaged by the AIDS epidemic and a wildly fluctuating economy that demanded technical skills many didn’t have. 

But just as he feels a sense of both gratitude and guilt, he is also defensive about his generation’s attempts to undo some of the damage they found. To blame boomers for this generation’s problems is as absurd as to condemn those in the ‘30s and ‘40s for the tragedy of the Second World War or the Cold War that followed. Those born in the baby boom years were hardly ignorant of their inherited problems. They started the fight to protect the environment. The current health and exercise craze and second-wave feminism were started in the ‘60s and ‘70s, not the 21st century. Boomers fought against racism and called for social change and human rights. At the same time, the brightest made life-changing medical and technological advances, all under a liberal, rules-based international order. 

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff shares a laugh with local candidate Karen Mock as he has tea with his wife Zsuzsanna Zsohar at a delicatessen, Sunday, May 1, 2011 in Thornhill, Ont., north of Toronto. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press.

And yet it is also true that this era led to the dubious legacy of critical race theory and identity politics, where group rights supersede individual rights. Privileges and power now define the interaction between groups, not the dynamics of politics or economics.  

Ultimately, Ignatieff rids himself of the illusion that the liberal democratic West could spread the freedom we enjoy to others. He blames his privileges for obscuring his view of capital-H History’s direction. He admits he was too North American-centric to see that the world’s capital may be moving from the West to East Asia forever, leaving behind a Europe that looks in rapid decline. 

However, it is hard to believe that without those privileges Ignatieff’s vision would have been any clearer. Those blinkers come with our culture, family circumstances, and zeitgeist. But is it necessary to come clean about one’s advantages in life? There’s an element of noblesse oblige in confessing one’s privileges. But something else is missing in Ignatieff’s lament. 

Rich or poor, immigrants, recent or old, French, English, or First Nations, we are all thrust into History. Many of us who weren’t born here were fortunate to find a country where free markets and the rule of law provided a level of prosperity and freedom unmatched elsewhere—values we tend to malign today. That good fortune was the gift of past generations and entirely undeserved. 

Caroline Elliott: It’s not racist ‘denialism’ to appreciate Canada’s tolerance, despite what the B.C. NDP may say


British Columbia’s NDP government recently introduced their Anti-Racism Act, which sounds well-intentioned enough. After all, racism is an ugly reality that must be countered in Canada, as in all countries.

However, a closer look at the documentation supporting the Act reveals it is based on a divisive ideology that cynically characterizes as “naïve denialism” the idea that we ought to try to reduce racial tensions by building relationships across our differences.

Under the legislation, B.C.’s public bodies (ministries, hospitals, schools and so on) must set race-based hiring and advancement targets based on a regressive worldview that defines people by their identity instead of their ideas, by their appearance instead of their abilities, and by the colour of their skin instead of the content of their character.

The report on a public questionnaire conducted to inform the legislation dismisses any answers that didn’t fit its premise as “denialist,” even when those views were submitted by those identifying as “Indigenous, Black or people of colour” (54 percent of respondents self-identified as “IBPOC,” and 37 percent as “white”).

What’s more, these non-conforming views are seen as something to be taken apart and fixed. As the report notes, “denial of systemic racism was found across ethnicities, suggesting the need for a closer look at foundational drivers of culture, how those persist, and what can dismantle it.”

The report goes on to claim that, in response to the question: “What could the Province do to address systemic racism?” respondents were split between three actions: anti-racism training for public servants, resources for people harmed by systemic racism, and creating a provincial anti-racism strategy (each receiving 18 percent).

However, the actual top response is something ominously labelled “denialism.” Of respondents, 33 percent “demonstrated through their responses denial that racism existed,” far more than the number supporting any one of the top three actions identified. The report acknowledges that “there was a consistent theme of denial of systemic racism and racial trauma across all demographic groups.”

How the government defines such “denialism” is especially troubling. 

One respondent suggested that “…what reduces racial tension and increases interpersonal harmony is promoting openness and people spending time with people who are different from themselves.” This is coded by the report’s authors as “denialism,” and sub-categorized as “naivete.”

Another stated “We are a multicultural society, with diverse populations, where everyone is celebrated. B.C. should focus on preventing and supporting people on the streets with real problems, and not made-up problems like systemic racism.” This is coded as “denialism,” sub-category: “anti-diversity.”

One immigrant’s perspective that “Racism is not an issue in Canada; I have experienced more discrimination in my country of origin than here” is coded as “general denialism.”

The vilification of views that emphasize togetherness, celebrate diversity, and see Canada as a relatively tolerant nation, is indicative of a pernicious cynicism on the part of this government that is already well-established across B.C.’s institutions.

As an example, one needn’t look further than the Vancouver Police Department’s race-based handcuff policy, according to which officers should consider a person’s “ethnicity, or whether they are part of other equity deserving groups” before applying handcuffs.

Many B.C. universities have hiring policies that entirely exclude applicants based on race, and race-segregated spaces have become common. SFU’s Black Student Centre is justified based on calls from students for “different spaces for students who are not white.” 

My own child’s elementary school is plastered with government-produced posters offering “anti-racism reminders,” admonishing kindergartners that “If you are unaware of your privilege, you might be privileged,” and darkly warning that “Racism sometimes hides in politeness.”

And now, B.C.’s Anti-Racism Act will require all public bodies to set race-based recruitment and advancement targets to ensure “racialized individuals” are hired and promoted to senior levels. This is despite studies showing that, when it comes to income, education, occupations and test scores, several racialized groups are doing better than the white population.

A woman holds a sign reading “White Silence =Violence” as thousands of people gather for a peaceful demonstration in support of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and protest against racism, injustice and police brutality, in Vancouver, on Sunday, May 31, 2020. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

While there are certainly populations that are doing worse than others and are thus deserving of special attention, many of the racialized groups targeted by these policies are already seeing well-earned success on their own merit. The legislation ignores this, dividing the British Columbians into oppressors (white people) and the oppressed (everyone else), regardless of real disparities within those groups.

(Interestingly, the government does not define the word “racialized” in the legislation, but UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Glossary defines “racialized people” as, essentially, anyone who is not white.

It’s not politically easy to oppose a carefully-labelled Anti-Racism Act. But, despite its nice-sounding title, it is grounded in a radical perspective that vilifies hope for harmony as naïve, the celebration of all cultures as anti-diversity, and appreciation of Canada’s tolerance as denialism.

If it’s serious about combatting hate, the B.C. government should stop trying to find it in bona fide sentiments like these and instead condemn the blatant hatred regularly spewed against the Jewish community in its own capital. (It won’t, though, because this issue doesn’t neatly fit its oppressor/oppressed binary).

Inclusion will never be achieved through exclusion, nor cohesion through segregation, nor harmony through resentment. With further entrenchment of this insidious ideology, we’ll be left more divided than ever.