Has Iggy been going to Mackenzie King night school : ethical mining if necessary, but not necessarily, etc, etc?

Oct 29th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief

Canadian-owned San Xavier mine in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, has been “the site of conflict between workers and residents.” One critic explains: “It’s not that Canadian mines are necessarily worse than the mines of other countries — it’s that there are so many more of them.”

Concerns about how “Canada’s mining, oil and gas firms behave ethically abroad” have been a staple of  certain kinds of cocktail party and after-work-drinks conversation for several years now. And testimony from at least some in the field suggest some reasons for concern.

Thus we have just had “Liberal John McKay’s private member’s bill to hold companies to a higher standard overseas” — which was unhappily “shot down in a vote in the [Canadian] House of Commons on Wednesday, thanks to only tepid support from McKay’s caucus colleagues.”

Two Toronto newspapers have raised particular questions about the behaviour of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in this context. See: “Ignatieff’s mixed message on mining leaves Liberal heads spinning” ; and “Ethical mining: What’s Ignatieff’s view?

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff jokes (about Mackenzie King?) with Rita Zerfas at a Tim Horton's in Cambridge, Ontario, July 2010. DAVID BEBEE/WATERLOO REGION RECORD.

The burden of the argument is that Mr. Ignatieff has been talking out of both sides of his mouth at once.

On the one hand “his Whip, Marcel Proulx, was quietly encouraging  Liberal MPs to stay away from the third reading vote Wednesday evening to ensure the bill would be defeated” — and Mr. Ignatieff followed this advice himself (along with a dozen other Liberal MPs in Ottawa).

On the other hand, both before and after the bill’s defeat Mr. Ignatieff’s office issued documents that “seemed to suggest the Liberals were falling in line behind Mr. McKay’s proposal,” and that stressed how “the Liberal Party remains committed to the important principle of corporate social responsibility for Canadian industries at home and abroad.”

Jane Taber at the Globe and Mail has noted that the Liberal leader’s behaviour on the McKay ethical mining bill is “reminiscent of the reversal Mr. Ignatieff made on employment insurance last month … after he had vowed a year before to try to take down the Harper government because it would not make some of the same reforms.”

Protesters oppose harsh actions of local security guards working at Canadian gold mine in Papua New Guinea.

A Toronto Star editorial has urged: “If Ignatieff doesn’t stand with McKay and most of his caucus [on ethical mining], just where does he stand? Canadians need to know.”

You could say that all this just shows the depths of the current troubles of the still declining former natural governing party of Canada, 1896–2004. Michael Ignatieff may be a fine biographer of the great Anglo-Russian political philosopher of contemporary liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, and an excellent BBC radio and television personality and/or Harvard lecturer. But he will never be any kind of successful Canadian practical politician.

On the other hand again, an incurable Liberal optimist might alternatively imagine that while Mr. Ignatieff has spent most of his adult life outside the country of his birth, he has more recently become a late-night student of Canadian political history. His measured yin-yang behaviour on ethical mining may just reflect his growing new tribalist instinct that while something should indeed be done here, such headlines as “Mining bill threatens industry, CIBC says” must also be worked into an effective public policy (especially in the midst of a domestic economic recovery).

Howard Ferguson, Premier of Ontario (left), William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime minister of Canada (centre), and Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, Premier of Quebec (right), at Dominion-Provincial Conference, November 1927.

The 1990s biographer of  Isaiah Berlin, that is to say, has more recently been memorizing the playbook of the most successful Canadian federal politician who ever lived, The Incredible Canadian William Lyon Mackenzie King — grandson of the 19th century rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, Prime Minister of Canada 1921–1926, 1926–1930, 1935–1948, and author of such  visionary concepts as “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” and “no political leader ever got into trouble for not saying something he did not have to say.”

If any of this makes any sense at all, Michael Ignatieff just may finally become the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada, somehow, sometime, etc, etc? (Or not, of course, again. But whatever else, it could be that lately he has at least been trying to behave like a Canadian politician. And he may deserve a little more credit on this front than he seems to be getting, from everyone involved.)

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