Saturday, March 19, 2011

What I Learned From Michael Ignatieff's Father

In response to the continued barrage of attack ads that paint Michael Ignatieff as an opportunist ... not in it for us .... blah, blah, blah, he has made a video invoking memories of his father, a Russian immigrant.

I have a confession to make.

I first grew to respect Michael Ignatieff, after reading his Rights Revolution and Blood and Belonging, but then I read his dad's memoirs (1), and I absolutely fell in love. What a kind and gracious man. If his son is half what his father was, we are in good hands.

Naturally, the right-wing attack machine went into high gear suggesting that George Ignatieff was not the typical immigrant. That he was wealthy because he descended from the Russian royal family. Only the Royal Family connections are true.

As a victim of communism, his family was stripped of their wealth. They were refugees in the same way that all refugees are, who seek a safe haven in this country.

The following is from his official government bio. 'Peacemonger' was the name given him by the media because of his devotion to seeking peaceful solutions to conflict. (1)

George Ignatieff: Peacemonger

George Ignatieff (1913–1989), one of Canada’s most celebrated diplomats and a man devoted to the cause of peace, was among the comparatively small number of Russian newcomers who landed on Canadian shores in the 1920s. Ignatieff, whose father was a famous Russian aristocrat, was born in St. Petersburg on 16 December 1913. Within a few brief years, the Russian Revolution and civil war had put an end to his sheltered childhood and the wealth and privileges enjoyed by his family. His public–spirited and highly respected father, once an education minister under the Czar, was arrested and jailed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but then was miraculously released in time for the family to escape to England.

In England, the neophyte émigrés operated a dairy farm. Young George attended St. Paul’s, a boarding school, until the sale of the farm forced the family to move once again. While his father tried to raise funds in Europe for Russian refugees, Mrs. Ignatieff set out in 1928 with George and his brother, Leonid, for Canada, where two other brothers of George’s, Nick and Jim, had already settled. Although there was barely enough money for basic necessities, George’s resourceful mother managed to squeeze enough out of the household budget to send her young son to Montreal’s exclusive Lower Canada College. The stock market crash of 1929, however, put an abrupt end to George’s private–school education. With the advent of the Great Depression, Ignatieff and the rest of his family united under one roof in Thornhill on the northern outskirts of Toronto ....

This photograph was from Life Magazine when George Ignatieff represented Canada at the UN. Remember the UN? Canada used to be respected there.

He was once the provost of Trinity College and you can read that bio here. And I wrote a bit on Michael Ignatieff's family history here.

George's father had been the Minister of Education in Russia, and was slated for execution. I wrote:

'On September 6, 1918, 25 armed men entered the home of Count Pavel Nikolayevich Ignatiev and his wife Princess Natalya Meshcherskaya. Pavel was arrested and held with counter-revolutionary prisoners, all slated for execution. He had been the education minister at the Imperial Court, but was a Ukranian farmer of some means. Against the protests of her family and friends, Natalyan followed her husband demanding his release. But it wasn't until a geography teacher heard that Pavel had been arrested and was being held that his luck changed. The teacher, remembering that Pavel had been instrumental in improving the educational system in the country, organized a student protest and as a result the ailing Pavel was allowed to return to his family. However, they were constantly tormented. Their home was looted seventeen times, the final government sanctioned robbery netting what was left in their children's dresser drawers.' (2)

Harper may have made a mistake with those attack ads, because it's opened the door for Michael Ignatieff to tell his story, and it is an impressive one.

I think we should listen to it.

1. The Making of a Peacemonger: The Memoirs of George Ignatieff, By Sonja Sinclair, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0-8020-2556-0

2. The Russian Album, By: Michael Ignatieff, Penguin Books, 1987, ISBN: 978-0-14-317165-2, Pg. 153-162


  1. I new George Ignatieff while I was serving on the Governing Council of U. of T. as a graduate student representative. He was a warm and engaging man, and tended to vote more progressively on issues than many of his highly conservative colleagues on Council.

    John Lewis Grant

  2. Thank you John. After reading his memoirs I grew to respect him as well. Such an interesting family.