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Last Updated: Monday, 23 January 2006, 01:12 GMT
An unlikely Canadian candidate
By Sarah Shenker
BBC News website, Toronto

Michael Ignatieff
Michael Ignatieff faces a close race but insists he will win
On the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario, in a former bank covered with posters screaming his name, one of the Western world's most-noted intellectuals is sitting down to a dinner of ham and potatoes.

It is a long way from Harvard for Michael Ignatieff, former Carr professor of the Practice of Human Rights and director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at the university.

But the 58-year-old Canadian says his presence here as the ruling Liberal Party's candidate in Monday's general election fulfils a long-held ambition.

"At 21, I felt that one day I would like to run for public office, but a funny thing happened on the way," he says in between bites.

That funny thing included a fellowship at Cambridge University, more than 10 books on subjects as diverse as nationalism, his family history and Isaiah Berlin, and a career as a journalist including a stint fronting arts programmes for the BBC.

'Parachuted'

While many of his academic accomplishments seem to have been achieved with effortless ease, his return to Canada after 30 years in exile and candidacy in the constituency of Etobicoke-Lakeshore has not been without difficulties.

Posters for John Capobianco
Opponent John Capobianco has made a strong showing

Mr Ignatieff was picked to run as the Liberal candidate for the heavily industrialised constituency on the shore of Lake Ontario in November last year after the sitting MP announced she would stand down.

The deadline for nominations was set for the day after Jean Augustine's announcement, and Mr Ignatieff's two rivals were controversially disqualified.

Many party members are angry at the way Mr Ignatieff was seemingly parachuted into the seat, neatly bypassing local candidates.

Mr Ignatieff, who now lives in Toronto, does not live in the constituency, although he says he will move there if elected.

At the nomination meeting, the crowd booed and heckled, at one point shouting "American! American!".

The 'unexpected'

Discontent has continued to simmer.

On Friday, one of those who sought the nomination, Ron Chyczij, the former president of the local Liberal Party association, endorsed Mr Ignatieff's main rival, the Conservative candidate John Capobianco.

There is more. The area is home to many Ukrainian-Canadians, and Mr Ignatieff was accused of insulting Ukrainians in his 1995 book on nationalism, Blood and Belonging. A group of angry Ukrainians picketed the offices of the Liberal Party in protest.

I am a loyal party member but not a stupid member. The party let the country down
Michael Ignatieff

And Mr Ignatieff's support for the Iraq war, which he says he backed because of Saddam Hussein's treatment of the Kurds, has pitted him against his own party.

Was he warned about the feelings his candidacy might stir up?

"Politics is the art of managing the unexpected," he says wryly.

It has been a "nasty battle", but the transition from advising world leaders to chatting with Etobicoke residents about their sewers is one he appears to relish.

"The thing I've learned is that the environment, which used to be an issue for Greenpeace types, is going to be the next big mass issue.

"Here you have a national treasure, Lake Ontario, but it smells in the summer and you cannot swim in it," he says.

It is a message he repeats when addressing volunteers on Sunday, the last day of campaigning. His headquarters buzzes with people eating pizza before heading out to knock on doors and distribute glossy leaflets - none of which features the party leader, Paul Martin.

'Beaten up'

Mr Ignatieff has picked a difficult election to run for office. After a series of financial scandals, Mr Martin is deeply unpopular and polls suggest the party will lose Monday's vote to the Conservatives.

Local man Mr Capobianco has made a strong showing with a tight campaign, and Etobicoke-Lakeshore, with a 10,000-vote Liberal majority in 2004, does not seem like such a safe bet anymore.

Michael Ignatieff's campaign office
Canadian media suggest Mr Ignatieff could be a future leader

Mr Ignatieff is aware of voter discontent and has promised to help clean up the Liberal "mess" if elected.

"I am a loyal party member but not a stupid member. The party let the country down," he says. "Additional controls on the political use of money are required."

Canadian media reports suggest he is being considered as a potential party saviour and future leader.

"It is flattering but deeply premature," he says, a phrase he repeats when pressed about his own ambitions.

Mr Ignatieff is also well-rehearsed at brushing aside doorstep criticism that 30 years of exile make him a poor choice to represent Etobicoke residents in parliament.

"The price of expatriation doesn't go down, it goes up," he says. "The price of being a stranger is that you cannot belong to the political class."

"I'm being beaten up for being American but the reason I came home is I didn't like living in the US, because there are no equal rights for lesbians and gays, abortion is not a stable and acquired right and capital punishment is practised in 28 states."

Whether Mr Ignatieff will have the opportunity to air his views in parliament in Ottawa is unclear - it is going to be a close race.

But that has not put him off.

"On Monday, I am going to win," he says. "Our polling data says it, the people say it, my campaign workers say it. And they are smart people."


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