It was a pretty special night. William Blake used to say that if a person’s face never gave any light then they could never become a star. If that’s true, Michael Ignatieff hit the big time here in London last night. We knew something special was happening an hour before his town hall when the line-up to the venue wound all the way through the hallway and back to the parking lot. Let’s be clear, Liberals in SW Ontario haven’t been used to this for a while, so they can be forgiven their abundance of exuberance.
London hasn’t been alone in this; other locations on Ignatieff’s campaign tour have reported similar enthusiasm. It’s election time and such things are to be expected. Yet for Liberals these have been a tough few years as the party has sought to reinvigorate itself both privately and in the eyes of the public. Good policy helps, and Ignatieff’s release of initiatives on family care, assisting post-secondary tuition costs, and his announcement on early learning and childcare have definitely put some solid meat on the bones. Attack ads from the Conservatives have caused a dampening effect in how people view the Liberal leader and the only way they could be overcome is for Ignatieff to get out in front of Canadians in an effort to repudiate the fabrications accosting the airwaves about him.
It’s obvious even to journalists that the connection is happening, but they wonder if it will occur quickly enough to swing the electoral vote Ignatieff’s way. He’s definitely at home in front of such crowds and his openness to all questions has been refreshing in contrast to the tight control methods of Stephen Harper.
All of this is known to you and rapidly becoming common wisdom. But last night I witnessed something that caught me off-guard. It wasn’t the warm eloquence of Michael Ignatieff or the enthusiasm of the crowd. Instead, it was the hunger in the young and those older. Admittedly, many who came were Liberals and they’re anxious for some success. Yet a good portion of the crowd were non-Liberal or non-political. They had come to give the Liberal leader the once-over, to gauge for themselves the mettle of the man.
The hunger was best exemplified in the faces of those present. They were tired of the Stephen Harper years, concerned even, but there was a yearning in their shared countenance for something more hopeful. My wife and I gave up our seats at the front to make room for others and made our way through the standing room only crowd into the hallways outside. There, stretched down through the hallway, the overflow crowd were seated, unable to see Ignatieff but determined to sit in their seats and listen to the speaker system as it broadcast his message from inside. We decided to sit with these folks and mingle among them. Always, it was the same. They would shake hands but quickly returned their attention to the voice emanating from the speakers.
We watched on in silence. While people were reacting enthusiastically inside, these folks were intent and focused. It was then that I comprehended it: they were hungry for meaning … and hope. Ignatieff wasn’t standing in front of them to elicit some kind of response. They were sitting quietly by themselves with nothing but audible words filling the air. In a touching way, it reminded me of sitting with my parents as a young boy in Calgary, Alberta, huddled around the radio, and waiting for the Queen’s speech on New Years Day.
Last night’s audience were a people with a collective longing. Their faces revealed clearly that Tory times are hard times. They are beleaguered and pressed down and they want a Canada that can put a spring back in their step. My wife and I placed ourselves at the exit and shook each of their hands as they filed out. Repeatedly, over and over again, they expressed they had come to the meeting skeptical but walked away either moved or convinced that Ignatieff is something real. More importantly, he’s not what the Conservatives have been fibbing about for the last two years. Those quiet words, rather than the melee that had gone on in the meeting room, spoke volumes about these people.
What’s in a face? Well, it depends on what it’s watching. Last night a group of people seating outside the venue had the look of a deeper longing etched on their countenance. That’s what’s different about the Liberal fortunes now as opposed to a year ago. It’s the people who have gone through a quiet and troubled journey, not just the Liberal leader. Ignatieff is more real and personable than they imagined; they are hungry for something better, something less dark, a country of “becoming.” After we shook the hand of the last person, we walked out to the car, both of us comforted in the knowledge that the face of Canada is now yearning for something better. For a brief time last night Canada was not Harper’s but theirs. At last, some hope.