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Iggy to Harper: ‘You have failed us. And if you can’t unite Canadians... we can’

In his first speech as Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff presented a vision of Canada as a “knowledge society” with a “moral purpose” to teach tolerance and diversity to the world.

“You can feel a longing for change sweeping across the land. A longing for a new politics that replaces spite and spin with civility and common purpose. A longing for us to lead and not follow on the world stage. A longing for us to come out of this crisis more competitive than ever. And a longing for us to be the most adventurous and entrepreneurial people on the face of the planet,” Ignatieff said.

Though he gave no hint as to when an election might be called, Ignatieff left the crowd of more than 2,000 Liberal partisans at the Vancouver Convention Centre no doubt about his electoral ambitions.

“I want to speak directly to Stephen Harper,” Ignatieff said.

“For three years, you have played province against province, group against group, region against region, and individual against individual. When your power was threatened last November, you unleashed a national unity crisis and you saved yourself only by sending Parliament home,” he said.

“M. Harper, vous ne comprenez pas le Canada,” Ignatieff continued.

“You have failed to understand that a Prime Minister of Canada has one job and one job only, which is to unite the people of this country,” he said.

“Mr. Harper, you have failed us. And if you can’t unite Canadians, if you can’t appeal to the best in all of us, we can.” Ignatieff repeated the “we can” catchphrase several times, as did the enthusiastic crowd.

Ignatieff was nominated by his old friend and former leadership rival, MP Bob Rae. And his speech was introduced by MP Justin Trudeau, the son of the late former Prime Minister who Ignatieff frequently credits for inspiring his commitment to the Liberal Party of Canada.

Trudeau announced Ignatieff received 97-per-cent support from the voting delegates.

Ignatieff’s speech followed an emotional video tribute that included numerous photographs of him alongside US President Barack Obama. The video called for a multi-ethnic Canada “led by someone who can advance Canada’s role in the world.”

The political speech was mostly policy free, but did advocate a national standard for Employment Insurance.

Ignatieff’s vision for a “knowlege society” stood at the heart of the speech.

“A knowledge society - where every child gets an equal start with world-class early learning and childcare. Where women get equal pay for work of equal value. Where every student who gets the grades gets to go to the best higher education in the world,” he said, to rousing applause.

“In the union hall, in the lecture hall, in the concert hall, wherever one Canadian is teaching another to do something they never thought possible, there a far-sighted government must be to provide the resources to help everyone realize their full potential,” he said.

“If you ask what I want for Canada, it is this: that we surprise ourselves. That we astonish ourselves. And that we astonish the world.”

He pointed to a program at the University of Victoria, where scientists are studying the ocean floor.

“The country that leads in ocean science today will lead in the green jobs of tomorrow,” Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff also proclaimed his intent to support an active Canadian military. He described his work as a journalist, reporting from Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

“I worked in countries torn apart by hatred. When I came home I realized that in a world ravaged by hatred, we do remain a light unto the nations,” he said. “And this is the moral purpose of our country: to teach tolerance, diversity and citizenship to a troubled and sometimes tormented world.”

And he returned several times to his central theme: Unity.

“We can make our people the best educated and most entrepreneurial on earth. We can do this. We can,” he said. “We are more than the sum of our parts, and we deserve a government that does not make us feel any less than a great people.”

Monte Paulsen reports for The Tyee. Garrett Zehr also contributed to this report.

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