SHAWINIGAN, Que. — Michael Ignatieff got a quick lesson on the fundamentals of Canadian politics from an old master Thursday — starting with an authentic Shawinigan handshake.
The Liberal leader was greeted during a stop in Shawinigan, Que., by the town’s most famous resident: Jean Chrétien.
The former prime minister pretended to give Ignatieff the same choke hold he once laid on a protester and famously named in honour of his home town.
The men were chatting casually Thursday, settling in to watch a film about the history of energy production in Shawinigan.
Suddenly, Chrétien lunged toward Ignatieff’s throat and sent the current Liberal leader flinching backward in astonishment. A split-second later both men were chuckling over the gag.
“Makes a picture, eh?” Chretien quipped, as they were surrounded by news cameras. “It’s the Shawinigan handshake.”
Ignatieff then told his predecessor, “Show me.” So Chretien offered a more elaborate demonstration by pretending to throttle an old friend: Liberal MP Justin Trudeau.
Ignatieff later joked that he’s slowly learning the martial-arts political manoeuvre.
“It’s a complicated concept that I’m beginning to grasp thanks to the expertise of the master,” Ignatieff quipped to a group of supporters.
Taking the adversary by the throat is exactly what the Liberal braintrust wants Ignatieff to learn to do on his cross-country tour this summer.
The Liberals have lagged behind the Tories in the polls for months, despite a rash of controversies being weathered by Stephen Harper’s government.
Ignatieff’s tour of the barbecue circuit is being billed as a way for the Grit leader to dispel impressions he’s an aloof academic, and get comfortable on the campaign trail.
What better way, say his spin doctors, than by rolling up the sleeves and getting in touch with the party’s grassroots supporters.
On Thursday, he hung out with a guru of folksy politics.
“You have to be close to the people,” Chrétien said when asked what advice he had to offer his Liberal heir.
“(This bus tour’s) a good initiative and I’m encouraging him.”
Chretien noted that when he was an opposition leader he, like Ignatieff, was dismissed by more than a few pundits — and then went on to win three consecutive majority governments.
He expressed sympathy for the Opposition leader’s present plight.
“It’s the most ungrateful job you can have,” Chretien said. “You’re outside of what’s happening and the press doesn’t give you the attention you deserve.”
The ex-prime minister also dismissed suggestions he’s been making mischief for Ignatieff. Much of Chretien’s inner circle supported Bob Rae for the party leadership in 2006 and, lately, both he and Rae have been talking up the prospect of co-operating with the NDP.
That issue has caused Ignatieff some political discomfort, coming after he’s repeatedly tried to put to rest the notion that he’s hatching some sort of coalition scheme with the NDP.
But Chretien said such merger talk is no big deal. He noted that Justin Trudeau’s dad — former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau — once offered a formal role in his majority government to then-NDP leader Ed Broadbent.
“I’ve told everyone, I’ve talked about this 122 times,” Chretien said.
“It dates back to 1956. (Former prime minister) Louis St. Laurent talked about it.”
Ignatieff acknowledged that even though Chretien has long since left public office, he’s still not shy about sharing his opinions.
“He’s given me advice since I’ve been in politics,” Ignatieff said. “Sometimes I take it, sometimes I don’t.”
Thursday’s event was designed to showcase the unity between Liberal leaders past and present.
Chretien took Ignatieff on a tour the Shawinigan energy museum. From the 35-storey observation tower, he offered a quick history lesson on the area, even pointing out the factory where his father worked.
Ignatieff was asked later what he could learn from Chretien: “Oh, just about everything,” he replied.
“This is the master of Canadian politics,” he said. “This is the guy who did it all. This is the guy who climbed every mountain. It’s just an honour to be with him here.”
And, seven years into his political retirement, Chretien still benefits from a level of attention that would be the envy of an opposition politician.
At times during Thursday’s news conference, the old prime minister politely handed the microphone over to Ignatieff to give him a little additional stage time.
It was a news conference where seven questions were directed at the retired politician, while the current one got three.