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Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae in the Students’ Administrative Council office, housed in the historical Stewart Observatory
Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Photo by Susan King

Michael Ignatieff & Bob Rae

Friends vied for the campus spotlight as student activists in the 1960s

“His life is the road I didn’t take,” says Michael Ignatieff (BA 1969 Trinity, DLitt Sac Hon. 1999) of his close friend Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario.

Thanks to a friendship between their diplomat fathers, George Ignatieff (BA 1936 Trinity) and Saul Rae (BA 1936 UC), the two men knew of each other before they met as intellectual rivals at U of T and sparring partners on the Hart House debating floor. “Our fathers were friends and rivals, too,” says Ignatieff, “so our friendship feels like a tribal friendship, between families.”

On campus, the younger Rae (BA 1969 UC, LLB 1977, LLD Hon. 1999) and Ignatieff vied for the spotlight as student activists, Varsity writers and political thinkers, and in the process became close friends, sharing an apartment on Bloor Street in their fourth year. “It was a lively place,” says Rae. “We had a lot of friends over. The best friends I have, for the most part, are from that time, and they influenced me profoundly. Michael’s skepticism about big political theories, along with a lot of other people’s skepticism, affected my view of social democracy and perhaps tempered some of my enthusiasms in a helpful way.”

“He really was the most clever guy I knew in my undergraduate years,” says Ignatieff. “I always feel quite tongue-tied in his presence because he’s so verbally acute, quick and funny.”

But while Rae, the social democrat, opted for politics, Ignatieff, the liberal, carved out a career as an academic, writer and political commentator. “I’m the thinker, and he’s the doer,” says Ignatieff. “The doer always knows more about what’s possible politically. If he had gone into the Liberal party, there’s no limit to what he could have done. That he went into the NDP put a ceiling on how far he could go. He taught me a lot about conviction and paying the price of conviction.”

Since university, the two have never lived in the same country at the same time, yet they have managed to sustain their connection for more than 30 years with phone calls, family vacations and passing-through-town dinners. “When you’re in that position [as premier], it’s hard to have friendships,” says Ignatieff. “I think he liked the fact that I was in London [England] and not in the loop, though our friendship is not confessional. Bob is not a confessional guy.”

“When I was premier, he’d visit and we’d go out for dinner,” says Rae. “I was able to put what I was going through into a broader context.. It allows you to see things differently, to put the successes and failures into a context that makes them both more bearable.. There are friends who know you behind the image.that’s helpful. They value other aspects of you.”

“That competitive thing is probably sublimated somewhere,” Rae admits, “but we’ve never let it get in the way of our friendship..”

“He went into politics, and I went into writing,” says Ignatieff. “‘He knew me when’ is the rationale for our friendship, the emotional continuity.. It’s about a good joke that starts when you’re 18 and is still going at 55.”

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