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Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff wows young and old alike at Laurentian Valley corn roast

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

LAURENTIAN VALLEY -Michael Ignatieff says the massive leak of classified military documents to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks is "unacceptable," as it will jeopardize the safety of Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and calls on Ottawa to seek answers on the major security breach.

In advance of his visit Monday to the Upper Ottawa Valley, the federal Liberal leader also told The Daily Observer the privatization of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited at Chalk River will cost jobs in the riding.

An enthusiastic crowd of Liberal supporters cheered as the Liberal Summer Express, carrying Mr. Ignatieff, his wife Zsuzsanna Zsohar and a delegation of other MPs, senators and candidates, pulled up to the Sunny Hillcrest Farm, the home of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke candidate Christine Tabbert.

As he stepped off the bus, Mr. Ignatieff received a resounding ovation from Liberal faithful who crowded around the leader of the Official Opposition to shake his hand or pose for a photo with the man who could become Canada's next prime minister.

Shortly before this scene, Mr. Ignatieff spoke briefly with The Daily Observer where he reacted to a question about the WikiLeaks controversy, a matter that the federal government has offered little comment on since 92,000 classified documents, which included patrol reports filed by Canadian troops in Afghanistan, were made public on the website.

While the leak originated with U.S. intelligence services, Mr. Ignatieff said there have been implications, and tough questions should be asked of our allies as to how such a security breach could have happened.

"This is unacceptable and it does put our soldiers on the ground at risk," said Mr. Ignatieff, noting Parliament has agreed to a process where classified military documents, in particular those surrounding the transfer of Afghan detainees, can be reviewed without compromising the military's need for operational security.

Mr. Ignatieff repeated his enormous respect and admiration for Canadian troops at home and abroad, with the former journalist noting he was once "fished out of trouble by a Canadian peacekeeper" while in Bosnia covering a story. He said the Liberal party has presented options for a Canadian assignment in Afghanistan once the combat mission in Kandahar ends in 2011.

"We would consider a training mission for the Canadian Forces, but in Kabul," he said. "We think there is still work to be done there."

He added a Liberal government would review what the military will need in terms of equipment, noting there are scarce dollars to spend on defence. He said there are major questions about the Conservative government's surprise summer announcement to spend $9 billion to purchase 65 new F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets with no debate.

"We want the best equipment for the Canadian Forces but we want good value for our money," remarked Mr. Ignatieff. "We need a national debate on this but do not doubt my party's commitment to a strong national defence."

The Liberal leader took aim at Ottawa's intentions to sell off parts of AECL, blasting the Conservatives' treatment of the crown corporation which has presided over two shutdowns of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River.

"There have been two shutdowns on this government's watch and they had no plan 'B'," he said. "We have to retain Canadian leadership in this industry and there's a strong case for maintaining a government stake."

He directed his sharpest words at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accusing him of all but abandoning Canada's nuclear industry and warning against wholesale privatization of AECL.

"Harper has washed his hands of this and this will sacrifice jobs in this riding," he said.

He also offered words of support for his predecessor, former prime minister Jean Chretien, who had just been discharged from a Montreal hospital following major brain surgery over the weekend.

"He has an amazing appetite for life," said Mr. Ignatieff, who had met Mr. Chretien earlier this summer at his home in Shawingan, Quebec. "Big Jean is back and we rejoice with all Canadians in his recovery."

Later, a beaming Mr. Ignatieff joined Ms. Tabbert as she introduced him to family, friends, supporters and guests. During his two-hour visit, he signed copies of his books, engaged in conversations about the issues of the day and posed for photos with supporters who enjoyed this rare opportunity to meet their leader in person. Ms. Tabbert hosted the traditional corn roast as a venue for not only Liberals but area residents to come meet Mr. Ignatieff.

Speaking to the crowd afterward, Ms. Tabbert said the Liberal Express is presenting a clear alternative to the ruling Conservatives and that it is about building a stronger democracy. She said she was honoured to welcome Mr. Ignatieff to her farm, a place she's called home her whole life, and gave the leader a rousing endorsement.

"Mr. Ignatieff is not shy about hard work, with 20,000 kilometres on that bus and counting. He's someone who is not afraid of debate or discussion," said Ms. Tabbert.

Provoking moments of laughter from the crowd, Mr. Ignatieff showed a flare for self-depricating humour, acknowledging he had "tried to shake every hand in the house and I've tried to kiss every baby who didn't shrink away in horror."

He told supporters the Liberal party has a plan to address the divide between rural and urban Canada, beginning by introducing broadband Internet to under-serviced areas, investing in rural health care and developing a national food policy that will promote Canadian-grown produce.

The purpose of his summer-long tour across the country was to take politics away from "the cynical bubble" in Ottawa and bring it to the people.

"I love politics and I love doing it this way. To listen, to learn, to talk with respect to one another and bring some civility back to politics," Mr. Ignatieff said.

While there are many issues they could call the Conservatives to account for, Mr. Ignatieff challenged his supporters to present a positive vision of a strong, united Canada.

"A political party should draw Canadians together in common vision, common hope and common enterprise," he concluded. "It's to guarantee that all Canadians have a chance at the Canadian dream."

Sean Chase is a Daily Observer reporter