"Right now, Manitoba sends more electricity south than it does east or west," he said. "We need to build a 21st-century, west-east energy corridor."
Speaking to a joint luncheon of the Manitoba and Winnipeg Chambers of Commerce, Mr. Ignatieff showered the audience with compliments about the province and the West's role as "the beating heart of the 21st-century Canadian economy."
It was Mr. Ignatieff's first official visit to Manitoba as Leader of the Opposition.
In recent weeks, he has stopped in each of the prairie provinces in an attempt to boost his party's anemic performance in the last election. The Liberals hold just two seats between the Rockies and the Ontario border.
"I know we have a tough challenge in Western Canada," he said. "I'm not in a delusional state here. But I know we've had seats here before, I know we can get seats back."
Mr. Ignatieff spent much of the 25-minute speech lambasting Stephen Harper's Conservative government for its handling of the recession. He cited former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge's comments earlier that Canada and the world are facing a long, deep recession that will alter the nature of capitalism.
"Stephen Harper just doesn't get this aspect of it," he said. "The Canadian people don't trust this government and we're going to put [them] on probation. So I'm the self-designated probation officer for the Prime Minister of Canada. And I'm going to watch him closely."
The talk carried elements of a stump speech. Mr. Ignatieff expressed support for the expansion of Winnipeg's airport and promised to help the province's rapidly growing aboriginal population.
But his pledge to build a new energy corridor stirred the most interest.
Manitoba's NDP government has been asking for federal support to construct a power link with Ontario for years. Mr. Ignatieff became more resolute in backing its construction after meeting with Premier Gary Doer earlier.
Listening in the audience, Winnipeg Conservative MP Steven Fletcher wasn't convinced of Liberal Party support for such a project, noting that Mr. Ignatieff's foreign affairs critic, Bob Rae, cancelled a contract that would have led to the construction of a west-east power corridor when he was premier of Ontario 17 years ago.
"He talks about energy, but it was his lieutenant who cancelled Conawapa, which would have provided almost 1,500 megawatts of power to Ontario. So there is just no connection between the Liberal Party and Manitoba."
After the speech, Mr. Ignatieff said the corridor would be part of a new energy strategy that would exert more federal influence over how the provinces develop energy resources.
"We have left it to the provinces, in a deregulated market, to basically sell power south," he said. "We have no national strategy on this."
He later took pains to distance his strategy from prime minister Pierre Trudeau's failed national energy program. "Not going there," he said. "Tried that disaster. I mean a national vision for how we want energy to develop over the next 25, 30 years."