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In Depth

Liberal Party

Stéphane Dion, inconspicuous achiever

Last Updated October 2007

Stéphane Dion positioned himself on the environment. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Shortly after he became Liberal Party leader on Dec. 2, 2006 — a feat that shocked nearly every political pundit in the land — Stéphane Dion allowed that he has a "personal weakness."

That personal weakness, he said, "is to be underestimated. But at the same time, it is my strength."

Being underestimated was certainly part of his ascension to the Liberal leadership: He finished third with less than 18 per cent of the vote on the first ballot and then methodically vaulted his way past the two star candidates ahead of him, former Ontario premier Bob Rae (an NDP convert) and MP and international human rights expert Michael Ignatieff, both of whom had considerably more backing from the party establishment.

Being underestimated was also an element in Dion's introduction to official Ottawa. He arrived in the capital courtesy of a byelection in March 1996 along with another young Quebecer, Pierre Pettigrew. This was only months after the dramatic Quebec referendum in 1995 that saw the federalist side eke out a win by the smallest of margins.

Dion and Pettigrew were to be part of the fresh blood former prime minister Jean Chrétien was bringing in to shore up the federalist forces. But from the outset, it seemed that Dion was something of a fish out of water: His English was poor, he walked the corridors of Parliament Hill with a backpack like some kind of grad student and his unflinching federalism grated on many in Quebec, where he was attacked mercilessly in the press.

(Walking everywhere is more than a nod to the environment or even fitness: Dion is colour blind and doesn't see reds and greens well, so he doesn't often drive, although he does have a licence, he told Maclean's magazine recently.)

Still, Dion quietly persevered. Named Chrétien's minister of intergovernmental affairs, he launched a letter-writing campaign to newspapers to challenge the nationalist views in Quebec on almost every conceivable issue and his determined (some said intellectually unforgiving) style in cabinet eventually forced through the 2000 Clarity Act to set strict federalist ground rules in the event of another Quebec referendum.

Adopted over the (behind-the-scenes) objections of such stalwarts as then finance minister Paul Martin, the Clarity Act has stood the test of time and earned Dion a reputation for courage and integrity, at least in English Canada.

Family name

When Dion arrived in Ottawa in 1996, he brought some name recognition and an academic resumé but not much else. The name recognition came courtesy of his father, Léon Dion, a noted Quebec political scientist and federalist (although by the post-Meech Lake period in the mid-1990s, like many Quebecers, he was wavering).

A formidable figure in Quebec, Léon Dion was a vigorous opponent of the authoritarian Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis as well as Quebec's "priest-ridden" society. He also seemed to be a fairly liberal parent on the home front.

Dion grew up Catholic in a suburb of Quebec City but he has told interviewers that his family was really rather secular in its outlook. The family often went skiing instead of to church on Sundays, to the consternation of many of the neighbours. His Paris-born mother told the Globe and Mail that she had been criticized for not wearing a hat to church and not long after that the family stopped attending regularly.

And Stéphane himself does not appear to be particularly religious. He only married his wife, political scientist Janine Krieber, so they could adopt a daughter, Jeanne, from Catholic Peru in 1988. Before that the two had lived together, like so many Quebecers of their generation, for almost 10 years — from when they were students at Laval, through four years of graduate work at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (he graduated in 1986 with a doctorate in sociology), to the start of their academic careers in Montreal and, for her, Quebec City. Dion's academic work has mostly been as a cold-eyed analyst of bureaucracies and public administration and he is not a particular fan of institutions, religious or otherwise. As his wife, Janine, told an interviewer, for her husband "all that exists is the individual. Everything else is a social construction, hence does not exist."

Political formation

As it turns out, Dion was out of the country (in Paris and Washington, on a sabbatical) during the 1980 Quebec referendum and the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord a decade later. He told one interviewer that he felt indifference over the referendum vote, it didn't affect him one way of the other. He seemed to feel the same about the collapse of Meech, which created paroxysms of anger within Quebec and led to the formation of the Bloc Québécois.

But asked to write about the Quebec situation and the prospect of independence for an American publication, Dion sat down at his computer and developed a theme — the economic and human rights benefits for Quebec within Confederation — that made him realize he was a federalist. From that point, he never wavered, though it is probably not correct to call him an unreconstructed Trudeau federalist.

Indeed, when Eddie Goldenberg, Chrétien's right-hand man, called Dion to sound him out about running, he was treated to a typically tart Dion-style scolding: "I have also heard of you,'' Dion told Goldenberg over the phone. "Apparently you are an unreconstructed Trudeauite, a centralist, and completely inflexible.''

As a teenager, Dion had flirted with the René Levesque revolution and the Parti Québécois. But his undergraduate thesis ended up as a strong critique of the PQ's strategy for independence. Despite this, though, Dion seems to have been mostly indifferent when it came to Canada-Quebec politics, at least until the post-Meech period, when he started to focus more on what was going on.

His writings in the early 1990s brought him to the attention of Chrétien and led eventually to the invitation to join the Liberal cabinet, the creation of the Clarity Act and the decision to test the act before the Supreme Court of Canada in a reference. The Clarity Act, which can be said to be based on a similar bill first put forward by then Reform MP Stephen Harper in 1996, requires among other things a clear, unambiguous question and result before Ottawa would even begin to consider negotiating the breakup of the country.

The development of this legislation and the constant pressure to sell its merits clearly sharpened Dion's sense of the country but it also cost him in Quebec. His father Léon admitted in the mid-1990s that he was becoming something of a "tired federalist." Stéphane, the late separatist and wit Pierre Bourgault retorted, was merely "a tiresome federalist."

Still, his position on federalism may not be fully understood in Quebec. For while he is a strong opponent of Quebec independence and the arguments of the nationalists, ridiculing them with cheerful scorn, he is also a strong proponent of the idea that one level of government should not meddle in the other's jurisdiction, a watertight theory of federalism that has much support in Quebec.

The cabinet table

Dion stayed in the Chrétien cabinet as intergovernmental affairs minister until December 2003, when he was dropped by the new prime minister, Paul Martin. Martin had just named former Liberal MP Jean Lapierre his minister for Quebec so the new prime minister was clearly looking for a new approach. Lapierre had just returned to the Liberals after bolting to the Bloc following the collapse of the Meech Lake accord.

But after the Liberals were re-elected with only a minority, Dion was brought back to cabinet as environment minister in July 2004, where he served for almost 19 months before the Liberals were ousted in January 2006.

Having served both Chrétien and Martin loyally obviously helped Dion in his quest for the Liberal leadership. He was seen as a bridge-maker between the two warring factions of the party and also as a loyal lieutenant who had paid his dues.

His cabinet credentials, however, did catch him up in a minor way at the Gomery inquiry. Dion testified he was aware of the unusually large amounts of money going to Quebec under the sponsorship program but he knew nothing about the way the program was administered and said he had been critical from the outset of the idea that it would do anything to sway the minds of Quebecers.

Justice John Gomery accepted that evidence and Dion was not criticized in any way by the report. After becoming Liberal leader, Dion did briefly question Paul Martin's lifetime ban of legendary Quebec organizer Marc-Yvan Coté, who had been caught up in the scandal. But he quickly backed away from that position when the media continued to press him on it.

The environment

Dion became minister of the environment well after Canada ratified the Kyoto accord in 2002 but he was responsible for moving forward with the implementation plan and also shepherding Canada into the second round of Kyoto cuts, which are to take place after 2012.

In office, Dion was clearly very supportive of the Kyoto plan. He also made the environment the centrepiece of his leadership campaign and owns a Siberian husky he has named Kyoto. The Liberals set aside a five-year, $10-billion environmental fund to deal with Kyoto but how far along they were in implementing this plan is open to much political debate. Under the Liberal watch, greenhouse gas emissions rose at least 24 per cent over their levels in the target year of 1990. What's more, former environment commissioner Johanne Gélinas criticized Dion when he was minister for his handling of the Kyoto file and also national parks.

At the same time, the Conservatives have recently begun resurrecting key elements of the old Liberal environment plan, such as the grants for sustainable technology, as they have moved to an election footing.

Since becoming leader, Dion forced a non-binding resolution through the Commons calling on the Conservative government to abide by the Kyoto accord, although how the major parties intend to do this and by what timelines will no doubt be crucial parts of the campaign debates.

Dion's ministerial green plan in April 2005 was still heavily weighted on consultation and non-binding agreements among the different energy and industrial sectors. At that point, the Liberals were not ready to wave the big regulatory stick. And Dion's preference has been for what he has repeatedly called a "three-pillar approach," in which government decisions are made by taking into account their economic, social and environmental considerations.

This is a change from previous Liberal government policy in that it includes the environment or the concept of sustainable development in the mix. But here again, Dion's position is rather nuanced.

As environment minister, he tried to develop a non-confrontational approach to industry and big polluters. In one of his first speeches in the portfolio, for example, he praised Alberta's booming oilsands and energy sector as "a tremendous blessing for Canada."

Liberal By-election defeat

In September 2007 the Liberal party suffered a solid defeat to the NDP party in a Quebec by-election in the Montreal riding Outrement, held consistently by the Liberals since the riding's creation in 1935.

The Liberals also fared poorly in two other Quebec by-elections, losing to the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois.

Criticism from within the party that Dion chose weak candidates to run in the Quebec byelection only bolsters party rival and leadership runner-up Michael Ignatieff, and raises concerns over Dion's ability to lead the Liberals to an election victory.

The 2006 Liberal leadership race was close, leaving the party divided between the victorious Dion and deputy party-leader Ignatieff. Both hold strong support bases within party ranks.

Being elected party leader while the Liberals are in opposition holds mixed results.

Both Edward Blake, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in his first election, lost to Sir John A. MacDonald. However, Alexander Mackenzie, William-Lyon Mackenzie-King and Jean Chretien all won majority victories after inheriting opposition party status.

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