CANADA

Playing hardball

For Canada's unity minister, the rules keep shifting

E. KAYE FULTON January 13 1997
CANADA

Playing hardball

For Canada's unity minister, the rules keep shifting

E. KAYE FULTON January 13 1997

Playing hardball

CANADA

For Canada's unity minister, the rules keep shifting

E. KAYE FULTON

It is a cold and miserable weekday evening, somewhere on the road between Ottawa and yet another speech to save Canada, when Stéphane Dion shifts a political discussion to the merits of baseball. ‘The thing I like about baseball,” says the federal cabinet minister in charge of national unity, peering at the darkness beyond the car window, “is that you have time to think about strategy. It is so individualistic, yet you cannot do anything alone.” Behind him, locked in the trunk of the car, is the leather knapsack that holds the crumpled notes Dion writes to himself to marshall arguments—or points, as he calls them professorially— for keeping Quebec, and every other province, within the Canadian federation. Up ahead, is a roomful of people who are curious to know how he and his Liberal government plan to do it. As if to echo the weight of responsibility he feels those people place upon him and other politicians, Dion explains another fascination with the game. “The accountability in baseball is terrible: everyone knows who to blame. And who is more alone in life than the batter?”

Had he been back in his Université de Montréal classroom, as he often wishes he were, Dion could have applied the baseball analogy to his first year in politics. On a single-minded, and sometimes solitary, quest to win support for constitutional recognition of Quebec as “a distinct society,” the federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs has pitched his vision of national reconciliation with a missionary’s zeal from one end of the country to the other. Initially viewed as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s pet protégé, to the consternation of some of his Liberal colleagues, Dion is also the quiet manipulator behind the primary item on the government’s agenda: to head off Quebec sovereignty with a far-reaching devolution of federal powers to the provinces. Pushing faster and further than many Liberals, including Chrétien, sometimes care to go, Dion argues that changing the structure of Canada—and the very way the country sees itself—is essential to its survival. “We are not governing an ordinary country,” says Dion. “We are governing a great federation that is in danger of collapse.”

But as the political rookie has learned,

this particular playing field comes with an ever-shifting set of rules. Only a year ago, Dion was Chrétien’s unlikely agent provocateur who ruffled separatist feathers and cheered hardline federalists with his contention, backed by earnest recitals of international law, that if Canada was divisible, so too was Quebec. More recently, though, Dion’s cross-country sojourns to meet with premiers and other decisionmakers and his attempts to convince them that formal recognition of Quebec does not confer special status on the province, have fallen largely on deaf ears. “You want to know how cold the water is on the unity file?” asks one provincial official. “Manitoba is not on, Alberta and British Columbia are certainly not on, even [Saskatchewan Premier Roy] Romanow is tepid.” Added another: “Dion actually thinks that if he makes enough trips out to B.C. that he can convince British Columbians that distinct society is good, not only for Quebec but also for them. Excuse me? He’s very naive.”

All the same, Dion refuses to temper his sense of urgency. In fact, little in the last 12 months has budged the opinions of the 41-year-old professor, who vaulted into cabinet last Jan. 25 with the innocent air— complete with campus uniform of duffel coat and knapsack—of a Mr. Smith goes to Ottawa. True, the awkward politician has added partisan gibes to his stolid, statistics-ridden repertoire of federalist bromides that once prompted Bloc Québécois MP Gilles Duceppe to waggishly label him “the apostle of infinite love.” True as well, that recently Dion has begun to grumble in private that precious few “big announcements” are tossed his way to make. But he has not changed his message—the same one he delivered to Chrétien in November, 1995, when, two hours into lunch at 24 Sussex, his argument that Quebec needed substance, not symbols, earned him an invitation to join the cabinet. “It is time, more than ever, to explain why Canada is a great value,” says Dion, “and why Quebecers, who have contributed so much to this model of tolerance, openness and quality, must stay in Canada.”

By any measure, Dion is no ordinary politician. Unlike most who move to Ottawa, he did not seek the job—nor, he insists, does he particularly want to keep it. His own Liberal colleagues cannot decide whether the boyish-looking cabinet minister with the inscrutable reserve and unblinking gaze behind wire-rim glasses is a lightweight with limited relevance or a power player who merely chooses not to flaunt his influence. Predictably, Dion and his demeanor invite comparisons to the more politically adept Pierre Pettigrew, who joined the cabinet at the same time and who was later catapulted into the high-profile human resources portfolio. At the Liberal policy convention in Ottawa last October, Dion engaged in earnest debates with small clusters of Liberals

while the polished Pettigrew, a longtime backroom organizer, worked the party grassroots like a pro in search of votes. “Comparing Dion to Pettigrew,” says B.C. Liberal Ted McWhinney, “is like comparing a Trappist monk to Apollo.”

Far from revelling in party politics, Dion’s free time is spent at home—a semidetached walk-up in downtown Montreal —with his wife, Janine Krieber, a Concordia University political science professor, and their eight-year-old adopted Chilean daughter, Jeanne. For that matter, he would rather listen to flamenco than to partisan banter; rather fly-fish than gladhand. Should Chrétien offer him another cabinet post, he says he would refuse it— but concedes that he would keep his party membership. “I guess I’m one of them now. I guess, I’m not sure,” he says. “In ordinary circumstances, I would not be here.”

Opposition MPs have long since given up trying to bait him. Despite his inexperience at political jousting, Dion’s replies are so implacably consistent that the Bloc studiously avoids him. “At the end of the day,” grouses the Bloc’s Duceppe, “I half expect a history test to land on my desk.” Even his political staff is torn as to whether their boss is politically naïve or simply unassuming. There is certainly evidence that he is stubborn. Aides convinced Dion to replace his trademark knapsack with a more befitting, and secure, government of Canada briefcase. Struggling to open the lock, an exasperated Dion finally handed the case to his executive assistant, Françoise Dueros, who found inside it his trusted knapsack, and nothing else.

Dion himself laughs at his labored metamorphosis from professor to politician. Less than a week after he was sworn into cabinet, Dion’s contention that Quebec was just as divisible as Canada was held up in the media as apparently contradicting Chrétien, who had stubbornly refused to speculate on the issue. The next day, Finance Minister Paul Martin invited Dion to his home in Montreal. “I was miserable. I thought he’d tell me, Tou’re not shaped for politics; why did you do this?’ ” recalled Dion. Instead, Martin laughed. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s politics’—that no one would remember it in two days.”

Uncertain of the proper political conduct in Ottawa, Dion swings from boy scout exuberance during Question Period in the House of Commons to obvious discomfort, even boredom. The real power, he has learned, lies in his role as Chrétien’s trusted voice of warning. Stung by his own misjudgment of the October, 1995, Quebec referendum—he, like Chrétien, had predicted a comfortable federalist win— Dion helped convince the Prime Minister to give the provinces more power over labor and manpower training. Says Queen’s University public policy specialist Tom Courchene: “For 15 years, the focus has been on the Constitution. Now, intergovernmental means federalism, rather than Constitution.” At one point, insiders say, Dion went so far as to suggest that Ottawa withdraw completely from the management of social programs, advice that a horrified Chrétien rejected.

CANADA_

A fearless loner, Dion’s lofty disregard of political fallout keeps seasoned aides scrambling. In Sudbury, Franco-Ontarians bristled at Dion’s lukewarm compliment that francophones outside Quebec were “far from being ‘warm corpses,’ ” as one Quebec writer had suggested. Nor does everyone agree with Dion’s remedy for achieving national unity—or appreciate the way he makes his case. He brusquely told a Calgary businessman who raised Western Canada’s demands for a reformed Senate: “We Quebecers don’t want to hear a word about the Senate.” In Ottawa, Dion was pressed by a member of a minority rights coalition to explain the legal implications of declaring Quebec a distinct society. Dion airily suggested that his questioner “read my speeches.” During a 10minute radio interview last fall, Dion informed his broadcast host that he was wrong—not once, but five times. “Perception is a word you hear a lot in politics,” Dion told Maclean’s. “My word is conviction. Accept that Stéphane Dion will always show conviction and let others push for perception.”

Dion is as blunt with his own party. Liberals of the British Columbia caucus sat stone-faced last fall as their colleague pronounced that Quebec’s distinct society clause took precedence over any other constitutional matter. So, too, did the 96-member Ontario caucus last spring, when Dion in effect ordered them to support legislation that permitted the Newfoundland government to dismantle its religious school system. “He didn’t just lecture us, he hectored,” complained one Liberal MP. “Many of us were not only unpersuaded, we were put off.”

Despite the criticism, Dion insists that his value in Ottawa lies in his ideas—not his delivery of them. His former Montreal university students say that Dion—with a doctorate in political sociology from the Institut d’études politique in Paris, a fellowship at Brookings in Washington and a string of academic research papers—refused to allow political opinion to encroach on his public administration course, even at the height of the referendum campaign. “He never gave his political opinions in class,” recalled graduate Jean-François Giguere. “He told us we had to study situations objectively.” But for Chrétien’s unity salesman, that scholarly detachment no longer fits the game.