Campaign 2004

BACK TO THE FOLD?

Pushed out of cabinet, Stéphane Dion has hit the road to help the Liberal cause, reports PAUL WELLS

PAUL WELLS June 21 2004
Campaign 2004

BACK TO THE FOLD?

Pushed out of cabinet, Stéphane Dion has hit the road to help the Liberal cause, reports PAUL WELLS

PAUL WELLS June 21 2004

BACK TO THE FOLD?

Trail Mix

Pushed out of cabinet, Stéphane Dion has hit the road to help the Liberal cause, reports PAUL WELLS

PAUL WELLS

MOST CAMPAIGNS start to get weird by the time they’re half done. Candidates get groggy, polls show surprises, the best-laid plans go wheeling out the window in favour of improvisation that’s sometimes inspired, sometimes not. All of which may help explain

what Stéphane Dion was doing standing in a Manitoba schoolyard last week.

The population of the rural Provencher riding elected a Liberal, David Iftody, in 1993 and 1997, but that is regarded by locals as a bit of a fluke. Few observers doubt the riding’s Conservative incumbent, Vic Toews, will keep Provencher after the June 28 election.

Still, in a campaign where Liberals have had a hard time catching a break, Dion—the bookish former intergovernmental affairs

Martin no longer has the luxury of picking and choosing whose help he’d like

SOME assumed that Dion’s brightest days in politics were behind him. But then the campaign took a scary turn.

minister who was unceremoniously removed from cabinet when Paul Martin became PM—was game to help where he could. About one-eighth of Provencher’s residents are francophone; Franco-Manitobans are as reliable a Liberal clientele as any in the country.

Stéphane Dion was here to call them home.

A few dozen voters had come out to the schoolyard in the town of Lorette to hear Dion.

Grey-haired but still boyish in a navy suit, the former minister asked the little crowd whether he could speak to them without the mike provided. No, they said, use it. He shrugged, retreated a few steps to the podium from which the local candidate, a bright young lawyer named Peter Epp, had introduced him. From there he peered at his audience.

“I feel very distant from you,” he said in French. “But in the end, we’re all very close.”

Dion’s message, which he would repeat later in St. Boniface, another riding with a concentrated Franco-Manitoban population, was simple: Liberals believe in providing services to francophone populations in places like Lorette. The Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, has in Dion’s estimation been a late and reluctant convert to the cause.

“Before Mr. Harper became leader he was very frank,” Dion said. “He didn’t believe in official bilingualism at all. Now all he does is mumble, I’ll leave in place the law that’s there.’

That’s not enthusiastic.” If tiny outposts of French Canada are to survive and thrive, Dion said, they need Liberals in Ottawa. “The francophone vote must get out very strongly, everywhere. I don’t need Vic Toews in Ottawa. I need Peter Epp.” Dion paused. His next point would need to be delicately

finessed. “Peter tells me he doesn’t speak much French.” Hmm. “But he believes in the cause!”

The ex-minister’s little homily ended. Polite applause from a crowd that really didn’t need much convincing. Dion scrummed with reporters. He stood patiently next to a satel-

lite truck for 20 minutes, swatting at clouds of mosquitoes, until the local Radio-Canada TV station was ready to interview him. He went doorknocking for an hour in the town, pausing at one point to stride into a bingo hall and urge the impatient and distracted gamblers to

vote for Epp, who after all is playing the sort of odds they are familiar with.

“May the best man or woman win,” he said as he handed the microphone back to the bingo caller. “At bingo, I mean!”

Even a man whose career has taken as many odd turns as Dion’s cannot have imagined fate would land him in the middle of a campaign this strange. The former Université de Montréal prof was plucked from academe at the beginning of 1996 to help Jean Chrétien set a more assertive course in the federal government’s confrontation with Quebec separatists. He fought in two national campaigns that saw the Chrétien Liberals say and do everything you’re not supposed to do to win votes in Quebec—yet the Liberal vote grew in Quebec all the same.

Then came Martin. Dion’s considerable esteem for the former finance minister doesn’t seem to have been requited. Martin dumped him to the backbench in his first cabinet shuffle. Jean Lapierre, the new boss’s new star Quebec candidate, promptly declared Dion’s crowning legislative achievement, the Clarity Act, “useless.”

For a while it was fashionable to assume Dion’s brightest days in politics were behind

him. But suddenly the campaign has taken a scary turn for Liberals. Martin doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing whose help he’d like. Dion is visiting several provinces to shore up precisely the sort of Liberal audiences Martin once thought he could take for granted.

Chatting with reporters, Dion swatted away more mosquitoes as well as any suggestion that he ever fell out of favour with the Martin regime—or that he’s touring now so he might get back into cabinet later. “I wasn’t pushed aside,” he said. “I’m here now. And I’ll do everything I can so that Paul Martin, the best finance minister in the history of the country, can serve Canada as prime minister.” lí1]

STILL UNDECIDED? FOR FURTHER ELECTION COVERAGE, MORE POLITICAL PHOTOS AND OUR PROMISE COUNTER, VISIT WWW.MACLEANS.CA/ELECTION2004.

HE WAS plucked from academe in 1996 to help the government set a more aggressive course against separatists