A tall, lanky man with a boyish grin for one second then a lofty scholar lecturing the plebians in the next. The loopy professor who tells jokes that nobody quite gets, and then the fearsome debater who tears opponents to shreds, and loves it. A dove who lugs a backpack to work, but a fox who fought back the Paul Martin heavies trying to throw him overboard. And in last month’s Liberal leadership race, a long odds coaster in the middle of the pack who lunged to win a dramatic photo finish. “Stéphane is one interesting animal to watch,” a former cabinet colleague says. “Dudley DoRight with a lust for the jugular.”
Stéphane Dion’s spectacular victory has sparked a frenzied, gossip-happy quest for colour on this unusual political animal. So, here: he readily admits he has no talent for small talk, and had to work hard to master a basic, essential political skill that seems natural in most of his colleagues—remembering people’s names and faces. His wife, Janine Krieber, says Dion is so clumsy he’s absolutely useless around the house. “He can’t be trusted to change a light bulb, especially halogen.” She runs the household, keeps the books and matches her husband’s clothes for him. Friends say he has an often weird sense of humour—with a knack for absurd jokes à la Monty Python. (He once told his then eight-year-old daughter, out of the blue: “What if what we call the world was only part of a horse’s dream?”) After he lost his job as environment minister to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives last year, he bought himself a white Siberian husky he named Kyoto.
Stéphane Dion is known as a rare bird: a high-profile individual who takes public transit, or walks to appointments. Dion has a driver’s licence and owns a car—a battered looking, all-wheel drive, red Subaru Forester— but he seldom drives it not simply because of environmental concerns but because of eyesight problems. The biggest stunt at the Montreal leadership convention—when the phalanx of Dion supporters showed up on the Saturday morning of the vote, all wearing green T-shirts instead of everybody else’s red—could not be appreciated by Dion himself. He cannot see the difference between red and green—in traffic lights or T-shirts. Stéphane Dion walks everywhere because he is colour-blind.
Dion’s body language screams “nerd,” but he likes to play golf with the guys. He’s a hiker, an occasional skier, a dedicated fly-fisherman who says “fishing is the only time when I can be patient.” Above all, “Stéphane is an original. He has an innovative mind,” says the person who knows him best. And, Janine Krieber adds, “He will always surprise you, and pop up where you expect him the least. That’s what makes him interesting, and so funny in his own way.”
For Dion himself, the most surprising thing about his leadership victory in Montreal on Dec. 2 is that it surprised so many people. His main objective during a recent in-depth interview with Maclean’s was to explain how everything about him—his upbringing, his Ph.D., his scholarly research into the nature of power and the workings of governments, his years in cabinet, then on the backbenches, his struggle to keep his riding—and his wife, a poli-sci Ph.D. in her own right—all combined to make him the best candidate for the post of prime minister. “I am perfectly well-prepared for that job,” he told Maclean’s.
Yet, in the first answer he gave at his first press conference as Liberal leader, Dion made this revealing remark for a new party boss: “I have always been underestimated,” he told TVA’s Lina Dib. “And it has always served me well.”
Stéphane Dion won the Liberal leadership in good part because none of his rivals could figure out in time how to deal with such a political oddball: a cocksure underdog.
The Liberal members in the House of Commons representing the paltry 13 Quebec ridings that elected them last year—the Grits’ weakest showing ever—all hated or resented Stéphane Dion with varying degrees of intensity. No Quebec name was behind Dion’s leadership bid.
He was not popular among his Quebec peers in part because he is much better educated, and clearly more intelligent, than most of them—and he never did much to hide from that view. As well, he worked much harder than most of them. He’d read their reports and briefings books on top of his own—and he’d ask pointed, informed questions during caucus or cabinet meetings that the boss was chairing. Prima donnas really don’t like that. Regular guys don’t, either. But mostly, his colleagues were ill at ease around Stéphane Dion because they couldn’t quite figure him out. He is not your standard politician.
Try atypical instead. “I have known la grande politique—high office—long before I had to learn the street-fighting side of party politics,” Dion says of his topsy-turvy, ass-backwards trek in federal circles. “For most politicians, it’s the other way around.” A total rookie, Dion was vaulted into the stratospheric confines of the Privy Council as unity minister by Jean Chrétien in 1996. Eight years later, he was holed up in his St-Laurent Cartierville riding office, fighting “the Liberal machine” that was plotting to steal his riding away from him, Sheila Copps-style.
The boss of that Liberal machine at the time, Jean Lapierre, is now back on the Montreal radio circuit. Politics is tough everywhere. In Québec, it can get roffe. But Stéphane Dion had been warned.
His father, the late Léon Dion, a political scientist of sterling international repute and a regular adviser to a coterie of Quebec leaders of all stripes, had urged his young, hotshot, media darling of a son to resist the siren song of actual political involvement in the mid-1990s. “All kinds of people will want to define you in all kinds of ways that will not reflect your self or your thoughts,” he warned Stéphane. “You will, forever, be a mere politician for the true scholars, and a mere scholar for the true politicians.”
For good measure, his Parisian-born mother, Denyse—née Kormann—had told him she has seen “very few serene, happy-looking people” among the politicos who wore out the sofas in their home in the Quebec City borough of Sillery, seeking advice from Dion the elder.
But such was Stéphane Dion’s predicament in life that, in order to “become a man,” he had to defy his father, and show him that he had the smarts and the guts to tackle Canada’s national unity problem. “I became involved in politics at quite an early age, out of defiance, actually,” Dion said in the interview. “My father had a considerable influence on me, but I wanted to become a man—and, quite often, the young man has to confront the father to do that. It’s the classic way.”
Since the late 1950s, Léon Dion had been a front-line thinker on this nation’s key existential issue: how to reconcile Quebec’s volatile mix of cultural insecurity and political assertiveness with its minority status in a 10-province federation. But, near the end of his career, the older Dion, a key adviser to Robert Bourassa, blew his scholarly cool after the collapse of the Meech Lake attempt at constitutional reform in 1990. He started calling himself a “tired federalist”— one on the verge of falling for that other siren song all too familiar to Quebec intellectuals: the temptation of separatism.
Later, separatist maverick Pierre Bourgault would call the younger Dion “the tiresome federalist,” but that’s beside the point. The irony, in that episode, is that the Meech Lake thing—calling Quebec a distinct society within Canada, etc.—was a Tory initiative led by Brian Mulroney, and to a degree inspired by Léon Dion. It was shot down in flames by such Liberal icons as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien—later, young Dion’s boss, mentor and political godfather. Stéphane Dion supported Meech, and probably would today. But more about political patricide later.
Boulevard Liegeois, north of the swank Parc Liégeois, Falaise sector north of Sillery, was among the most desirable, but still somewhat affordable, neighbourhoods of Quebec City’s upper town in the early sixties. And the cultural environment in which Stéphane Dion grew up “was extraordinarily rich and stimulating, even if we didn’t fully realize it as kids,” says Mira Falardeau, a Quebec City author whose famous father, sociologist Jean-Charles Falardeau, was a friend and colleague of Léon Dion.
At that time, well-off Sillery burghers drank De Kuyper gin and 7Up, and drove their Chryslers down to Miami. But Dion’s parents, and their friends, travelled and studied in France; they knew the best authors and the artists; they formed a close-knit society of bourgeois bon-vivants, with a mission and permanent jobs. “They were the theoreticians of the Quiet Revolution, the quintessential intellectuels de gauche [reform-minded intellectuals],” Falardeau says. “Theirs were heady times.”
Stéphane Dion never had to go far to meet the intellectual stars, the political heavies and the power brokers of the time. André Laurendeau, Claude Ryan, Jean Marchand, all the premiers of Québec since Jean Lesage in the sixties, and their technocrats—Jacques Parizeau, Claude Morin—would beat a path to boulevard Liégeois for dinner or une veillée, an after-dinner chat, with Léon Dion. “I would hide in a corner, and try and make myself invisible, so I could absorb, take it all in,” Dion says.
He began the first leg of his own political journey by naming his pet turtle Trotsky— and teaching his parrot to repeat i-dé-o-lo-gie— while dabbling in doctrinaire Marxist babble as a long-haired freshman at the Jesuit priests’ elite Collège Saint-Charles-Garnier in Quebec City. But, the better to annoy his old man, he soon evolved into a left-wing separatist, knocking on bourgeois doors on behalf of future PQ cabinet minister Louise Beaudoin in the 1976 election. “He thought René Lévesque was a moderate,” boyhood chum Robert MacKay remembers.
At the time, the family had a sacrosanct ritual—gathering the children around the table for the Sunday meal. There, young Stéphane would try his new political arguments—first, Marxist, then separatist—on his famous father. Léon Dion, a fastidious, stern-looking, soft-spoken man, would usually argue Stéphane’s cue lines into sawdust. “Léon Dion was formidable,” the son says today. “My father reduced my arguments to nothing, but he would never hurt me or put me down. He would always save an honourable exit, a way out for me to save face. I haven’t been as good at that as father was.”
Stéphane Dion’s three closest teenaged buddies were card-carrying young Liberal preppies who played football and hockey. “Stéphane did not become smarty-pants in college—he’s always been like that,” says Benoit Côté, who grew up across the street. Did he fight? “Not as I remember, not even after a few beers at the Bav.” (That’s Le Bavarois, a nearby student tavern.) They’d imbibe there, and, this being Quebec, talk politics. “We often argued over language laws,” recalls MacKay, a francophone despite his name. “As a Liberal, I defended the individual rights, the freedom of choice. Stéphane was more nationaliste at the time.”
The boys were into physical sports, “but Stéphane was too bony to fight or play rough,” says the 200-lb.-plus Côté, now a Quebec City import-export businessman. “I was his bodyguard. In fact, where he beat us all was on sports trivia and stats. We hated him.” Girls? “Nah, not really. The only one who was into chasing skirts in our group at Garnier was Pierre Houle. He became a Catholic priest.”
Louis Balthazar was a young professor who had left Montreal to teach at the burgeoning Université Laval’s school of social sciences in the late sixties. “At the time, Quebec City was more conservative, compared to Montreal, which had a much more ebullient scene,” he says. Indeed, separatism was hatched in Montreal, not Quebec City. Balthazar ended up teaching Stéphane Dion at Laval a few years later. “He was very self-assured, almost cocky, I’d say. He had this typical French trait—they love arguing and debating, they think nothing of correcting you, even putting you down when they can. People of Anglo-Saxon culture find that rude and sometimes annoying, but French kids learn those skills at an early age. Young Stéphane was very much like that, very French.”
Dion’s master’s thesis in 1979 was a critique of the strategies put forward by the Parti Québécois, elected in 1976, to prepare for the referendum of 1980. As a political science student at Laval, Stéphane Dion sported the standard look of the intellectual lefties of the time: a beard, long hair, checkered shirt and laced-up Kodiak boots, says Janine Krieber, who also studied there. Poli-sci in Laval was not such a big faculty at the time, but Krieber and Dion studied the same curriculum without actually meeting—until they both attended a birthday party for a mutual friend. It was at a summertime poolside bash, Krieber remembers, and Dion had shaved his beard—which he did once a year. “That did it for me, a new guy!” she says. They’ve been together ever since—28 years. “Ours is a commonplace love story,” says Krieber.
Janine Krieber grew up in the Saguenay region. Her father, a photographer from Austria, fought as a conscript in the Wehrmacht on the eastern front before migrating to Canada shortly after the war. (Her grandfather spent that war as a prisoner in the Dachau concentration camp. “He was a socialist,” says Krieber.) Her mother, a French-Canadian, was a journalist and, later, a bureaucrat in the Quebec government. “I grew up in a nontraditional milieu. In my family, women all had careers,’’ she says.
Léon Dion had wanted his son to study in the U.S., where a new school of sociology was being hatched. But the young couple was off to Paris after completing their respective master’s degrees at Laval, to pursue Ph.D’s at l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris—the renowned Grande École that everyone refers to as Sciences-Po. “We’ve spent four years piled up inside a micro-apartment in Montmartre, then another year in a hole infested by rats and cockroaches on Jefferson Avenue in Washington, penniless, living on pasta,” Dion says. “We’re solid.”
Dion’s thesis subject was the elected, Marxist suburban governments—the so-called Red Belt that surrounded Paris. Krieber’s was a comparative study of violent political groups in Germany, Italy and the U.S. “I was interested in an optimist conception of power in civilized societies,” Dion recalls. Says Krieber: “The members of the Bader-Meinhof gang were kids like me—same culture, same background. I wanted to understand why they had chosen violence.”
Result? An odd couple. Dion: “I have been thinking in the framework of peaceful political action. Janine has developed an expertise in political violence. It is the opposite of what is usually expected in a couple: it’s the man who’s intrigued by violence, and the woman who understands better how political influence works.”
Much has been said of the fact that Stéphane Dion is a full-fledged French national through his mother, as well as a Canadian citizen. What is less known is that, at the end of his doctoral studies, the French government gave the then-29-year-old a much-coveted honour proclaiming him to be the first among the very best of them all. Stéphane Dion has a doctoral d’état—a state-sanctioned Ph.D.— and a bronze medal from the CNRS, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Tell any Frenchman that, and his mouth forms a big silent O. In this most elitiste of societies, docteur d’état is crème de la crème. Stéphane Dion is not just a mere dual citizen; he is an official member of the lofty, top-tier club of the contemporary French intellectual elite.
Denis St-Martin, a friend and former colleague of Dion, remarks that, “Stéphane’s contrarian knack for bucking the trend and going against the crowd is very much apparent in his choice of a topic and of a master for his studies. Social sciences in France in the early ’80s were heavily influenced by Marxist theoreticians like Michel Foucault,” St-Martin goes on. “They were all about class warfare, domination, oppression, liberation.” Except, perhaps, Dion’s chosen mentor, Michel Crozier, a liberal thinker. “For Crozier, only the individual matters. For him, social structures are meaningless abstractions. Only actions taken by individuals carry significance.”
Of his maître à penser, his intellectual mentor, Dion says: “For Crozier, what distinguishes a beehive from a human society is power. There is no power in a beehive, only a preordained hierarchy. Power is relationship. Power implies a negotiation between two individuals. That negotiation creates uncertainty between the two. Power is a fluctuating relationship of interdependance.” Dion says he found the reasons for his philosophical optimism in Crozier. “What seduced me as a young liberal was the thought that freedom, love and power could be reconciled, even if imperfectly, under one model of reciprocal interaction.”
Cut and paste that into the Quebec-Canada federation, and you have Stéphane Dion’s answer to our national unity conundrum.
Back to Canada in 1984, Dion and Krieber became Highway-20 lovers, trying to reconcile jobs 250 km apart. Dion got a job teaching political science at Université de Montréal, a separatist hotbed, and Krieber got one in the poli-sci department at Laval in Quebec City. “We were not typical political scientists,” Krieber says. “We were not politically involved, like most of our colleagues. Our interest was in political science more than in actual politics.”
Working in two different cities was not an ideal set-up for any family, but there were other problems. Doctors concluded the couple was sterile. That is what led them to the altar. They could not consider adopting a child if they weren’t married. “I suggested doing it on April Fool’s Day,” Janine Krieber says. “But April 1 happened to be Good Friday that year.”
In 1988, Stéphane Dion set out for Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital in the Peruvian Andes, to adopt Jeanne, their only child. The Peruvian adoption bureaucracy was not exactly streamlined at the time, and the process took three months. Of that ordeal, Dion remembers mostly that the altitude, the food and the water made him sick almost on arrival. “I could not keep down three meals in a row and was much, much thinner than today.” The couple had been directed to Peru by Graciela Ducatenzeiler, an Argentinian-born colleague who knew people there. “To this day, people in Cuzco recall the tall blond gringo who used to walk around with his daughter in his backpack,” Ducatenzeiler told a reporter.
A backpack? Dion is famous in Ottawa for lugging a student’s backpack to cabinet meetings and official functions. Now, it seems, this prop—just too-cool for a leadership candidate out to corral the youth vote—has been an extension of Dion’s anatomy for quite a bit of time.
In the classroom, though, professor Dion was not exactly a star to his students at the time. “His lectures got ratings closer to C-than to A+,” says St-Martin, who also studied under the freshly minted Dr. Stéphane Dion at Université de Montréal in the late eighties. “But he was teaching an arid topic. International affairs [Krieber’s forte, incidentally] was all the rage at the time. Public administration [Dion’s course] was seen as a yawner by many.”
But not by all. “He helped me develop a clear understanding of how governments work,” says Charles Grandmont, now an editor at L’actualité magazine in Montreal. “At the end of each lecture, Dion organized debates on hot political topics, such as the Charlottetown accord of 1992. He would trounce the separatists, of course, but he was not a star for us at the time. His father was.”
Which was fine with Stéphane Dion. According to his wife, and friends, he was much too busy building up his academic career to pay much attention to local political issues. What changed his mind? In 1992, Dion was teaching, reading books, writing essays, travelling, minding his own business. Three years later, during the second Quebec referendum, he was a rarity in Quebec—a young federalist hot-blood kicking sacred cows in the rump, punching holes in the sacrosanct nationalist “consensus,” and crossing swords with whatever separatist mandarin showed up. What happened? “Blame it on my training,” Dion says. “When people said things I knew were inaccurate, I felt compelled to correct the record. If someone else had spoken up, I would have kept quiet.”
Even today, the topic gets Dion easily worked up. Just by listing those Péquiste “inaccuracies” of the time, his voice ratchets up a note or two, and his breath shortens. “It’s not true that Canada is a centralized federation. It’s not true that Quebec gets a bum deal from Ottawa, not true that overlapping jurisdictions are ruining us. It’s not true that the French language and culture are threatened in Canada. It’s certainly not true that Quebec was going to separate easily, with a tiny majority, and in a legal vacuum.”
The separatists hated him. He’d pushed them to their last line of defence, and there would be hell to pay. Dion was elevated from critic to enemy. Challenging the separatists was tantamount to attacking the homeland, denying Quebec’s aspirations. “Mr. Dion is a small man. He doesn’t exist for me,” Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard said at the time.
Dion must have hurt them.
Stéphane Dion was never modest in triumph. He not was only never trounced his opponents; he triumphed with glee. Those he humiliated at the time are still smarting today. Regular folks who didn’t pay much attention to politics back then still seem to remember there was something vaguely uncool about that Dion guy. That’s probably his main image concern at the moment. But he’s working on it. When asked, at the end of a long interview, at the end of a gruelling week, just before the Christmas break, what really upsets him, Dion replied, without missing a beat: “Snobs and snobbery. I cannot accept that some people would put other people down on the basis that they are allegedly of a lesser extraction.”
It’s funny he says that, because snobbish and a string of approximate synonyms— haughty, impatient, cocky, meddling, arrogant—are words that cropped up in interviews about Stéphane Dion just as often as his perceived positives: eager, honest, brilliant, competent and “for real.”
Back in 1995, during that referendum campaign, Stéphane Dion was a regular guest at Le Point, Radio-Canada’s public affairs program. There, he often crossed swords with Guy Laforest, another brilliant political scientist from Laval University. Studio technicians used to call them Pixie and Dixie, the two little mice in the Huckleberry Hound cartoons. “Stéphane is more French than most people realize,” Laforest says. “He’s a born debater. He’s totally Cartesian, his thinking is geometrical. For him, every problem has a solution.” What Laforest is keen to add is that Dion was very good at debunking flaws in the separatists’ thinking, but “he failed to address the more comprehensive, emotional issue of why half the population voted for sovereignty in 1995.”
Le Point is where Aline Chrétien spotted Dion, and told her husband, the embattled prime minister, that he should check him out—which Jean Chrétien did, by the end of that year. “When the phone rang, saying the office of the premier ministre was calling, I replied: which one?” Krieber says. “I think they thought I was being rude.” (In French, premier ministre covers both the premier and the prime minister.)
Dion was in Ottawa that day, giving a lecture that was, he says “very critical of Chrétien and the federalist leadership” in the referendum battle. Dion walked to his meeting at 24 Sussex. Halfway through his discussion with the prime minister, Aline Chrétien walked in, asking her husband: how are things? “I’m working on it,” Chrétien replied.
A few weeks later, Robert Bourassa tried to woo Dion into the National Assembly, not knowing that Chrétien had been there before him. “I told Mr. Bourassa that we have a young child, my wife works out of town, and I am the one who takes care of the kid in the morning,” Dion says. Bourassa brushed the argument aside, saying Dion would catch up on family life with his grandchildren. “He was of another generation. To talk like that for a man my age would be unthinkable.”
At first, Dion felt inclined to turn a deaf ear to the siren song of politics, but his wife was intrigued by it. “We’ve done crazy things before, and this could be fun,” she said. A month later, Dion had come to terms with the idea of himself as a politician, but then it was Krieber who had second thoughts. “We had a child, I had to be in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu [teaching at the military college there, 50 busy kilometres south of Montreal] at 8 a.m.” A compromise was reached. “We agreed that I’d go into politics for the time that it takes to solve a problem, then we’d revert to our chosen life,” Dion says. His Clarity Act defining the conditions of separation was passed four years later in June 2000—but, like John Lennon sang, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Dion’s exit ramp from academe to government has been a one-way street.
Today, the idea that a Parti Québécois government, elected with, say, 38 per cent of the vote, could launch a referendum campaign, win it, and then separate unilaterally with everyone improvising along the way would be impossible, thanks to Dion’s Clarity Act. “His work was made easier by the fact that the PQ never did a serious in-depth postmortem analysis after losing the referendum,” says Laforest.
PQ-slayer is a nice thing for an ambitious Liberal to have on his calling card, especially outside Quebec, but that doesn’t tell anyone what kind of federalist Stéphane Dion has been as cabinet minister, or would be as prime minister.
To get to that—yep, that’s the patricide part, the part in which Dion figuratively kills his father figure to emerge as his own man —one must first ponder why Liberal governments in Quebec City have always been more comfortable dancing with a Tory prime minister in Ottawa than with one of their own (today’s Charest-Harper tango is a replica of yesterday’s Bourassa-Mulroney waltz). Feuds between Bourassa and Trudeau, or Daniel Johnson and Jean Chrétien, had almost as much animosity as the toxic relations that existed between Ottawa and the separatist premiers: Lévesque, Johnson, Parizeau, Bouchard, Landry.
Why have the Quebec Liberals always been divided into two hostile families, the feds and the provs? Mostly because of Sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution—the ones that define the respective responsibilities of the two levels of government, and Section 93, which deals with education. Under constant pressure from nationalists, Quebec Liberals have always been extremely wary of “protecting” provincial jurisdictions and have often pushed for so-called “asymmetrical federalism”: the ability to impose local variations on so-called national programs. But the Ottawa Liberals have had a sweet tooth for national programs, standardized practices, and read-them-and-weep centralizing management strings attached to federal subsidies and transfers.
Still, “those who think Stéphane Dion will be an orthodox, Trudeau-style, centralizing federalist just because he fought the separatists in Quebec may be in for a surprise,” says Senator Jean-Claude Rivest. “Dion’s record in government indicates he has a good and respectful read of the Constitution, one that’s more in synch with the Quebec approach than with that of your standard-issue, let-them-complain Ottawa centralizer.”
In his interview with Maclean’s, after listing his beefs with the separatists’ inaccuracies, Dion launched into a tirade that, he says, was once hissed at the semi-regular dinner meetings of Trudeau nostalgies, held at Montreal’s La Maison du Egg Roll in the 1990s. “I, for one, would never say that Quebec nationalism is a throwback to the 19th century,” he says. “Nationalism is also a valid form of human solidarity.” Stretching fingers to count his points of disagreement with the Chrétien-Trudeau orthodoxy, he adds: “It’s not true that the Meech Lake accord was going to change the way Canada is governed so badly. Not true that Quebec nationalism is essentially racist and xenophobic. Not true that Canada must be further centralized in order to be better managed.”
Dion’s own view, then? “The federal government is, essentially, a money-redistributing machine. Contrary to what many people think, it is almost impossible to take any initiative in Ottawa without having to talk to—or negotiate with— the provinces.” And his approach? “When I became unity minister, all the plans and strategies were laid out on a “them-versus-us” basis—on a basis of confrontation with Quebec. I told them they had it all wrong. Quebec is not a monolithic bloc. Canada is not about a fight between two levels of government. That was a line of thinking that seemed totally alien to them,” Dion says of his then-colleagues and the bureaucrats at the Privy Council. “But they soon learned to work with Stéphane Dion.”
On his first days on the job as Chrétien’s unity minister, Dion had just debunked the philosophy—and the battle strategy—of his new boss’s government.
But he doesn’t buy into the Bourassa approach of “profitable federalism,” elaborated with the help of one Léon Dion, either. “My disagreement with that school of thought is: they don’t tell voters what they really believe in, but what the voters want to hear.” Bourassa’s federalist conviction was stronger than what he showed on the hustings.
“Bourassa used to say: Quebec voters will give all the kicks to the federal system, all except the ultimate one,” Dion says. “I don’t buy into that.”
So there: Stéphane Dion is no real Trudeauist power-grabber. But he says he’s no footsie-playing, Bourassa-style convenience-federalist either. He’s his own man now, saying power is a relationship of interdependence, born out of mutual uncertainty. And his trick is to play by the book—and just respect the constitution of 1867.
As a scholar, Stéphane Dion’s poles of interest were split quite evenly between Paris and Washington. He became aware of the rest of Canada later in life, mainly through the informal network of political scientists that held conventions and conferences here and there. His rapport with the rest of Canada has been des amours tardives, a late-blooming affair, according to Laforest. “His 10-year experiment in the federal government has changed Stéphane Dion,” Laforest says. The former PQ-basher “has come to personalize what I call the new Canadian romantic idealism, one that people like Michael Ignatieff can also be associated with. So many federal regimes are in trouble or have collapsed worldwide that Canada owes it to mankind to preserve its own federation, if only to show it can be done.” And, Laforest adds: “The ecological platform is also part of that new Canadian idealism. And I think that’s all sincere.”
Dion’s Canadian idealism does find inspiration in other federated nations such as Belgium and Spain, where he has studied and visited frequently. “I have friends in Barcelona who say that being Catalonians makes them better Spaniards, and then, better Europeans,” he says. “That’s exactly what I think: identities add up, they don’t substract.”
In Dion’s view, “there is more to Canada than equalization payments. We are richer and better as interdependent than we would be separately,” he says, with a nod to Michel Crozier. “I am not in favour of a stronger government in Quebec because I am a Quebec nationalist kind of federalist (pow! Léon Dion). I am because I am a federalist. A strong Quebec government can only make Canada stronger (pow! Jean Chrétien).”
Today, 30 years after Trotsky the turtle, and 11 years after bursting upon the scene as the straight-talking, Péquiste-slashing unity minister, Stéphane Dion looks at the face he shaves every morning and sees the next prime minister of Canada—a man on a mission to show his late father, and his former boss, where they went wrong, and how Canada can be kept together—Quebec happily within.
The Dions currently live in a splendid townhouse on live a dead-end street just off Côte des Neiges Road in downtown Montreal-renovated and decorated into a showcase of tasteful urban living. Janine Krieber— an artist who studied beaux arts before becoming a noted international expert on terrorism and political violence with the Department of National Defence—is the one who found and renovated the house. At first, Krieber said she wanted to give it some time before considering a move to Stornoway in Ottawa. Then, after visiting Stornoway last week, she said “there is so much renovation work to do” that she’ll move there right away.
When nudged a few times, Krieber offers political examples of what she calls Dion’s “innovative thinking.” As unity minister, he sanctioned the right of Quebec to secede—a sacrilege!—the better to spell out tough conditions for Quebec to separate. As environment minister, one of his first moves was to call an international conference on climate change in Montreal, before declaring that Environment is an economic—not merely political—portfolio. And, think of it: one of Dion’s first official declarations as head of the Opposition last month was to say that a Liberal government would review the objectives and the mission statement of our troops in Afghanistan.
Coincidence? Janine Krieber is an expert in turbulent political upheavals, has majored in international relations, and is a noted expert on military issues. (She visited Canadian troops in Afghanistan during the last federal election for DND, “thinking it would be less bloody over there than around here.”) The answer from both of them is: no coincidence. The Dion-Krieber compact is a tight unit.
“Stéphane and I have always spent nights discussing stuff that fascinates us both,” she says. “I would lie to you if I said we have stopped talking now that he is in politics.”
Dion: “I have shared my life with someone who has made her own studies, and she has had a profound influence on me. For instance, the idea that secession must absolutely take place within a predetermined legal framework [the Clarity Act] is an obvious by-product of her expertise in political turbulences.”
So there. Stéphane Dion is on his own— at the helm of a faltering Liberal party that didn’t really think of him first as its leader-in hostile, difficult and, for now, Conservative Ottawa.
But with Janine Krieber enjoying a sabbatical to be with him in Ottawa, Dion will be far from lonely at the top. M