Our most intellectual political spouse has views on the military, 9/11—and she may be unusually qualified to hold them

JOHN GEDDES August 4 2008


Our most intellectual political spouse has views on the military, 9/11—and she may be unusually qualified to hold them

JOHN GEDDES August 4 2008



Our most intellectual political spouse has views on the military, 9/11—and she may be unusually qualified to hold them


When she cares to, Janine Krieber has no trouble looking the part of the classic political spouse. Wearing an irreproachable creamcoloured pantsuit, Stéphane Dion’s wife descends the front staircase at Stornoway, the formal Ottawa residence of official Opposition leaders, to greet her visitor with a doyenne’s ease. Shooing away Kyoto, Dion’s famously named Siberian husky, she settles on a sofa to sip cappuccino and submit to a morning interview.

But her answers soon dispel any notion that this will be a traditional wife-of chat about charitable causes and party fundraisers. Krieber maybe the Liberal leader’s spouse, but she is only on leave from her professor’s post at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, the Department of National

Defence academy southeast of Montreal, where she taught future officers courses on the nature of terrorism and how to fight it. She continues to research international security issues part-time, in association with Quebec City’s Laval University.

Asked how her role as wife of a politician who aspires to be prime minister limits what she can now say about her areas of expertise, Krieber issues a surprisingly sweeping declaration of personal independence. “I have no constraints at all,” she says, “to think what I want to think, and to express my views and my opinions.”

And so she expresses a few. For instance,

speaking just a few days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a two-decade plan to spend up to $50 billion on military equipment, she expresses skepticism about putting much emphasis on the size of the Defence procurement budget. “I’m not of the school that says big spending brings more effectiveness,” Krieber says. “My view of not only the military, but of all our security institutions, is that our tradition in Canada is to provide good people, good professionals.”

She goes on to stress that she didn’t arrive at this conclusion in the comfort of her professor’s office. “I’ve toured the Canadian military all over the world,” Krieber says, “and

what I’ve seen, or what I’ve heard when people were speaking about Canadians, is we don’t have big trucks, big tanks, big airplanes, but we have big guys. Very professional. They know what they’re doing.”

Among the places Krieber has visited those big guys abroad is Afghanistan. She travelled to Kabul with a group of academic experts in the spring of 2004, before Canadian troops shifted south to Kandahar. That, of course, was long before her husband became Liberal leader and she found herself plunged into a semi-official role for which she had never prepared.

So far, her profile as Dion’s partner has generally been low. Liberals are slowly getting to know her, but she’s hardly a household name yet or a widely recognized face. That gives her a certain flexibility. Mainstreeting with Dion in Montreal last fall, during the by-

election in which the Liberals lost the Outremont riding to the NDP, she was able to slip out of a crowded diner, all but unnoticed, for a cigarette in the rain. With Dion inside working the room, the lone woman in black jeans, smoking under an umbrella just outside the door, wasn’t exactly striking the typical pose of political wife in campaign mode.

She still smokes. An air purifier has been installed in her Stornoway office. She admits she “tries to hide it,” and although she smiles at the line of questioning, her answers shrink from generously open to sardonically terse. Does Dion mind? “He minds.” What about her daughter, Université de Montréal under-

graduate Jeanne? “She says exactly the same thing: stop.”

So far Krieber has largely escaped controversy, whether about her personal habits or professional opinions. “They have enough to work on going through what Stéphane has written,” she says, of the Conservative opposition’s researchers, who must surely have collected her academic papers to comb through for contentious points. In fact, Dion’s foes might find slim pickings there. After all, Krieber has worked largely within the defence and intelligence establishment, making her a far less tempting target for Tories than if she was an outside critic.

She took up her interest in terrorism as a student in the 1970s, intrigued by what drew young people into groups like Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, or, indeed, the Front de Libération du Qué-

bec in Canada. She wondered, in particular, about cases of “middle-class kids in very good families” who resorted to political violence. T wanted to understand,” she says, “why they turned murderers.”


The answer she arrived at? Ideology. She sees a commonality among religious fanaticism, far-left radicalism, and extreme nationalism. Her exploration of terror’s ideological roots led her to consider how best to combat it. “I was hired by the military college and I started to look at the other side, that is to say, counterterrorism,” she says. “And very soon I started to understand that the only good strategy of counterterrorism is intelligence, and I started to look at intelligence methods, intelligence organization.”

By the late 1980s, she had gained enough recognition to be hired to work on a review of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act. (She and Dion were married in 1987, after nearly a decade together, to facilitate Jeanne’s adoption, but Dion would not be recruited from Montreal academia into federal politics until late 1995, after the close call in the Quebec referendum.) Krieber’s close-up study of the post-Cold War challenges that confronted CSIS, and other Western intelligence services, shaped her reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She stops short of blaming them entirely on intelligence failure. “There’s no single cause of any social event,” Krieber

reflects. “But the problem was that as soon as the Cold War ended there was a sort of ultra-optimistic wind—the war is over, there won’t be any war anymore.”

Cuts in intelligence and defence spending after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she contends, proved short-sighted. Part of the problem was that the intelligence agencies themselves were slow to zero in on the next big danger. “There was no Eastern bloc anymore, so no purpose to intelligence,” she says. “It was not obvious to all these organizations who would be the next enemy, despite the fact that all the experts were saying, ‘Look at the Islamic world—there is a problem.’ ”

By now, however, she says CSIS has adjusted. Her informed understanding is that the federal agency has extended its recruitment efforts into what she calls “cultural communities,” in a bid to combat terror. “There was a problem in our security culture for people who were not white, with [Canadian citizenship] for many generations,” she says. “But the culture is changing, or it has changed.”

As a female academic, Krieber has long stood out in the network of Canadian intelligence and defence specialists. Most of her peers are men. In political life, however, Krieber is travelling the trail blazed nearly three decades ago by Maureen McTeer, wife of former Tory leader Joe Clark. When Clark became the surprise leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1976,

McTeer’s decision to keep her own name and maintain her law career made her controversial. It’s no surprise that she has watched the evolution of the political spouse’s role with keen interest. In a recent interview, she pointed to examples of highprofile wives who kept up careers while still playing their hands beside powerful politician partners—like former British prime minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie Blair, who practised law while he was in office.

McTeer regards Krieber as worth particular notice because of her focus on terrorism. “This is completely new,” she said. “No other political spouse has been an expert in this area, and it’s a tender and upsetting area.” Told that Krieber claims the freedom to say whatever she wishes on the subject, McTeer wonders if she is being entirely candid. “She’s a sophisticated enough indi-

vidual to know there are limits.”

Krieber credits her mother with instilling in her the sense that no career path was out of bounds. She grew up in Alma, Que., in the picturesque region near Lac Saint-Jean, the daughter of an Austrian immigrant father, Hans, and a French Canadian mother, Thérèse.

Her father, a photographer, emigrated in 1942. Working at his studio, Krieber’s mother became a skilled photographer herself, while also raising two girls and a boy. She later took up journalism, contributing to Quebec City’s Le Soleil and Radio-Canada. When the family moved to Quebec City, she switched to government communications work, eventually as a cabinet press officer in Robert Bourassa’s Liberal provincial government. “She was a big influence,” Janine Krieber says. “It was obvious my sister and I could not go through life without a career.”

After a bookish girlhood, she studied international relations at Laval University, where she met Dion in 1978. It was a romance grounded in their shared intellectual interests, and they went together to the famous Sciences Po graduate school in Paris to earn

their Ph.D.s. Friends say their relationship has always included a good deal of vigorous debate on serious subjects. Although Krieber does not sit in on Liberal strategy meetings, she is a major factor in her husband’s deliberations. “She plays a very active role,” says one senior Liberal official who knows the couple well, “in suggesting people he should meet, themes he should explore.” Her precise views, though, aren’t often shared outside a small circle. “They do talk policy a lot,” said the official, “but those conversations take place in the privacy of their house.”



If that makes their relationship sound more a matter of brains than hearts, Krieber’s description of her husband suggests otherwise. Asked what she would tell someone who was having trouble getting a feel for Dion’s personality, her immediate response is perhaps surprising. “The first words that come to my mind after this question: he’s romantic. He is. He is. You should see the nice flowers he’s always sending to me.” She lifts a hand to her throat and then adds, with a tone of regret, “Ah, I don’t have my necklace, my last gift.” It was for their 20th anniversary in April.

Her next point fits more neatly with his public image. “When he has an idea, it’s very hard to make him change it,” she says. “You need to really convince him with a very tight argument.” The notion that Dion is toughminded, perhaps to a fault, goes back to his days in Jean Chrétien’s cabinet, when he developed a reputation for the unrelenting logic he applied to pushing his ideas. The most contentious of all, of course, was his Clarity Act, the law that set new rules for any future Quebec referendum or subsequent secession negotiations.

Championing the act, which passed in 2000, led to Dion’s vilification by Quebec national-

ists. The bitterness of their attacks led Krieber to temporarily swear off contemporary politics and withdraw into the academic world. She cancelled newspaper subscriptions and swore off TV news. “The hardest part,” she recalls, “was when some people in Quebec started to treat Stéphane as a traitor, because I know how he loves Quebec, how he loves Canada.”

That tough period seems to have prepared Krieber and Dion for his rocky run so far as Liberal leader. After his surprise win at the party’s Montreal leadership convention on Dec. 2,2006, Dion was targeted by Tory attack ads that cast him as a vacillating non-leader. His personal ratings are consistently low, and his recent proposal for a carbon tax brought on another wave of derision, though its boldness also largely put to rest any notion that he is indecisive. Krieber says Aline Chrétien, wife of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, cautioned her about the hard life of an Opposition leader. “She told me to be very patient and to not worry,” Krieber says. “She warned me that Stéphane would be the object of a lot of discussion. And she said, ‘Don’t worry, look what happened to Jean—he became prime minister.’ ” Krieber views Aline Chrétien as her model, but their public personas are entirely different. Regarded as influential behind the scenes with her husband, Madame Chrétien’s image remained that of a dignified matron, safely involved in a few straightforward charities. Krieber’s career sets her apart, as does her decision to keep her name. Even the touching story of how Krieber and Dion adopted their daughter, Jeanne, from Peru, is a twist on the traditional family portrait.

Tories are cautious about going after Dion’s personal life. But the potential for contrasting his family with Stephen Harper’s has been

discussed. A key point of differentiation: Harper’s wife was known as Laureen Teskey only up to election day in 2006, after which she soon switched to Laureen Harper. The Conservatives will “likely try and contrast the Harpers and Dions in the role of Canada’s first family and will portray the Harpers (genuinely) as traditional, nuclear and ordinary,” Tory blogger Stephen Taylor wrote last year. On the question of Krieber’s name, Taylor added: “Does the maiden name play with ordinary Canadians? The Harpers are banking that it doesn’t.”

It remains to be seen if Conservatives decide to make Krieber a target, or to what degree Liberals try to build her up as an asset. For her part, Krieber says she maintains a healthy balance. She splits her time between the Ottawa political fishbowl, and the home she and Dion made for themselves before politics in Montreal. As a political scientist, she says she enjoys the capital’s unrelenting focus on government and partisanship. “But Montreal is more diverse,” she adds, “and actually you speak more about art, performances, traffic.” And there’s no need to worry about anybody seeing you light up.