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Born to run

Leadership hopeful Dominic LeBlanc is 40, but he’s the grand old man of the Liberal party


 

Born to run

At 40 years of age, Dominic LeBlanc is the youngest candidate, by two decades, for the Liberal Party of Canada’s leadership, though the way he talks about the tricks of the MP’s trade can make him sound like a crafty old politician. For instance, LeBlanc knows better than to pump more than $10 worth of gas into his tank at a time when he’s home in his riding of Beauséjour, N.B. He picked up the habit back in 1991, when his summer job was driving Jean Chrétien around the same rural constituency.

Chrétien had won Beauséjour in a by-election in 1990, and held the seat as Opposition leader until he returned to his Quebec home turf to run in 1993. Even though it was only a way station for him, Chrétien took Beauséjour seriously. So, with LeBlanc at the wheel, he criss-crossed his adopted riding on summer days, drinking beer on the wharf with fishermen, buying a pack of gum or a newspaper at every store, and stopping to take on just a bit of gas, and goodwill, at every possible service station. “He quickly developed friendships,” LeBlanc recalled in an interview. “I saw and learned from him the importance of local grassroots politics.”

Nobody who has watched LeBlanc carve out a place for himself in the Liberal ranks doubts he’s a diligent constituency politician. More than a few party insiders—particularly men in their thirties and forties—also have one-of-the-boys stories about LeBlanc that might feature, say, NHL tickets, fishing trips, or after-dinner cigars. As defining traits, though, these could be limitations to his underdog bid to deny Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae the party’s leadership. Consider the contrast. Ignatieff, 61, was a globe-trotting celebrity intellectual before he jumped into politics, while Rae, 60, is a former Ontario NDP premier with the scars to prove it. LeBlanc’s hard-worker, fun-guy image hardly seems enough to vault him into their league.

Yet he’s attracting experienced party organizers who must see a deeper potential. For starters, they know how he got the job as Chrétien’s summer chauffeur. It was because he was the son of Roméo LeBlanc, whose political resumé reads like a guide to four decades of Liberal political prowess: press secretary to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, then a Trudeau cabinet minister, next a senator, and finally governor general, appointed by Chrétien. Dominic LeBlanc grew up absorbing family lore about Pearson, living among the Trudeaus, and later learning first-hand from Chrétien.

At a moment when Liberals are feeling adrift from their winning tradition, LeBlanc’s attraction begins with his claim to being firmly moored to that past. The trickier part of the sales job, now being plotted by LeBlanc’s team, is the way they hope to capitalize on that, while simultaneously positioning him as the candidate of youth and change. To pull off this best-of-both-worlds pitch, they’ll need to persuade delegates to the party’s May leadership convention in Vancouver to fully re-evaluate an MP they’ve known, if they know him at all, as likeable and hard-working. “We have a short time to establish him,” admits Cyrus Reporter, the veteran Liberal organizer heading LeBlanc’s campaign, “as a guy who has come up in the party but is not part of some old establishment.”

LeBlanc was born in Ottawa on Dec. 14, 1967, the day Pearson announced his resignation. As his press secretary, Roméo LeBlanc organized the prime minister’s news conference that morning, then headed to the hospital for his first child’s birth. “Mr. Pearson said that evening to my mother and father, ‘You’ve lost a leader but gained a son,’ ” Dominic LeBlanc says. He heard that story often. His father had played a key role in Pearson’s Prime Minister’s Office, penning, for example, Pearson’s rebuke of Charles de Gaulle after the French president’s “Vive le Québec libre” speech at Montreal City Hall.

Pearson’s successor loomed even larger in Dominic’s early life. Roméo LeBlanc stayed on to serve as Trudeau’s press secretary after the “Trudeaumania” election triumph of 1968. Again, LeBlanc helped shape a prime minister’s message at historic moments, including the 1970 October Crisis. He then moved back to his home province of New Brunswick to run for Parliament, winning a seat in the 1972 election that relegated Trudeau to minority. As an MP, LeBlanc bought a house in Ottawa’s leafy, upscale Glebe neighbourhood, Dominic’s home while he attended public elementary and high schools. His father rose to be a long-serving fisheries and oceans minister under Trudeau.

The LeBlancs and Trudeaus saw a lot of each other away from Parliament Hill. By the time Dominic’s parents separated in 1980, his mother, Joslyn LeBlanc, and Margaret Trudeau had grown close. During his high-school years, Dominic lived with his father, but often spent weekends, along with Margaret and her three sons, at his mother’s place at the Quebec ski resort town of Mount Tremblant. Alexandre Trudeau, always called Sacha, who is six years younger than LeBlanc, remains a close friend. “Sacha has been for me a source of immense support and encouragement,” LeBlanc says.

Sacha Trudeau’s work as a documentary filmmaker, shooting in hot spots like Darfur and Iraq (he’s also a Maclean’s contributing editor), fuels their conversation. “Frankly, I’ve learned a lot from him,” LeBlanc says, “particularly about international affairs and Canada’s role in the world.” Justin Trudeau is also a friend. As a rookie Montreal MP, he’s much better known in Liberal circles, but is expected to remain neutral in the leadership contest, and might even co-chair the Vancouver convention.

LeBlanc remembers Pierre Trudeau as “a giant,” and yet far from an intimidating figure. “I have very, very fond memories of how attentive he was to kids,” he says. “Anytime I saw him when I was a young boy he was very interested in what we were doing in school, he was interested in what sports we were playing. For someone who was thought of as not having great human emotion in many contexts, with children it was the opposite—he was very much interested.”

Less than two months before Trudeau’s death on Sept. 28, 2000, the ailing former prime minister joined his old friend Roméo LeBlanc at a small fishing lodge on New Brunswick’s Miramichi River. Dominic and Sacha were there too, although LeBlanc is reluctant to talk much about that last visit. (Roméo LeBlanc, now 80, lives with full-time nursing care at his home in New Brunswick, his health having deteriorated in recent years.) About his impression of Pierre Trudeau from those final conversations with his father, Dominic LeBlanc says only, “That marked me in a profound way, seeing him in that context.”

Still, he doesn’t describe the urbane Trudeau as a direct influence on his political style.LeBlanc says his approach is shaped by small-town New Brunswick. He has circled back from his own Ottawa upbringing, surrounded by national figures, to reconnect with the roots of his father, the seventh child of an Acadian family, whose older sisters sent back earnings from their work as maids in rich Massachusetts houses to help their little brother go to university. “I didn’t spend all my life there, but my current life is rooted in francophone rural New Brunswick,” LeBlanc says. “I’m aware of the challenges that regions of the country have, that minorities have, and the importance of the Charter of Rights, of things like the principle of equalization being in the Constitution.”

Stressing that regional sensibility is a key to LeBlanc’s bid to draw a sharp contrast between himself and Rae or Ignatieff, both Toronto MPs. The federal Liberals have become heavily reliant on seats in Toronto, which accounts for 32 of the 77 MPs the party elected on Oct. 14, along with smaller clusters in Montreal and Vancouver. LeBlanc says that must change. Having won his rural seat four times in eight years, LeBlanc claims he knows how to begin restoring the Liberal brand in Quebec beyond the city of Montreal. And with his regional perspective, he vows to rebuild in the Tory West. “We will never win a majority again,” he says, “if we write off 50 seats in francophone Quebec, 75 seats in between North Bay and Vancouver.”

But the notion of LeBlanc as a sort of hinterland politician isn’t a neat fit. Not only did he grow up, aside from summers in New Brunswick, in the heart of the capital, he went on to an elite education, cultivating a durable network of influential friends along the way. He earned his B.A. at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, where he met future Liberal operatives like John Duffy and Karl Littler, as well as Tories he’s still on good terms with, including Trade Minister Tony Clement. After graduating from law school at the University of New Brunswick, he met his future wife, Jolène Richard, in a bar admissions course. They were married in 2003. Daughter of a former chief justice of New Brunswick’s Court of Queen’s Bench, she was recently appointed a judge herself. Her son from a previous marriage, Selby, 18, attends the University of British Columbia.

A law career was never really in the cards for LeBlanc, though. Soon after he became a lawyer in 1993, Chrétien told him he “could always write wills or go to court,” but politics wouldn’t wait. He travelled on Chrétien’s campaign plane through the 1993 election that brought the Liberals back to power. It was a heady experience. LeBlanc remembers details from election night at the Auberge Grand-Mére in Shawinigan, Que., Chrétien’s hometown, down to Chrétien’s insistence that the RCMP officers who had been assigned to him through the campaign be let off duty to join in the party. “It was quite a bond on that plane,” LeBlanc says. “That lasted a long time in my imagination.”

After staying on to work as an aide in Chrétien’s office until 1996, LeBlanc left to study for his master’s degree at Harvard Law School. “I’d always had an interest in American constitutional law,” he says. “And I thought about seeing the meeting place of ideas and backgrounds that Harvard represents.” But Canadian politics was never far from his mind. By the spring of 1997, he was commuting between Cambridge, Mass., where he was finishing his Harvard degree, and Beauséjour, where he was fighting for the Liberal nomination. He won it, but lost in the election that followed to an NDP challenger.

Friends say his determination not to give up on New Brunswick after that setback made his political career. Shawn Graham, now the province’s Liberal premier, had known LeBlanc since their paths crossed frequently in childhood. “What I saw in Dominic is that [the defeat] made him even more resilient and stronger. He recognized that he needed to reconnect with the riding on the ground level, and he went out and did that over the next four years, and he was successful the next time around.”

His win in the 2000 election turned out to be only the first in a string of victories. But as LeBlanc was establishing local dominance, his party’s fortunes were steadily declining. Liberals endured the acrimonious split between Chrétien and Paul Martin, and then watched another potentially divisive rivalry emerge between the Ignatieff and Rae camps, as they lost the 2006 leadership contest to Stéphane Dion. (LeBlanc stayed neutral in that race, and co-chaired the Montréal convention where Dion came from behind to win.)

Now the clash between Ignatieff and Rae is shaping up as the main attraction in another leadership struggle, with Ignatieff the consensus front-runner. LeBlanc appears to be starting off far behind. His supporters, however, are hardly unknowns, and they’ve set their sights on overtaking Rae. Reporter is a veteran of Liberal election war rooms, and was Allan Rock’s chief of staff when he held key cabinet posts under Chrétien. From the old Martin camp, LeBlanc has the support of prominent strategists Scott Reid and Tim Murphy; Sen. Percy Downe, a former chief of staff for Chrétien, is among his loyalists backing LeBlanc.

Luring Liberals with Ottawa insider credentials is essential for LeBlanc, but his backers suggest only six to 10 MPs are likely to line up behind him. That makes it crucial for him to make an early splash among players at the provincial level. Graham’s support will be valuable in the Maritimes. On the opposite coast, Craig Munroe, president of the federal Liberals’ B.C. wing, is an early LeBlanc convert. Even though he’s a Vancouver lawyer, Munroe says he’s drawn to LeBlanc for his potential to make the Liberals relevant in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. “He can speak to Liberals in those ridings that aren’t automatically winnable,” he says.

Expanding the Liberal vote enough to win swaths of new seats won’t happen in a single election, which is why LeBlanc’s age also matters to Munroe and others. “He’s the only one who has the capacity to make a 10- or even 15-year commitment to the party.” But his relative youth, along with a tendency to joke around, also contributes to a nagging question: can LeBlanc add sufficient gravitas to his image? “He’s a very funny guy who can keep you entertained,” Munroe says. “But a serious issue comes up, and it’s like a switch has been flicked.”

LeBlanc showed a bit of that flare when he fielded questions recently in Ottawa from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ board of directors. Shortly before taking the podium, he noted the big screens set up in the hotel conference room, and deadpanned that he planned to “screen attack ads aimed at Bob and Michael.” Describing his riding, he noted that its biggest town is Sackville, where Mount Allison University students swell the population from 5,000 to 7,000, but that’s “never admitted because it would change the policing formula.” (To municipal politicians, that’s a one-liner. They crack up.) The questions, though, are dry and serious, but LeBlanc finds openings to lighten the tone. Asked about federal tax rules that discourage rental property upgrades, he started off, “I don’t think it’s an intentional policy attempt to increase the number of slum landlords . . .” And he’s on top of the material, crediting Sen. Larry Campbell, the former Vancouver mayor, with having alerted him to the issue.

That sort of attention to practical matters could turn out to be LeBlanc’s strong suit. Ask him to express a more sweeping vision, though, and his message can sound generic. “Canadians want a modern, centrist, pragmatic Liberal party,” he says, adding: “I learned that from Mr. Chrétien. It was drilled into us.”

There’s more in his pointed reference about where he was schooled than his bland recitation of the course content. After all, Ignatieff and Rae talk about reclaiming the centre, too. If LeBlanc has an edge, it may be that he imbibed his centrist Liberalism straight from the party’s main current. To pull off a major upset, he needs to first persuade Liberals that where he comes from matters, and then that he’s ready—even if few of them had noticed before—to leap to the next level.


 
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Born to run

  1. Acadia students would only be swelling Sackville’s population for a football game, given that Acadia is in Wolfville, in neighbouring Nova Scotia.

    Surely you meant Mount Alison…

  2. I’m suprised Mr. Geddes would make such a mistake considering MTA was recently ranked by MacLeans as the TOP undergraduate university in Canada…

  3. This article is another example of The Man trying to keep my alma mater down.

  4. MOUNT ALLISON UNIVERSITY is in Sackville NB you twat!!!! Good article though.

  5. I would like to interrupt the commenting above to say “thank you for the interesting article on Mr. LaBlanc”. ;)

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