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Down the hallway, in a room at the back of the St. Volodymyr Cultural Centre in Oakville, Stephane Dion was meeting with some representatives from the Internet. They were asking long, meandering questions and he was providing long, meandering answers and then one young lady stood up with something of a rant about the “puerile” ways of the governing party. “They make fun of your dog,” she said, obviously somewhat stunned at having cause to make such an observation.

“Well,” Mr. Dion said, “I’m a big boy.”

He talked for awhile about the current debate and how they do it better in more civilized places and then, with his men pulling him away, he arrived at his big finished. “What will work in politics?” he asked. “Is it fear? Is it attack ads? Is it speaking about everything in the most simple terms? Or is to speak to the big hearts of the Canadian people?”

An elderly woman in front of me audibly swooned.

Outside, his men were positioning candidates and MPs behind a microphone. Five men, 11 women—most of those women in red. Dion arrived a few minutes later, acting surprised to see his fellow Liberals assembled so neatly around where he was just about to take questions from reporters. When he assumed his position, his entourage crowded in close. Of what followed, I noted only that he remains unable to emphasize the right syllable in the word “infrastructure.” (“It is a work in progress, my English,” he offered when asked by a TV reporter to account for his English, simultaneously defending and indicting himself. For the record, in conversation later, the TV reporter and I decided that Mr. Dion’s English has improved noticeably from where it was a year ago.) 

The main hall—white walls, white ceiling, white drapes, brass chandelier and light fixtures, decorative wood panelling—was by now full, each seat taken, people standing around the edges. The Liberals claimed a crowd of 1,400. We counted seats, adjusted for inflation and accounted for 1,000. Whatever the total, to it Garth Turner formally introduced six MPs, four senators, one MPP and two mayors. 

Turner, so comfortable with attention, paced up and down the middle aisle, preaching by way of power point presentation. He spoke of job losses, environmental crisis, gas prices, food riots, real estate losses, John Baird and other such disasters. And then of hope, a word not coincidentally printed in big green letters on the front of a pamphlet available in the lobby.

After a pair of suitably uplifting campaign ads, Mr. Dion emerged through a door near the back of the room, shaking hands on his way toward the giant Canadian flag at the front of the room. For awhile he managed, quite smartly, to stand in the very middle of the Maple Leaf. As in Bradford, a small chair had been placed on stage. As in Bradford, it went unused.

He lectured and then took 19 questions. What he said in response, you should understand, was and is nearly irrelevant. The point was and is that he was there to take those questions. In the morning papers, it will be recorded that Stephane Dion came to town, stood before 1,000 (or so) people and invited questions. What he said exactly will matter somewhat to some of those in attendance. But otherwise the medium is the message. “This is accountability,” he explained, in case you hadn’t noticed. “To be available to the public. Where is Stephen Harper?”

(A good deal of the myth that surrounds John McCain can be traced back to his willingness to do likewise—to put himself out at these town halls and submit to the random questions of any citizen with something to ask. If you follow American politics, you surely know that John McCain does this readily and that this differentiates him from most other presidential candidates of the recent past. And you understand what this seems to say about John McCain and who he is and “what he’s made of.” But unless you’ve asked one of those questions, you probably can’t recall in great detail a single answer he’s ever given in response. For every person then who’s asked a question and made a judgment based on that answer, there’s probably several thousand who know only that John McCain allows his audiences to ask him questions and that makes him somehow better than most other politicians.)

The message on this night was hope, at least in so much as hope is the opposite of fear and Stephane Dion is the opposite of Stephen Harper and Stephen Harper is something to be feared. At times tonight, his stiffness, his troubles of pronunciation, his social awkwardness actually served him well in this regard. When Harper tries to be charming, he sounds something like Pat Sajak. Conversely, it is difficult to believe Dion could contrive much of anything. Thus his obvious flaws, and in some cases his apparent knowledge of those flaws, actually make it easier for him to seem sincere. And thus are we reminded that authenticity is simultaneously the most intoxicating and depressing of concepts.

Anyway. As in Bradford, he displayed some wit and odd moments of charm. And people laughed. Generally with him. At one point, Turner openly mocked Dion’s long-windedness. And Dion laughed at himself too. 

Shortly after nine, with some of those in the cheap seats choosing to get a jump on the traffic, the last few questions were asked. Everyone, upon arriving, had found a comment card on their chair and from those submitted, several names were picked—from a recycling bin no less—to receive autographed hats, tickets and copies of Garth Turner’s latest book. And then Dion launched again into his closing remarks, explaining his purpose, his calling. And that woman, assuming she’d stuck around, probably found it difficult to stand.


BTC: Live! Tonight! Sold out!

  1. How fortunate we are to have many other bloggers to compare with your rather sarcastic review of the Oakville meeting . Final count appears to be 1400 rather than your 1000 inflated numbers. Times, they are a’ changing with so many blogs, media and personal views to make comparisons.

  2. Speaking of swooning…

  3. Christy – you must be pretty partisan to see this as a sarcastic review.

  4. Um, Christy? I freely admit I can be a bit partisan at times, and I thought this was a very complimentary write up. Was it the swooning?

  5. I think sarcastic is the word, or at least skeptical, but given that the same sarcasm ran through Aaron’s coverage of the Harper tour, at least it appears to be a non-partisan sarcasm.

  6. It’s not sarcasm. It’s cynicism, which is, apparently, a job requirement for press gallery members.

  7. Stephane Dion, the Canadian Obama? Say it ain’t so, BTC!

  8. I think cynicism is an appropriate stance to take when dealing with politicians of any persuasion.

    Dion is on Michael Coren’s show tonight, a one hour one-on-one with Michael. I wonder if Coren is going to ask him tough questions or lob softballs.

  9. jwl- do you know if we can see this online?

  10. Sophie

    I just had a quick look around cts website and I didn’t see anything that lets you watch it online however there are a few youtube clips from his show. I don’t know if people will be able to watch it online or not.

  11. No Dion is McCain. Harper is Pat Sajak.

    It’s all clear now.

  12. This writer obviously hates his job. He wrote that piece like he wasn’t even there!
    That ‘rant’ he referred to was my friend talking about how foolish the Conversatives must be to think that they can campaign using partisan attacks, lying to the public and think they can still win young voters. Her question to Stephane was why he hadn’t responded to the Not a leader site. His response was basically that he wanted a campaign based on policies, not partisan attacks and he didn’t want to encourage that. Aaron, get your head out of your ass, it’s affecting your hearing.

    I was there and I can tell you that the crowd absolutely LOVED Stephane Dion and clapped with every policy and idea that came out of his mouth. He came across as trustworthy, sincere, intelligent and open – yeah, the opposite of Stephen Harper alright!

  13. “I think cynicism is an appropriate stance to take when dealing with politicians of any persuasion.”

    I don’t know about you, jwl, but if my job requires me to be a cynic (or turns me into one), a career change would be in order.

    Mind you, I’m sure Aaron is somewhat justified in becoming a cynic but it sure sucks for those who depend on his coverage of events like these for information.

  14. Boudica

    I am more libertarian than conservative and I am cynical of all politicians because it seems to me they promise the world but deliver very little.

  15. How are we defining ‘cynical’? Could it be that we really mean ‘realistic’? I try to look at everything anyone does with a healthy dose of cynicism, because i don’t appreciate being taken for a fool.

  16. “I am more libertarian than conservative and I am cynical of all politicians because it seems to me they promise the world but deliver very little.”

    Fair enough. I guess the point here is that one’s cynicism shouldn’t get in the way of one’s job when the job in question requires unbiased reporting of the facts.

    Then again, blogs seem to be exempt from the “unbiased” rule, huh?

  17. August 21,2008: Pleased to learn that so many were in the audience to hear Dion’s views. If nothing else, he is sincere and wishes to do what is best for Canadians. Harper has been Bush’s lapdog for these past three years and if Obama wins the election, he will not give Harper the time of day. We are in the midst of a recession in Canada and if it weren’t for our oil and gas resources, we would be standing in long lines at soup kitchens. Flaherty would be whining, “its not my fault”. By cancelling income trusts, this man has ruined the lives of two and one half million Canadians. Many of these are seniors. We must rid the country of the Conservative vermin. Lets call in the exterminators (the Liberals) and clean house.

  18. All reporting is biased. It’s hilarious that people are jumping all over Aaron for not drinking the koolaid at Dion’s dog and pony show. These politicians are promoting themselves. Journalists are supposed to see through the populist rhetoric and tell us entertaining stories.

    Clearly we are entertained, or we would be doing something else.

  19. Just so you know, the 1,400 number came from CityTV – the event organizers just chose not to dispute it :) The blogger next to me did a seat and row count and guestimate of the number standing and came up with 1,300. Let’s split the difference and say 1,200.

    By any count, it was a crazy number of people for a Wednesday evening in August when there is officially no campaign. And the blogging thing was fun – especially watching Dion’s somewhat anal security guy flipping out over all these unvetted, unscreened, unwashed bloggers pulling out dozens of cameras and camcorders and sending the images out to the world. My God, ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN!

    (also, FYI – you can expect to see full video of the event on Turner’s blog sometime today or tomorrow, plus bits and pieces on mine as soon as I get it uploaded)

  20. My favorite part : Everyone, upon arriving, had found a comment card on their chair and from those submitted, several names were picked—from a recycling bin no less—to receive autographed hats, tickets and copies of Garth Turner’s latest book. – now this if true is simply just to funny I almost choked onmy Strabucks coffe (oops my secret is out the crowd at Tim’s will never forgive me)

  21. Wow Roslyn, you might want to chill out slightly. The last time I saw “vermin” and “exterminate” used in reference to a group of people was when I read Shake Hands With the Devil…

  22. Fair write up. I find it hard to agree with the first commenter who thought it was sarcastic. A lopsided review, either for or against, lacks credibility.

  23. The question remains though that how well can he do against the other 3 (or 4) leaders in the upcoming campaign’s telivision debates? It is one thing to benefit from a certain charm earned by awkwardness when you are in a friendly room with a friendly crowd and a friendly moderator. But what will happen when he is going toe to toe with Harper, Layton, Duceppe and possibly May? While the PM will draw a lot of fire from the other leaders, I also suspect Dion will be a target. He needs to be – he is in direct competition for votes with both Layton and Duceppe.

  24. Anon, strangly enough I think he may do well in a debate. Certainly he will do well in the French-language one (he sounds like a professor, but in a good way) Even in the English-language one, the other leaders are hardly stellar orators, and if May is allowed in the debate I suspect her presence may end up helping Dion’s cause. Also, he’s passionate, but he gets his gravitas not from his passion, but from his ideas. And ideas, after all, are what should matter in a debate.

  25. I am no way non-partisan, but I enjoyed AW’s write-up; he casts what i consider the proper level of cynicism with an acute eye for selective details. Although i wasn’t at the event, as someone trained in the art of journalism i like to see some balance in my political coverage.
    I think overall Dion comes across fairly well here.

  26. Let’s all do what we can to have May included in the debates when they happen.

    The party has paid it’s dues and it’s only our skewed first past the post system that’s prevented any green seats. Hell, the Green Party is years older that the (New) Conservative Party.

    I’ve never voted for them in the past but I would like to hear more of what she has to say and the debates would be fascinating. Talk about different personalities!!

  27. I disagree with Elizabeth May’s decision to sit, as the Green Party’s first MP, an ex-Liberal MP who was booted from the Liberal caucus for campaign spending irregularities. However, I think she deserves a spot at the debating podium because nearly 700,000 people voted Green in the last election and, if polling results over these past few months translate into pro votes at the ballot box, the Greens should near, and perhaps surpass, the one million mark. Hundreds of thousdands of Canadians, who care enough about the environment and the future to vote for something other than the mainstream parties, deserve a spot at that podium through Elizabeth May.

    I suspect the biggest reason that Tubby objected to having her there is because his charisma-challenged “school monitor” personality would have taken a drubbing in the unforgiving glare of public television once feisty Elizabeth’s sharp tongue got going. By the way, the other three deserve to be condemned too for not having the decency to take a stand and side with May in this matter. Paint Tubby (who is reputed to be rather thin-skinned) into a corner and we’d see the real Harper emerge.

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