An hour north of Toronto, past the townhouses and the amusement park and the construction and the bales of hay, there is Bradford West Gwillimbury. And down a winding country road, along a creek dyed green with moss for the occasion, past Wanda Street and Tornado Drive and over a small bridge, there is Bradford’s Portugese Cultural Centre, beige walls, brown hardwood floors and passably decorated with red balloons and a Canadian flag out front.
I arrived a little late and thereby missed the ten-year-old girl in cowboy hat, western jacket and cowboy boots who sang country songs to warm up the crowd of 200 or so. By the time I got there, Mr. Dion was in mid-lecture, pacing the stage in brown shoes, beige pants, blue shirt and navy jacket, microphone pinned just below his collar. “You came because you care about your country,” he told the crowd. Which was flattering, if not verifiably true.
When he was through with his opening remarks, the local candidate opened the floor to questions. A balding, middle-aged man who introduced himself as Steve was first to thrust his arm upwards. What are you going to do for those who’ve lost their jobs? What about senior citizens? Then Linda. What are you going to do for those who are disabled, disadvantaged and in need of social services? Then a woman in a blue boa. What do you plan to do for Lake Simcoe?
Next was Keith, with a suggestion. Mr. Dion, he advised, should call the CBC forthwith and ask for airtime so that he and the Prime Minister can thrash this out before the collective eyes of the nation. Keith wore red pants and a Liberal logo’d hat. Dion readily accepted this advice, noting he had indeed already taken it, challenging Mr. Harper to a debate wherever and whenever. Keith, the local candidate announced, had a son-in-law named Peter. Last name, Van Loan.
Then Steve was back up with a question about federal seat distribution in Ontario. He was quite adamant that Dion make an issue of it during the next campaign. A woman presented Dion with a giant, neon green card. Then asked him about universal dental care and nursing home safety. A declared member of the Green party stood up. “How are you going to assure us that your words aren’t just words?” he begged. A man with wavy grey hair asked about oil producers and free trade. Someone asked about Kyoto. Another about Bill C-51. Another about the U.S. presidential election. Another about the Russian invasion of Georgia. Another about the greenhouse industry. Another about Dion’s preferred role for the Canadian military. The vice-president of a local school’s student council wondered what young people could do to help. “That was a very articulated question,” Mr. Dion complimented.
Mr. Dion was not terrible at any of this. He meandered at times, dodged at others, seemed generally too adamant that the conversation stay on the topic of his choice. But he looked relaxed, or at least noticeably less neurotic than he often appears in the presence of the Ottawa press gallery. He cracked jokes that people seemed to be genuinely interested in laughing at. His prickliness flashed only once—when a woman suggested that government support for families was tantamount to discrimination of the childless. On several occasions he was commended on his “courage.”
The local candidate thanked him for coming and Mr. Dion received a standing ovation and then, while everyone was still standing, he offered a few final words. “On a personal note, I’m a Quebecer and in some ways I chose twice Canada—when I was born and when I decided not to be a separatist. And many of my friends are still separatists. I came into politics at the request of Mr. Chretien to be sure that Lake Simcoe would be part of my country as much as Lac-St-Jean is part of your country. And now I want to be Prime Minister of our great country to be sure that these two lakes and what they represent, in terms of communities and quality of life and strong economies and strong agriculture will be there for our children and grandchildren. And if Lake Simcoe and Lac-St-Jean remain part of the same country and if we do the right choices, especially at the next election, I’m very confident that we will succeed in English et en Francais.”
It was not entirely eloquent. The rhetorical stretch—from healing our greatest national division to reconciling humanity’s position in the global ecosystem—weakens the more thought you give to it. And his mention of Lake Simcoe was surely the political equivalent of the rock star who declares himself happy to be back in Buffalo.
But this was also, almost definitely, as potentially endearing a case he has yet made for himself. Which is, perhaps, something.
On his way out he posed for pictures and shook hands and listened to still more advice. The Liberal camera crew made sure to get a shot of their leader shaking the hand of the government house leader’s father-in-law. The last person to get Mr. Dion’s attention before he was whisked out the door to scrum with local reporters was an excruciatingly earnest young man who declared, “This is the most excitement we’ve had in this town. Ever.” Which, in fairness, likely says more about the this part of the country than this man who stubbornly seeks to govern it.