I spent last Sunday hanging around with Stephane Dion. Here is what that was like.
If you’re interested in a director’s cut, full of never-before-seen material, see below.
You can add this as a post-script to what I wrote the night of the 2008 election.
The office of the man who would have been prime minister is located in the corner of an L-shaped suburban strip mall in northwest Montreal, next to Planete Pizza. Twenty-nine months after he led the Liberal party to defeat in the 2008 election—27 months after he nearly led an audacious coalition into government—Stéphane Dion is simply the incumbent candidate for Saint-Laurent–Cartierville. His campaign headquarters was previously occupied by a bank, some of the teller desks are still in place. It is decorated now with campaign posters and a large Canadian flag.
He sits at a desk below a large Liberal banner and a poster of Michael Ignatieff. He doesn’t want to talk about the past, but it’s unavoidable. “Well, we tried our best and it did not work, but I think we fought for what I was committed to as leader, to have a country that would bring together economic growth, social justice and environmental sustainability. I tried to mobilize the country behind this goal and it did not work,” he says. “But what is great in democracy is that if it doesn’t work, you try again. And now I’m very committed to make Mr. Ignatieff the prime minister.”
So here he is. However resounding his defeat—however much he may now be defined by the caricature that was created by the campaign against him—Dion, now 55, is still trying to get a Liberal government elected, seeking for himself a seventh mandate from the good people of Saint Laurent.
He still struggles with the English language. He is still awkward—somehow both stiff and gangly. He still periodically wears a slightly pained expression. He still carries the same leather shoulder bag he’s been carrying since 1996. Afterwards the congregation gathered for coffee and he went from table to table shaking hands and introducing himself. But people still want to shake his hand and pose for pictures. Little old ladies still want to chat him up. He participated in a local five-kilometre race this morning, then showered and changed and made his way to Sunday mass at Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur. From there to a lunch organized by a local Middle Eastern community group, then back in the car to nearby Mount Royal for the campaign launch of his friend Irwin Cotler. Tonight, he’ll head to Laval to help launch the campaign of the Liberal candidate there. At these last two events he is called to address the faithful and he speaks in a tone that is insistent.
He says he thought about getting out of politics, but, of course, he hadn’t really set out to get in. Fifteen years ago, at the behest of Jean Chretien, he put his name forward and set to confronting the national challenge of the 90s: Quebec sovereignty. For that he was vilified in the province, but on that he made his name. Five years ago, by a vote of his party, he was made leader on the promise that he was the right man to face the global challenge of the new century: climate change. For a moment, this seemed to make sense. But then the Conservatives hung a three-word phrase—“Not A Leader”—around his neck. He became the shrugging, hapless Dion, threatening a carbon tax that would, in the words of Stephen Harper, “screw everybody.” He seemed incapable of sufficient response. Indeed, in the waning days of the campaign, his inability to understand an interviewer’s oddly worded question was replayed for the nation, seeming to confirm everything his opponents had said about him.
It has not been easy getting over the defeat. “It’s very difficult every day, because every day I may compare what Mr. Harper is doing as Prime Minister and what we would have done if Canadians would have chosen differently,” says Dion.
He defends the coalition that, however briefly, followed. He says it was the right thing to do when the government declined to deal with the economic crisis. He mocks the Prime Minister for touting an action plan that only came in answer to that coalition. He still believes a price needs to be put on carbon and he says he feels “guilty” if his defeat has made politicians reluctant to deal with the environment.
Liberals seem buoyed this time by the fact that Dion is not their leader and the carbon tax is not their platform. This time, Dion himself believes, it is the Conservatives—with promises of corporate tax cuts and fighter jets—who have a platform that is difficult to sell.
He has been travelling and giving speeches—in India, Spain and Mexico—on the environment and secession. When the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and Conservatives agreed on a committee to review thousands of documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees, it was Dion who Michael Ignatieff appointed to the painstaking task. Asked if he wants to be the environment minister in an Ignatieff cabinet, he defers entirely to his leader. He says it must be difficult for Ignatieff to be suffering from the same kind of attacks he faced three years ago, but that conviction will carry Ignatieff through.
He keeps saying that this is about the future, not the past. But the past informs the future on one point. This election, he says, is about the way we do politics in this country. It’s about the negative campaigns against the current Liberal leader and his predecessor—the personal attacks that cannot be allowed to stand. “This time we need to succeed. Not only because we have a much better plan than them, but because this way to do politics must be punished,” he says. “This way to do politics should not be rewarded. Otherwise, the message will be everyone needs to do the same thing to win.”
He is motivated, he says, by the opportunity to prove to Canadians that his side can provide a better government. “Democracy gives you an opportunity to try again,” he says for at least the second time, “and one day it will work.”
As he was leaving Cotler’s campaign launch, an enthusiastic middle-aged man approached with kind words. “We miss you,” said the man. Dion’s response was quick, almost reflexive: “I’m still here.”