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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.

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