On the ferry ride to Toronto island, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, standing side-by-side at the stern of the boat, made small talk of the sort necessary to make it seem the photos being taken of them were not meticulously posed. The late afternoon sun lit their faces, the sea breeze brushed their hair, the Toronto skyline gleamed over their shoulders. The photographers on board seemed pleased. And Mr. Dion no doubt took the opportunity to thank Mr. Ignatieff for making that phone call to the wine store this afternoon.
The reception—for the benefit of something called the Victory Fund—was hosted at a restaurant called Paradise. Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff worked the patio, the latter, as usual, looking so relatively unencumbered. The menu: burgers, hot dogs and beer. The soundtrack: Motown, Springsteen, Huey Lewis, Billy Ocean, Bryan Adams, Tom Petty. Standing at the water’s edge, Dion, in beige pants, blue-striped shirt and navy jacket, posed with supporters before a Liberal-branded, maroon backdrop. When a few solo shots were demanded, he did as he surely has been taught—right foot back three inches, hands in pockets, small, toothless smile. (The Prime Minister also likes to pose with one foot slightly behind the other. There must be some consensus on this among the great minds of political posture.)
Not until he was called on to address the crowd did it become apparent that anything was amiss.
In Bradford and again in Oakville, Mr. Dion had seemed, for lack of a better word, confident. That this counts as the least bit newsworthy says something of the low expectations that surround him, but let’s not deny Mr. Dion the compliment. He was disarmingly imperfect, seemingly uncontrived, periodically charming and convincingly impassioned. There was something there to be said for Dion’s claim on high office, something that might not have been possible to point to previously.
Here, in Toronto, something was, for lack of a better word, different. It certainly did not help that he followed Mr. Ignatieff to the podium, the Liberal deputy all fire and brimstone and vaguely eloquent mixed metaphors. But this was more than an unflattering point of comparison. Something was off. There was a nervousness to the crowd. And Dion seemed conscious of the fact that this crowd—perhaps unlike those in Bradford and Oakville—was judging him not on what he said, but on how he said what he said, and what that said about them, their interests and their short-term job security. He stumbled and stammered and mispronounced. Local candidate Rob Oliphant became local candidate Rob Elephant. The stomachs of those watching—the MPs, the candidates, the party staffers and financiers—almost audibly tightened.
If you had been wondering why the Stephane Dion of Ottawa and the Stephane Dion of Oakville could seem so different, here apparently was an explanation—or at least a weird trick of conventional wisdom. It is accepted truth in Ottawa that Stephane Dion is a hopeless cause, a truth of which Mr. Dion is no doubt aware having lived it with it almost every moment of his leadership. (At times, he is so obviously aware of the critics in his midst. Like a 12-year-old boy sent to school in an obviously hideous sweater.) And this accepted truth is based on one primary assumption: that Stephane Dion will never be able to find favour with the people of Oakville. The now obvious irony being that only in Oakville does Stephane Dion seem even vaguely like the leader those in Ottawa wish he would be. (The further irony being that unless Stephane Dion can convince Ottawa he is capable of convincing Oakville, he may stand little chance of governing anything in between.)
If nothing else, his speech on this night was mercifully short. When he was done there was a group photo on stage, a scrum with reporters (that would be yours truly and a reporter from the Hill Times), and then more handshakes and small talk. Organizers had promised a man would soon be out to juggle fire, but he hadn’t performed by the time Dion and his men took their leave, piling into a water taxi for the short trip back to the mainland.
The schedule for Friday morning shows one more town hall. Mary Beth will be there. And with her, perhaps, that Stephane Dion we saw in Oakville.