Stéphane Dion Wins Liberal Leadership

They stood behind him and floated overhead now, the gods and ghosts of Canadian Liberalism. Turner, Chrétien, Martin live on stage at the Palais des Congrès de Montréal. Laurier, King, Pearson, Trudeau and the others in likeness, their photos on banners hanging from the roof.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 18, 2006

Stéphane Dion Wins Liberal Leadership

They stood behind him and floated overhead now, the gods and ghosts of Canadian Liberalism. Turner, Chrétien, Martin live on stage at the Palais des Congrès de Montréal. Laurier, King, Pearson, Trudeau and the others in likeness, their photos on banners hanging from the roof. The face of power and, as Liberals like to style it, of progress, changing in its features over the years but always relaxed and confident.

Every one of these men has become prime minister except poor Edward Blake 120 years ago, and even he got to start a pretty good law firm. The holder of this job, the leader of this party, has always been guaranteed a short ride into the history books.

Now here was the latest among them, tall, rail-thin, squinting as he approached the microphone. "The most exciting race in the history of our party is over," Stéphane DION said. "Let's get ready for the election!"

The crowd roared. Eighty-three per cent of them had not voted for Dion on the first ballot. Hundreds had decided, as late and as reluctantly as any such decision can be made, that Michael Ignatieff represented the lesser of two evils. Those hundreds had rushed to Ignatieff's side, swelling his support on the fourth ballot after it had flatlined for three. A few delegates, disproportionately from Quebec, had fled the hall rather than hear Dion address them as their leader.

This Saturday victory had not come easily. When the convention had begun on Wednesday, almost nobody anticipated its result. There would be little time to celebrate because the job ahead was at least as daunting as the job now done. Stéphane Dion would have to unite his party. Bind up its wounds. Convert at least a few skeptics who saw him as a mulish sourpuss who could only drive voters away. Then head into battle, almost certainly before he was quite ready, against a Prime Minister who just might be the only guy in Ottawa smarter and cockier than him.

Formidable tasks. Dion did what he has usually done, since long before he began one of the most peculiar and memorable political careers in recent Canadian history. He got down to work without much fuss.

Step one: warm up the crowd with a joke. The night before, during the crucial final round of speeches from the leadership candidates, Dion had spoken past his time limit and had his microphone cut off in mid-sentence. Now he was back. "It looks like you really wanted to hear the rest of my speech!"

Step two: energetically flatter the other candidates. In 1993, Kim Campbell had found nothing better to say about Jean Charest than that he was "a hell of a tortoise." No new leader will ever make the same mistake again in this country. Dion sang a little ode to every one of his seven opponents, in ascending order of delegate support.

Sometimes he was quite surprisingly lyrical. It's a little trick he pulls out of his backpack sometimes, just to confound the skeptics. "I didn't think when I was young, watching my hero protect the Canadiens against 40 shots per game, that I would be in Montreal next to him one day," he said of Ken Dryden.

Step three: begin to address his estrangement from much of his own home province, or at least from a certain elite that seeks to lead opinion there. "Québécois!" he shouted. "All of Canada belongs to us, as it does to every Canadian!"

At the Institut d'études politiques de Paris, where Dion honed his debating skills as a young man, students are graded - hard - for presentation as well as content. If you're delivering a talk, half your marks will be for oratorical skill. If you're writing, half your marks will be for the elegance of your composition. Every point is a struggle. The markers are brutal. Some students repeat their second or third year after failing, then repeat it again after failing again. Nothing is ever simply given to students at Sciences Po, as it is called, so Stéphane Dion developed his habits of clear thinking and rigorous expression early.

Students at Sciences Po are taught to divide every argument or analysis into two parts. Never three. Sometimes you have to come up with a novel two-part structure (Stalin's governing style? The rhetoric of a Leninist, the manner of a czar. One, two). Usually you can apply one of the ready-made structures all Sciences Po students carry around in their heads. Immediate and long-term causes. Similarities and differences. Economic factors, social factors.

Rupture and continuity.

Ah, that one's a favourite. What hasn't changed? And on the other hand, what has? This whole Liberal convention had been an effort to emphasize continuity. The party had leaned a bit too heavily on "change" as its theme when it elected Paul Martin in 2003. The results had been unpleasant. Now the party's stage managers had worked overtime to demonstrate that for Liberals, the important things never change. Hence the invitations to Martin, Jean Chrétien and John Turner to speak. Hence the banners with the previous leaders' faces. Hence the presence, here onstage, of every rival in this often bitter campaign, from Joe Volpe to Scott Brison to Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, those former college roommates who had all but finished the campaign with each man's hand wrapped around the other's neck.

Now here they all were to make nice. "All right," Ignatieff had said to Dion, grabbing the victor's hand before they turned to face the crowd together, "let's show these people what unity means!"

There was continuity too, not only in the stagecraft but in the ways Dion's CV matched his predecessors'. Yet another leader from Quebec, after Trudeau, Chrétien, Martin. Yet another man who cut his eye teeth on the national unity debate.

But as is usually the case with this structure, it's the rupture that's more fun to contemplate. At least since Mackenzie King anointed Louis St. Laurent in 1958, the party brass has usually had a preferred candidate, and the preferred candidate has, as a rule, won. Not this time. Not all the riches of Power Corp - scrupulously delivered within tight new spending caps, of course - nor all the wiles of John Rae, the legendary Chrétien campaign manager, had sufficed to deliver this prize to Bob Rae. The unshakable Liberal affection for a handsome front-runner had not worked this time for Michael Ignatieff.

Instead, Dion had lured two outsiders and relative mavericks, Martha Hall Findlay and Gerard Kennedy, to his side as emblems of momentum through the convention's four ballots. Within days, Kennedy and Hall Findlay would seem totemic, living evidence not just that the party hierarchy's choices had been rejected, but that its prerogatives were under siege. MPs still unknown to most Canadians, like Mark Holland and Navdeep Bains, were suddenly kingmakers. And Dion's elaborate platform, centred on an ambitious program of environmental rectitude, had turned the entire LIBERAL PARTY into a (very) late-blooming green movement.

This is rupture - in style, personnel and mission - beyond anything most Liberals thought they could effect. It may yet make Dion Liberalism a very different beast from the Liberalism of the past decade and a half. It ensured that political junkies, who had seen in the year with an unusually fascinating election campaign, would continue to be spoiled as they saw the year out.

Maclean's December 18, 2006