From 1896 to 2004, a time of 108 years, the Liberal Party of Canada dominated Canadian politics. In that time, it produced eight prime ministers and had eight official leaders chosen by the party. When Paul Martin retired, Bill Graham became interim leader, but the next official leader of the party would be Stephane Dion and the darkest chapter of the party’s history would begin. Not since Edward Blake, who led the party in the 1880s, would an official leader of the party not become prime minister.
While Stephane Dion had a long career in Parliament, he would be remembered for his time as leader of the party, running in the 2008 election against Stephen Harper. Today, I am looking at Dion and his life.
Stephane Dion was born on Sept. 28, 1955, in Quebec City, the second of five children to Denyse, a real estate agent from Paris, and Leon, who was an academic in the province. Raised in a modest home, he was often bullied because his family was secular, while the province was very much Roman Catholic.
His family was highly involved in the Quiet Revolution in Quebec and often had many prominent individuals over at their home, including future Premier of Quebec Jacques Parizeau. Dion would say quote:
“I would hide in a corner and try and make myself invisible, so I could absorb, take it all in.”
Dion would name his first pet, a turtle, Trotsky and he would teach his parrot to repeat “ideology”.
Dion began to follow a Marxist belief, often to go against his father. The family would sit for dinner every Sunday and Dion would try his political arguments against his father. Dion would say quote:
“My father reduced my arguments to nothing, but he would never hurt me or put me down. He would always save an honourable exit, a way out for me to save face. I haven’t been as good at that as my father was.”
Dion would study political science at Laval, and it was there he would meet Janine Krieber, a fellow student in the same program, whom he would marry in 1986. Her father was a photographer from Austria who had come to Canada for a better life. Her mother was a journalist and would become a bureaucrat in the government. She would say quote:
“I grew up in a nontraditional milieu. In my family, women all had careers.”
Louis Balthazar would teach Dion at university and would say of him quote:
“He was very self-assured, almost cocky, I’d say. He had this typical French trait, they love arguing and debating, they think nothing of correcting you, even putting you down when they can.”
In 1977, he would earn his Bachelor of Arts degree, followed by his Master’s in 1979. By this point, he and Janine were dating, and they would travel to France to live for several years, following by a brief stay in Washington. Dion would say of that time quote:
“We spent four years piled up inside a micro-apartment, then another year in a hole infested with rats and cockroaches on Jefferson Avenue in Washington, penniless, living on pasta. We’re solid.”
At the same time that Dion was in university, the separatist movement was rising in Quebec and Dion would find himself attracted to it. Dion would state later quote:
“I wanted to challenge my dad, the way to become an adult sometimes is to say the contrary to your father. Each evening, I would try out a new argument I heard on the separatist network and my faster was demolishing it. My father very quietly, very respectfully, was refuting me, without insulting me.”
Eventually, Dion would abandon the separatist cause and over time would become more committed to federalism, which would shape his political leanings later in life.
In 1986, following his marriage, Dion and his wife Janine would travel to Peru to adopt their only child, Jeanne. The couple had found out they were unable to have children, which led to their marriage as they felt it was important to adopt a child as a married couple.
Dion would work as a teaching assistant at the University of Moncton in 1984, before going to the Universite de Montreal where he would teach until 1996, with a specialization in public administration and organizational analysis and theory. Between 1987 and 1995, Dion would publish several books on political science, public administration and management.
The Meech Lake Accord would prove to be a turning point for Dion. While for many in Quebec, it led them to the Bloc Quebecois, the failure of the accord would instead lead him the other way. Dion began to direct himself towards an analysis of Quebec nationalism and he would prepare a presentation while he was a guest scholar at Brookings Institution in Washington. He would state later quote:
“I sat down at my computer at 11 o’clock and at noon I had a text that was so interesting that the Americans wanted to publish it. It was on that day that I realized I was truly a federalist.”
Dion would become a key figure in criticizing the sovereignty movement, which brought him to the attention of Aline Chretien, who in turn urged her husband to recruit him after the Quebec Referendum. During the referendum, Dion would appear on television frequently, becoming one of the few Quebec intellectuals who defended the federalist position.
Lucien Bouchard would say of him quote:
“Mr. Dion is a small man. He doesn’t exist for me.”
Dion would attack the Parti Quebecois as well, stating quote:
Chretien listened to his wife, and he would appointed Dion as the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs before he was even in Parliament. In the subsequent byelection, Dion ran in a safe Liberal riding and was easily elected on March 25, 1996. Dion would hold the riding for the rest of his political career.
His father would tell him, quote:
“All kinds of people will want to define you in all kinds of ways that will not reflect yourself or your thoughts. You will, forever, be a mere politician for the true scholars and a mere scholar for the true politicians.”
His wife Janine supported him in politics, stating quote:
“We’ve done crazy things before, and this could be fun.”
Dion would say quote:
“We agreed that I’d go into politics for a time that it takes to solve a problem, then we would revert to our chosen life.”
As it turned out, Dion would stay long after that problem was solved.
Dion was quickly tasked with a major project and that was challenging the arguments of the Quebec sovereignty movement after the referendum had finished so closely with 50.58 per cent voting not to leave Canada. On Sept. 30, 1996, Dion submitted three questions to the Supreme Court of Canada regarding the Secession of Quebec. These questions asked whether or not any legislature could separate under the Constitution of Canada, whether international law allowed it and would domestic or international law take precedence in Canada in the secession situation.
Dion would publicly argue that if Canada were divisible, so too was Quebec, which meant that the province could not expect to keep all its territory if it left Canada. He recognized that Quebec has a right to independence, but not without first negotiating terms of separation with Canada.
On Aug. 20, 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that Quebec does not have the right to secede unilaterally under Canadian or international law, but if Quebec residents wanted to secede, the federal government would have to enter into negotiations.
In October 1999, Dion would organize and host the First International Conference on Federalism, in which Quebec sovereigntists leaders were invited to speak. President Bill Clinton would also speak, and he would echo the Supreme Court’s decision. He would state quote:
“Is there any abuse of human rights, are minorities as well as majority rights respected?”
On Dec. 13, 1999, Dion would present the Clarity Act to the House of Commons to establish conditions under which the Government of Canada could enter into negotiations that might lead to secession following a vote for it in a province. The Act was passed on March 15, 2000, with the support of the Liberals and Reform Party, as well as most of the members of the NDP.
Dion’s opposition to Quebec separation would have the effect of lowering support in Quebec to separatism to as low as 24 per cent by October 1999. The attacks over the Clarity Act were also aimed directly at Dion, and Bernard Landry, the leader of the Partis Quebecois would call Dion the most hated politician in the history of Quebec.
Dion would then gain a prominent role in the Chretien government during the time of the Sponsorship Scandal, which came about after the referendum as the government began to funnel pro-Canada material into the province, but much of the money was being given in less than legitimate ways to various firms in the province. When the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities, known as the Gomery Commission, began, Dion stated that he was aware of a disproportionately large number of sponsorship funds going to Quebec by mid-2001 but he that he was never involved directly in the administration of the program. Dion was on record of being critical of the program and felt that it would not work to sway Quebecers away from separatism. Dion would be exonerated of all responsibility in the inquiry.
In 2003, when Paul Martin became prime minister following the retirement of Chretien, Dion was dropped from cabinet as Martin attempted to distance himself from Chretien.
This would only last for a time until after the 2004 election. On July 20, 2004, Paul Martin appointed Dion as the Minister of the Environment. Dion would state that a new industrial revolution was beginning and that it would focus on environmentally sustainable technologies and products.
In October 2005, after Canada signed the Kyoto Accord, he would nominate Allan Amey, an oil and gas executive, to head up the $1 billion Clean Fund. Dion would also decline to protect Sakinaw and Cultus sockeye salmon under the Species at Risk Act because it would quote:
“Cost the sockeye fishing industry $125 million in lost revenue in 2008.”
This decision, along with the Amey appointment, would lead to criticism of Dion from environmentalists. The government during Dion’s tenure as minister did not make any major progress to reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and Dion’s Project Green initiative was criticized for being timid and lacking any meaningful regulations.
In February of 2006, the Liberals fell into the Official Opposition role for the first time since 1993 and Martin would resign as leader of the party soon after. On April 7, 2006, Dion announced his candidacy for the leadership of the party, stating he would focus on social justice, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. Most of the media wrote Dion off as a lower-key candidate, with most of the focus on Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae.
NDP leader Jack Layton would state that Dion was quote:
“A man of principle and conviction and therefore almost certain not to be elected leader of the Liberal Party.”
As the leadership election approached, Dion gained support from several areas, including Muslim voters. Five Muslim Dion supporters in Calgary would say quote:
“We want the person that’s best for Canada, so definitely for us that’s Stephane Dion, somebody we are behind 100 per cent.”
On Dec. 2, 2006, Dion finished third on the first ballot with only 17.8 per cent of the vote. During his first speech, Dion’s microphone was cut off suddenly and many did not give him much of a chance of winning. On the second ballot, Gerard Kennedy put his support behind Dion and by the third ballot Dion held a lead of 37 per cent. Bob Rae then backed out and his delegation backed Dion. On the fourth ballot, Dion was elected with 54.7 per cent of the vote, becoming the 11th leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Dion would tell his supporters, quote:
“The most exciting race in the history of our party is over. Let’s get ready for the election.”
One cabinet colleague would say of Dion, quote:
“Stephane is one interesting animal to watch. Dudley Do-Right with a lust for the jugular.”
Marjaleena Repo, a Dion supporter would say quote:
“It’s a dream come true. The little engine that could.”
Michael Ignatieff, the man many thought would win, stated quote:
“We have chosen a great leader. We have chosen a man of principle, a man of vision, a man of courage, a man of conviction and he will have my entire support.”
Dion would was seen as a unique leader for the party, especially after the millionaire Paul Martin and the seasoned politician of Jean Chretien. Maclean’s would write of him quote:
Another reason that Dion didn’t drive much was that he was colour blind and could not see the difference between red and green lights.
While Dion had the image of a nerd for some, he was highly athletic, enjoying playing golf, skiing and hiking, as well as fishing. Dion would say quote:
“Fishing is the only time when I can be patient.”
His wife Janine would say of him quote:
“Stephane is an original. He has an innovative mind. He will always surprise you and pop up where you expect him the least. That’s what makes him interesting, and so funny in his own way.”
Dion would inherit a party that was at one of its lowest points in its history, with resentment still in the party over the battle for leadership between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.
Dion would say quote:
“I am perfectly well-prepared for that job.”
Around this time, Dion and his wife Janine would purchase a Husky, which they would name Kyoto, to cheer themselves up after the Liberals lost the 2006 election.
With Dion’s election as leader, the Liberal Party surged in the polls. On Dec. 8, 2006, a poll found 38 per cent of Canadians would vote Liberal, while only 32 per cent would vote Conservative. Unfortunately, that would be the high point for the Liberals and the Conservatives quickly regained their support soon after.
In early 2007, Dion would lead his caucus to reject the 2007 Conservative budget, which led the Conservatives to launch a series of attack ads aimed at Dion, attacking him for his record as environment minister and his leadership abilities.
On Feb. 27, 2007, Dion’s Liberals, along with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois voted down the Harper government proposal to extend provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Act by another three years. These measures would have allowed police to arrest and detain terror suspects for three days without a warrant and allowed judges to force witnesses to testify in terror cases.
As 2007 wore on, there would be internal conflict in the party, especially after the Liberals lost badly in three Quebec by-elections, including one riding that had been held by the Liberals almost continuously since 1935. Marcel Proulx, the Quebec lieutenant of Dion, would resign only hours before the throne speech by Harper, taking the fall for the three by-election losses.
In January 2008, Dion and Ignatieff would travel to Afghanistan to visit a provincial reconstruction team. The visit was leaked to the public by a Conservative junior minister and Dion heavily criticized his leak by the Conservatives stating it could have put him at risk in the country.
On Sept. 7, 2008, an election was called, and Dion was about to head into his first election as leader of the party. Prior to the election, Dion had also agreed not to run a Liberal in the riding of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, which was criticized by the Conservatives.
As soon as the writ was dropped, Dion began to attack the Conservatives.
It went back at Dion though. With English as his second language, he had difficulty at one campaign stop answering a question by an English reporter, requiring Dion to ask three times for him to repeat the question. Harper would attack this, stating quote:
Dion, who did have hearing issues, would state that Harper had no class. He would state quote:
“Maybe it’s because I have a hearing problem, maybe because English is my second language, but I did not understand the question.”
Gilles Duceppe would attack Harper over it, stating that many English-speaking politicians have little to no ability to speak French. Of course, Duceppe also attacked Dion over it, stating quote:
“The real question is that I think Dion understood the question. The real problem wasn’t the language, it was the substance. He had nothing to say.”
Layton would defend Dion over it, stating he had struggled with questions too. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin would support Dion over the matter as well.
Harper remained more popular than Dion in Canada, polling at 51 per cent compared to 42 per cent for Dion.
Dion would put forward a policy called The Green Shift, which would create an ecotax on carbon while reducing personal and corporate income taxes. Dion stated this would generate $15 billion in revenue. The plan was attacked by Harper who compared it to the National Energy Program that was created by the Liberal government in the 1970s. Layton would also criticize the program. The Liberals would also be sued by Green Shift Inc. for $8.5 million over trademark infringement.
Dion’s wife Janine also stated she was being muzzled by the Liberals, although the party denied this, but some insiders had concerns that she would not stick to the party line and would take focus away from her husband. She would also refuse to introduce Dion at a women’s event because she felt that the speech prepared for her was undignified.
The election would not end well for the Liberals and Dion. They would lose 18 seats to finish with 77, but they would still remain in the Official Opposition, well ahead of the Bloc Quebecois who finished third.
With the election loss, Dion became the first Liberal Opposition Leader to fail to make a net gain in seats at his first election since Lester B. Pearson in 1958. Dion would state quote:
“If people are asking why, it’s because I failed.”
After the election, there was talk of the Liberals and NDP forming a coalition to bring down the Conservative government and take power in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Harper would state that he would do everything in his power to prevent this. He would prorogue Parliament to prevent his government from falling. Dion would then air a rebuttal video that was out of focus and delivered late to the networks. For many, this was seen as a symptom of his leadership woes.
Dion would come under pressure to step down as leader and on Dec. 8, he would announce he would resign the leadership as soon as a successor was found.
Dion would say in a statement he chose to resign due to changing political circumstances brought on by the new Liberal-NDP coalition. He would state quote:
“There is a sense in the party and certainly in the caucus that given these new circumstances the new leader needs to be in place before the House resumes. I agree. I recommend this course to my party and caucus. So, I have decided to step aside as leader of the Liberal Party effective as soon as my successor is duly chosen.”
On Dec. 10, 2008, Michael Ignatieff was chosen as the new leader. With that, Dion became the second permanent leader of the Liberal Party to not become prime minister since Edward Blake in 1887. When he retired, he became the shortest serving non-interim leader of the Liberal Party since Confederation, having served for 740 days, compared to the 855 days by Paul Martin, the next shortest.
When Ignatieff named a shadow cabinet, Dion was not given a critical role in it and for the next few years, Dion stayed out of the limelight.
On Oct. 25, 2009, a poll found that Ignatieff had a lower popularity than Dion in the party, and a month later Janine Dion wrote a scathing letter on her Facebook page, criticizing Ignatieff’s ability to lead the party.
After the disastrous 2011 election when the Liberal Party fell to third place for the first time in its history, Dion was able to hold onto his seat, while nearly 40 other Liberal MPs lost theirs. He was one of just seven Liberal MPs re-elected in his province.
Interim leader Bob Rae would name Dion to be the Liberal Critic for Intergovernmental Affairs.
During the 2015 election, Dion mostly campaigned outside of his riding, and he would help the Liberal Party have one of the biggest turnarounds in its history when the party surged to a huge majority under new leader Justin Trudeau.
On Nov. 4, 2015, Dion was appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and as chair of the committee on environment and climate change. As Foreign Affairs Minister, Dion would seek to get Canada re-engaged with the world, with a focus on multilateralism, climate change and the United Nations. He would also justify a $15 billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia because it protected Canadian jobs.
On Jan. 10, 2017, Dion was replaced as Minister of Foreign Affairs by Chrystia Freeland. Prime Minister Trudeau would state that he asked Dion to take on a senior role in the government. Dion would say quote:
“I shall deploy my efforts outside active politics. Politics is not the only way to serve one’s country.”
Dion would soon retire from politics shortly after the cabinet shuffle. In his farewell speech on Jan. 31, 2017, he would state he had accepted the position of Ambassador to the EU and Germany. He would state quote:
“In its own way, the European continent is facing the same challenges as us, ensuring that openness and inclusion triumphs over exclusion and xenophobia, ensuring a path to inclusive growth and demonstrating that free trade be combined with workers’ rights and respect for the environment.”
He had turned down a job offer to be a guest professor at the University of Montreal. He would say quote:
“I almost said yes, because in my eyes there is no better profession than that of a teacher.”
While he would become the Ambassador to Germany, his position with the EU was downgraded to special envoy.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, National Post, Wikipedia, Red Deer Advocate, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal,