Stephane Dion may not be a favourite son of Quebec, but he is a native son in a province where blood runs thicker than water.
Brian Mulroney used to tell the story of riding in from the airport with a cab driver who had the radio tuned to a talk-show discussion of Pierre Trudeau’s visit to Quebec City in 1976, when he famously called Robert Bourassa a "mangeur de hot dog."
"Ah, M’sieur Trudeau," the cabbie said, "he’s an SOB but he’s our SOB."
Similarly, Dion may not be popular with the Quebec political class, as reflected by the incredulous headline in Monday’s La Presse : "Shock wave in Quebec." Quite apart from their obvious dislike and disdain for Dion, some pundits may have some explaining to do as to why they didn’t see the possibility of Dion emerging as a compromise choice at last weekend’s Liberal convention in Montreal.
At the end of the day, as between one leading candidate who had been out of the country for the last 30 years, and another who had been in another party for the last 30 years, the Liberals chose one of their own, one who had been in the most difficult battles of the last 10 years.
Even before he became a Liberal, the No committee put up Dion as a combative talking head to defend Canada on French-language TV in the bruising 1995 referendum campaign. That’s how he first got the attention of Jean Chretien, who recruited the Universite de Montreal poli-sci prof as his minister of intergovernmental affairs. Dubbed the unity minister in English-speaking Canada, he became the father of the Clarity Act, which defined rules for independence, requiring a clear answer to a clear question.
Seen as a champion of Canada in the rest of the country, he was widely reviled in Quebec as a hardline federalist who, like Trudeau before him, put his own province in its place. No wonder they liked him in the Rest of Canada — a Quebecer telling Quebecers to shove it. Yet the promised demonstrations against the Clarity Act never materialized, and in the 2000 election, the Liberals actually increased their popular vote and seat representation from Quebec.
His reputation as a hardliner on Quebec’s place in Canada has more to do with his stridency than his record. He was a supporter of the Meech Lake Accord and called Trudeau’s campaign against it "the worst constitutional error in the history of this country." As intergovernmental affairs minister, he successfully negotiated a constitutional amendment with the Parti Quebecois government to replace confessional school boards with linguistic ones. Just before the convention, Stephen Harper consulted with him on the wording of the parliamentary resolution affirming a Quebecois nation within a united Canada. As long as it was framed in what he has called the sociological sense of the word, Dion could live with it.
While his image may be a liability in Quebec — he was reportedly booed at Rocket Richard’s funeral — the facts permit him to tell another story. As he has said himself, he is often underestimated, a great personal attribute in politics. As he has proven ever since the referendum, he can take a punch. The man doesn’t know how to quit.
Dumped from the Martin cabinet in 2003, forced to endure the humiliation of a contested nomination in his Montreal riding of St. Laurent in 2004, he doggedly stayed in the game. In the last week of the 2004 campaign, the Liberals, desperate to hang on in Quebec, sent Dion in from the bench. Suddenly in favour again, he rallied the Liberal vote by playing the unity card, polarizing the election with the Bloc Quebecois. The federalist alternative, the Conservatives, plunged from 15% in mid-campaign polls to 8% on election day, and the Liberals rose five points to 33%, salvaging 21 seats.
Dion was rewarded for his loyal team play by being named environment minister. This allowed him to re-brand himself in Quebec as the champion of Kyoto rather than a hardliner on federalism.
Dion is not without challenges in Quebec. He has always denied the existence of the fiscal imbalance, and if Harper can make a deal with Jean Charest on that before the next provincial election, Dion will be squeezed hard in French-speaking ridings.
But the Liberals are certain to hold on to their 13 English-speaking and allophone seats in the Montreal region, and from there he only needs to grow 20 seats elsewhere in the province to put the Liberals back to where they were in the Chretien years — in government. If Dion is able to re-polarize the electorate as between the Bloc and the Liberals, the Harper Conservatives could be squeezed out.
No favourite son, but still a son of Quebec, Dion should be respected by his opponents in a province where the voters have a history of voting for one of their own.
L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy Options, the magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.