par Peter O'Neil, The Vancouver Sun
MONTREAL - Newly crowned Liberal leader Stephane Dion said yesterday his French-accented English and Quebec roots won't prevent him from winning the confidence of western Canadians in an election he expects in early 2007.
Mr. Dion's critics, responding to his stunning win Saturday, said he is a political unknown in Western Canada whose French accent -- and his residence in a province that has produced most prime ministers over the past half-century -- could be a handicap.
"More and more Canadians are speaking English as their second language, coming from other countries," Mr. Dion told The Vancouver Sun.
"And it does not prevent them to succeed in our country."
He said he doesn't believe his province of origin will matter to voters.
Mr. Dion, expected to face Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the first time as leader in Parliament today, credited his strong campaign stand on the environment for his win.
But he said he wouldn't have defeated front-runner Michael Ignatieff and the other better-known candidates if not for the work of his B.C.-based national campaign team.
Mr. Dion said it won't be long before Canadians stop saying "Stephane Who?" when they hear his name.
"I'm more known today than I was two days ago. And Mr. Harper was not so much known and he became prime minister."
Mr. Dion, who will meet with caucus members today, said he will tell Canadians that environmental sustainability is as important a goal in the 21st century as was the battle against chronic budget deficits in the 1990s.
"We are the party that helped Canada get out of bankruptcy," said Mr. Dion, 51, a former political scientist who served as national unity minister under Jean Chretien and as environment minister under Paul Martin.
Two B.C. MPs said Mr. Dion faces an uphill battle to win voter trust after the party, internally divided and wounded by the sponsorship scandal, was booted from office by voters.
"He's an experienced politician and a thoroughly decent man," Conservative James Moore said.
"The downside for him is that there wasn't one member of Parliament or senator that supported his leadership. He is without a serious base of support in Western Canada. And I think if he was walking in downtown Vancouver, I don't know if very many people would know who he is or stop him for an autograph, because he's a pretty unknown guy out on the West Coast."
Selling Stephane to Canadians
'Stephane Who?' remains little known to western voters