Will Dion or critics, have the last laugh?

S. Dion, chef du PLC

If Stéphane Dion had heeded critics, he would not enter Parliament this morning as Leader of the Liberal Party.
Mr. Dion was a professor ill-suited for politics, critics said. He was too geeky, too combative, too righteous. He was too unpopular in Quebec. His English was bad. His interpersonal skills were weak.
When Mr. Dion entered the Liberal leadership race, critics scoffed that the decision underscored a foolish and typically stubborn refusal to accept his limitations.
How could a Quebec candidate, intoned the good and the wise of the Liberal Party establishment, defeat titans such as Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae for the top job in a party tired of leaders from Quebec? How could Mr. Dion hope to win with less money and profile, fewer i less flair, creaky English and only middling caucus support? Liberals, and certainly Canadians, would never elect someone who looked like only a slightly better model of the former TV pitch man for Canadian Tire.
Mr. Dion's usual critics in Quebec, who have been hounding him for a decade, were having a field day. Unelectable, they predicted. Out of touch with Quebeckers. Sponsor of the hated Clarity Act. Jean Chrétien's poodle. An egghead.
Yesterday, Quebec reporters were at it again. Tell us, each demanded in turn at the new leader's first press conference, about your evident and unshakable unpopularity in Quebec. How can you ever hope to turn it around? The inference of their questions being: never. At least their favourite punching bag is back. They will be having fun, of that you can be sure, for a narrative has developed in Quebec news media circles, and nothing can shake that narrative.
His critics misunderstand their man. Mr. Dion may yet prove a disaster as Liberal Leader, in Quebec and elsewhere, for he has some of the makings of one. But if his career is any guide, Mr. Dion will be derided and underestimated, then surprise everyone.
Stéphane is one tough cookie behind those geeky glasses, awkward body language and shy, sly grin. He knows who he is, what he believes in, where he wants to go. And he knows how to get there. He is focused and confident, perhaps to a fault. No one outside Quebec knows how tough he has had to be in that province, where he has been mocked, belittled, satirized, pilloried, scorned. His face has been on every secessionist's dartboard. When prime minister Paul Martin dumped him from cabinet in 2003, Mr. Dion could have returned to teaching at the University of Montreal. Except that the secessionists who dominate the social sciences there didn't want him.
Mr. Dion could have taken that Martin slap and sulked, or left politics. Instead, he never stopped working. He campaigned throughout the province in a difficult cause, and won redemption as a minister, this time of the environment.
What critics missed then, and now, is his fierce determination to improve and succeed. Knock him down. Beat him up. Mr. Dion just keeps going forward, sometimes oblivious to the feelings of others, inadvertently rude, annoyingly convinced of the absolute correctness of his analysis. He's a Presbyterian, politically speaking - unadorned, slightly severe, utterly determined, without pretence, searching for self-improvement, anchored in his convictions.
Almost every former ministerial colleague can recount tales of Mr. Dion's righteous rectitude around the cabinet table. He didn't schmooze, make friends or build alliances. He just mastered his briefs, plowed forward and jack-hammered his arguments against any opposition. Not surprisingly, therefore, very few senior members of those cabinets supported him. His intellect, they respected; his political judgment and personal skills they did not.
Mr. Dion's leadership campaign reflected the man. He worked relentlessly. He stayed focused. He knew what he wanted to espouse: a green Canada, a united Canada, a competitive economy.
He called his approach the "three pillars" - social justice, economic development and sustainable development. He rained policy papers on delegates. He remained on message, so that it, rather than Mr. Dion himself, became the campaign - a compensation for his personal weaknesses as a campaigner.
He had the right message - the environment, specifically climate change - that delegates wanted to hear, because they believed in its importance, themselves, and prayed that it would be a winning weapon against the Conservatives.
Mr. Dion gained respect and gave no offence. The formula proved victorious in a race against Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae, who both offended sections of the party. He grew in stature and, dare one say it, wisdom. He was performing better at the campaign's end than the beginning, whereas Mr. Ignatieff was better at the beginning. He did not make mistakes; Mr. Ignatieff did. Mr. Dion gave delegates a policy focus; Mr. Rae gave them none, except himself.
He and his organizers knew the convention would be decided by second and third preferences. The man who did not build alliances in cabinet constructed the ones necessary for leadership victory - most importantly to Gerard Kennedy, but also to Martha Hall Finlay, Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe and, ultimately, to the Chrétien core of the party who had backed Bob Rae but swung massively to Mr. Dion on the final ballot.
His critics delight in portraying him as rigid and tone-deaf. They have missed his growth. His English has improved hugely. Grammatically, it is nearly perfect now, marred occasionally by use of a French structure in an awkward English one. His accent remains thick, but it too will get better with more practice. Put things another way: Mr. Dion's English is streets better than Stephen Harper's French.
He knew what he did not know - raw politics - and signed up several of the smartest strategists in the party to guide his campaign. What they designed, strategically speaking, turned out brilliantly: an outsider's campaign against the party elites by the candidate who had actually spent the most time in the party.
Mr. Dion had served Jean Chrétien and Mr. Martin. He had lived throught the party's civil war but emerged unscathed from it. He could be the candidate of unity in a party desperately searching for one. Whereas his rivals polarized, Mr. Dion united.
Except, as always in Quebec, where the elites, such as they are, continued to spurn him. Perhaps they will be proved correct: Perhaps Mr. Dion will be unable, almost no matter what he does or says, to shatter the image hardened by the secessionists and the news media that he is "anti-Quebec." If they are correct, then the Liberal Party can never rebuild even modestly in that province. Without more support in Quebec, the Liberals will remain far from a majority government, let alone a minority one.
And then there is the final unknown: whether the rest of Canada, having been largely governed by prime ministers from Quebec for almost four decades, will simply not accept another Quebecker running the national show.
The makings of a political disaster are present. Squeezed out of Quebec, spurned in the rest of Canada, Mr. Dion could hasten the Liberals' long-term decline as a national party.
Or, he could continue to surprise his critics by earning the respect, if not the affection, of voters, by seizing the galvanizing issue of the environment, by continuing to grow and learn and, as he has done so often, by exceeding expectations.

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