Once Upon a Country

In Stéphane Dion the Liberals have a new narrator and perhaps a hero. All now depends on the story he tells and how the Canadian everyman reacts.
[This story won a National Magazine Award gold medal in the Politics and Public Interest category.]

At the moment of Confederation, Montreal controlled two-thirds of the country’s wealth and despite John A. Macdonald’s tipsy, heroic efforts at national unity, it remained a city of brilliant divisions: French and English; Protestant and Catholic; the Scottish commercial aristocracy and the Irish labourers who worked in their factories and mills. The Scots lived in the impressive, architecturally eclectic stone mansions of the Square Mile that were built with fortunes made from furs, shipping, flour, and beer. These were tough, often uneducated, ingenious men who imagined the new country with a mixture of nobility and larceny. Down the hill, on the regularly flooded streets of Griffintown, amid outbreaks of typhoid and violence, the Irish saw it merely as refuge. To the east were the francophones with their churches and history, who saw the country as a missed opportunity.

Montreal has the natural divisions of a political convention, and a marvellous political pedigree. It was the scene of the Pacific Scandal that brought down Macdonald’s government and the sponsorship scandal that sank Paul Martin. Montreal is where Brian Mulroney’s team went to the Old Brewery Mission and signed up a busload of addled, homeless supporters in exchange for free beer—and finished twenty-seven votes ahead of Joe Clark as a result. Former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis distributed jobs, whisky, appliances, fear, and salvation to the working poor of Montreal for almost two decades, getting out the vote with the dark zeal of a missionary. Montreal has seen Drapeau’s folly, Trudeau’s patronage, and an army of bagmen exiting the Ritz-Carlton’s Maritime bar into the night, a town where politics has the collective memory of a killing floor. It was Montreal that D’Arcy McGee was pining for in 1868 after giving a midnight speech in the House of Commons on the merits of Confederation, minutes before he was gunned down in front of his Ottawa boarding house. Mulroney retreated to Montreal after decimating the Conservatives and became a bagman himself, leaving the Queen Elizabeth Hotel with Karlheinz Schreiber’s cash. If it was no longer the most powerful city, it remained a seductress, the locus of deals and good times, and Quebec remained the political prize, the key to a majority.

The Montreal to which the delegates came in the last days of November was basking in record temperatures and jokes about global warming. The candidates came with their separate versions of what the Liberal Party was. The listless tenure of Paul Martin hung like low smoke in the hills, his leadership largely indistinguishable from middle management and tainted by the sponsorship scandal. Jean Chrétien had overseen the country with great cunning and little imagination, a folksy, ruthless caretaker who had slain the deficit and maintained power. The greatest political strength of the party had been the profound disarray of the conservative movement. The Liberal Party has always been a lucrative middle ground, so lucrative that the Liberals campaigned on the notion of the happy medium in the last election, offering unpalatable opponents as the central reason to vote for them. In Montreal they were assembling the Liberal Frankenstein, stitching new ideas onto salvageable party history.

Inside the Clockwork Orange architecture of the Palais des congrès, with its wide white hallways and oversized graphics, there were banners of past Liberal leaders hanging from the rafters like hockey heroes, starting with Alexander Mackenzie, the prudent former stonemason who had quit school at fourteen, a teetotalling Presbyterian to offset Macdonald’s excesses; then Edward Blake, who wasn’t elected prime minister; then the first giant, Wilfrid Laurier; and Mackenzie King, no giant, but made large by history and sheer numbers—prime minister for twenty-two years, leader of the party for twenty-nine, his innate loopiness balanced by a light but sure hand on the tiller; the avuncular Louis St. Laurent; another giant in Pearson; followed by Trudeau, who got the loudest cheers at the convention; then Turner, in office three months, a casualty; and Chrétien, a leaner, meaner King. And finally Martin, his two years in office already undone by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives (the national daycare program, the Kelowna Accord), he is remembered more fondly as a finance minister. It was clear that the salvageable history lay in Laurier, Pearson, and Trudeau, but it was unclear what would be tacked on to it.

The north foyer, a large open space that stared upward to long escalators, was the initial battleground, the place where the high-school tribalism of convention politics was first staged. In the first few days, amid perspective plenaries, statutory-compliance workshops, and fundraising sessions, the different tribes occupied the foyer in loud, demonstrative shows of support and the first preenings of mating: we are the strongest, come and join us. Stéphane Dion arrived, buoyed by his supporters, shyly basking in the adulation as they pumped their placards and chanted his name. He looked genuinely surprised that it was all for him.

Dion’s slightly weedy academic mien had grown on the electorate in the months leading to the convention. He was being tentatively embraced in Quebec and had enjoyed fleeting moments of genuine statistical possibility, but he came to Montreal in fourth place. I had interviewed Dion in September, after first watching him on television, a medium that squeezes his intellect into unsnappy catchphrases. Dion whipped through his Three Pillar plan—economic prosperity, social justice, and environmental sustainability—as the host pleasantly admitted he would never vote for him. Afterwards, Dion sat down and expanded on his views in professorial detail, explaining his virtuous circle, a sustainable government for the twenty-first century: the forward-looking environmental policies would stimulate industry to respond with innovative technology to produce lesspolluting products, and the health-care system would, in time, benefit from fewer patients as the chemicals and toxins that haunt our every step were reduced and removed. If he was without charisma, there were flashes of wit. He was shouldering a little of the baggage from the previous administration, was its chief advocate (“We made the difficult decision to put the fiscal house in order” ) and occasional critic (“We could have done more”}. In the leadership debates his passion tended to sound shrill, and his meticulous policies were received as hectoring rather than deliverance. But who has the most experience, he asked; who has the best policies, and who has had to make the fewest apologies?

Gerard Kennedy’s people had white kerchiefs with GK on them and they stood around their leader in the north foyer chanting those initials, prompted by a designated maestro. Kennedy spoke to them in brief snippets about renewal as Justin Trudeau flanked him, a Kennedy scarf around his neck.

Kennedy came as a potential king-maker and as conciliator, mending rifts in the party he hoped to inherit, a diplomat who was treading carefully toward a New Liberalism. Hanging back, he let Dion and Bob Rae tear at front-runner Michael Ignatieff. While campaigning, Kennedy had gone to Ryerson University in Toronto to talk to business students, celebrating his relative youth among the future managers, moguls, and hustlers, who on that day were slouched in low-cut jeans, Tibetan symbols tattooed on their lower backs, checking their BlackBerries and observing Kennedy with a sense of discovery. Voter turnout in the eighteen- to twenty-one-year-old bracket was 39 percent in the 2004 election, and statistics indicate that the tendency not to vote becomes ingrained and follows young voters as they age.They remain a politically lethargic but coveted group. The media outnumbered the students, the event less about reaching out to students than showing the televised image of reaching out to students. Kennedy told them that the New Liberalism embraced an entrepreneurial culture and that Canada needed to embrace it as well or risk being left behind. He was forty-six years old and appeared content to stare at his political future shimmering on the horizon like Mecca. Michael Ignatieff had courted Kennedy and left disappointed. Dion dined with him, and they fashioned a tentative pact. Dion was a francophone Quebecer; if he won, following Liberal tradition the next leader would be an anglophone from outside the province. Kennedy was of the West, where money and power were shifting. As he reminded delegates, it was time to stop spotting the Conservatives eighty seats west of Kenora every election. He put forth little policy that could be attacked and concentrated on being a statesman, a leader-in-waiting.

Bob Rae’s supporters, like Rae himself, were the most subdued. Rae brought the sensibility he had displayed as premier of Ontario, a sensibility he had dragged through the towns of Ontario like a cross, though in nostalgic memory Rae’s compassionate confusion fared better than Mike Harris’s Dickensian putsch. His candidacy was one of faith rather than policy: he is a decent ethical man and he will lead a decent ethical government. In political terms, Rae was reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, a good man who magnified the complexities of governing an ungovernable country and who aged visibly under the burden, frightening Americans, who quickly retreated to the calming void of Ronald Reagan.

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1 comment(s)

Belinda BeatonNovember 15, 2008 05:05 EST

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have found this well written and it is one of your more compelling pieces.

And it is a little sad as well.

Belinda Beaton D. Phil., Oxford University

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