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The Feast of the Epiphany marks the moment the Magi, the three kings who had followed the Star of Bethlehem, finally laid eyes on the baby Jesus. In today's secular Quebec, it is rarely observed. But at the home of lapsed Catholics Stéphane Dion and Janine Krieber, the sixth day of Januaryis still celebrated the old way -- with a galette des rois, or kings' cake. As tradition dictates, a regal figurine is hidden in the marzipan-filled pastry, and whoever is lucky enough to be served the slice that contains it becomes king for the day.

"There's something about Stéphane and the Epiphany," says Ms. Krieber, who has been Mr. Dion's partner and intellectual soulmate since they met as graduate students on the Laval University campus in the late 1970s. "It's always him who gets the king. This year, too.''

Few delegates to last month's Liberal convention could have known of Mr. Dion's extraordinary winning streak at home, or of his own personal epiphanies, before they crowned him their leader. Indeed, there is much they did not know about the man they are counting on to lead their party back into government. And much of what they think they know of him - his visceral disdain for Quebec nationalism, his support for a strong central government, his reasons for championing the Clarity Act - may, in fact, be misguided.

Stéphane Dion, for all his insistence on clarity, remains much misunderstood.

This may be the bane of any intellectual who seeks elected office in an age when sound bites, simple formulas (federalists good, sovereigntists bad) and, above all, celebrity define the political process. Blessed with celebrity to burn, Michael Ignatieff insisted on thinking out loud, as intellectuals tend to do, and it may have cost him the crown.

Mr. Dion is an intellectual as well. But unlike Mr. Ignatieff - and most of all, unlike Pierre Trudeau, whom many Liberals mistakenly consider his spiritual father - he is not an abstract thinker. Despite his absurdist sense of humour (Monty Python meets Louis de Funès), he has no time for metaphysics. A future king maybe; a philosopher not.

He is steeped in the theories of great minds from Aristotle to Raymond Aron. But after earning his doctorate in France - a country long on talk, shorter on action - he returned to Canada with a desire for the concrete. His life has been one big clarity act, seeking to refine and implement his ideas about the proper relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada, between the provinces and Ottawa and, more recently, between Canada and the planet. He knows what he stands for - but many Liberals and most Canadians still do not.

Who, then, is this strange, and strangely successful, political animal, who can be insufferably haughty and tenacious on one occasion and hopelessly self-conscious and socially awkward the next? Let's take an intimate look at the man some say will be our next prime minister.

Stéphane Maurice Dion was born on Sept. 28, 1955, in Quebec City, the second of the five children of Léon Dion, then a young academic at Laval University, and his feisty French-born wife, Denyse Kormann. The family had just moved from their small apartment on rue Cartier to a modest bungalow in suburban Sillery. The new subdivision was sparsely populated, and their backyard had a frog pond on one side and dense forest on the other. It was a boy's paradise. When young Stéphane wasn't catching toads and snakes, he was usually caught up in an imaginary world inhabited by more daunting creatures.

"My first interest was for the society of animals, not of man," he recalls. "We had a neighbour named Gaston Moisan, a biologist who was a deputy minister of natural resources. He set traps for the rabbits, to band them, and used to take me with him. He was 5-foot-7, but he was a giant for me."

A charming childhood anecdote - except, according to Mr. Moisan, it never happened. "I don't know how he could have imagined that," the retired bureaucrat and university professor says. "I had nothing to do with Stéphane. And I never sensed any interest on his part for my work."

Could he have dreamed it? "Stéphane had a lot of imagination as a child," chuckles his older brother Patrice, 53 - he's the one who went on to become a microbiologist and now teaches plant science at Laval. "He was always creating his own fantasies. And he had a fascination with animals, especially with wolves and foxes."

Young Stéphane became fascinated with the "society of man" as soon as he realized that the Dion household wasn't typical of the 'burbs. By all accounts, theirs was a happy, nuclear family. But Léon, a carpenter's son from the village of Saint-Arsène on the St. Lawrence who had become a professor of political science at Laval, was among the avant-garde of the Quiet Revolution. While teaching at Laval's social science faculty, he joined the small coterie of anti-establishment types who would, within a few years, help thrust Quebec into the modern age, advising premiers and bureaucrats in building an egalitarian, secular state. (The province did not even have an education ministry until 1964.)

Until the old guard was thrown out of power in 1960, though, Léon Dion and his Laval cohorts were at the top of the hit list of conservative Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis and (even though their faculty was run by Dominican priest Georges-Henri Lévesque) most of the church establishment.

Mr. Dion knew struggle early on. "You don't grow up in a traditional family when you're fighting Duplessis, as my father did," he says.

We are talking in his riding office on Marcel-Laurin Boulevard, a suburban thoroughfare of strip malls and car dealerships in Montreal's Saint-Laurent borough, and the conversation got off to a slightly awkward start. What language should we speak? It's a dance familiar to this part of the country, but he blushed a bit, which I took as evidence of his reputed shyness in social situations.

We settled on French because asking questions in a second language is infinitely easier than answering them in one. Stéphane Dion's English is many times better than Stephen Harper's French, but he is a master of his mother tongue - why not hear him at his best?

In person, Mr. Dion is not the robot he sometimes comes off as on television. But warm? That would be going too far. He readily admits to having zero ability when it comes to small talk. And unlike Brian Mulroney, who could make anyone he met feel like the world's most important person, if only for a moment, Mr. Dion is better with concepts than with names and faces.

Even at 51, he retains a boyish vulnerability. But he is not without presence. Mr. Trudeau, a political giant, was 5-foot-8 on a good day, which often shocked people seeing him in person for the first time. The shocking thing about Stéphane Dion is just how tall he seems at 6-foot-1 and how broad-shouldered. Clearly his body has withstood more than a decade of long hours in the pressure cooker of federal politics better than most.

And the absurdist sense of humour is rarely in evidence. He is known to smile even if he barely managed a grin when he won the leadership, and this week's news conference to unveil his shadow cabinet was short on chuckles. But considering his track record as a comedian, this may be a good thing.

"My father couldn't even get his doctoral thesis published," Mr. Dion says, picking up the story, "because he wasn't considered sufficiently Thomist."

The thesis was on national socialism in Germany, but its author was expected to show greater respect for the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. He'd already had a grant from a local foundation to complete his doctorate in Paris mysteriously withdrawn, and Mr. Duplessis was thought to have had something to do with it.

As he tried to cobble together the money from other sources, the elder Dion began to correspond with a young French woman with whom he had been put in touch by a mutual family friend. The idea was that he would know someone when he finally got to Paris. But two years later, he still had not saved enough, so Denyse Kormann gave her increasingly romantic pen pal an ultimatum. "I told him, it was all well and fine to agree on every topic under the sun, but it would be nice to see each other once in a while," she recalls, speaking from Sillery. "So he borrowed $300 from a friend, came to Paris, and we were married within a year."

Léon was 74 when he drowned alone in the family pool in 1997, the apparent victim of a heart attack or stroke. In the sixties, he served as research director to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and later acted as a constitutional adviser to every Quebec premier from Jean Lesage to Jacques Parizeau. How much influence he had on his son is the topic of great speculation, but Mrs. Dion, now 77, had an impact as well.

"In Quebec, children were raised to be obedient: to the church, to their parents. But in France, we were raised to think critically," she recalls. "When I was 11 or 12, I remember being sent to see Racine's Andromache. After I told my teachers that I thought Racine was a perfect idiot. And that was my right because that is the way you were educated in France.

"It was nothing like that in Quebec when I arrived at 24."

The young Mrs. Dion took to Quebec society with some difficulty. One Sunday soon after her arrival, she received an anonymous phone call chastising her for taking communion while not wearing a hat. It would not be long before the Dions stopped going to church, except to have their children baptized or attend their first communion.

Another early memory is having the electoral enumerators, chosen in those days for their loyalty to Mr. Duplessis, arrive at the door in 1952 and insist on adding her name to the voters' list. Mrs. Dion protested that she was not a Canadian citizen and could not vote. "They said: 'Madame, if you do not want to vote, we will vote for you.' So I voted illegally. And I wasn't the only French immigrant to do so."

Mrs. Dion had grown up in Paris's working-class 19th arrondissement, the youngest of three children of a Communist factory worker. She was 11 when the Second World War broke out. "The occupation was not easy. We had strictly nothing to eat. They fed us rotten spinach at school and forced us to eat it. And they were right to, because it had iron. But I did not suffer so much as my parents."

Émile Kormann's political ties made him suspect in Nazi-occupied France, and he lost his job. His son, Jacques, however, became a fervent Catholic and supporter of Marshal Philippe Pétain who travelled to Germany during the war. Thrown into a camp after an altercation with a German soldier, he managed to escape to Switzerland, only to be tarred as a collaborator on his return to Paris after the war.

Finally, there was Mrs. Dion's uncle, Lucien Bironès, who joined the resistance.

"You see," Stéphane Dion says, "as an adolescent, I was meeting all these romantic characters from a world that had nothing do with mine."

The wartime squabbling in her family led Mrs. Dion to establish strict ground rules for her own children: Politics weren't to be discussed. "I went through that. The French were terribly divided. . . . Political discussions irritated me to no end; they still do. So, I never allowed political discussions at home. Family ties must be stronger than political ties."

Otherwise, "my children were raised in a very liberal climate," she says. "We said: 'You do what you want, you think what you want, as long as you respect certain [societal]norms.' My husband never imposed his ideas. If there was a problem, he took the children aside, explained to them the pros and cons and said: 'Now, you decide.' And often that left them totally incapable of deciding."

It was thus out of earshot of the kids (or so he thought) that Léon Dion counselled politicians of all stripes. But Stéphane, more than his siblings, took an interest in the books that lined his father's shelves and the pilgrimage of decision-makers seeking advice.

That was a lucky thing. Until then, he had struggled in class, and changed schools frequently. His education by the Oblates ended when, during an obligatory trip to the confessional, he mocked the priest by seeking forgiveness for having lost his faith. When he earned a detention during his first week at the College of the Jesuits, his father put his foot down.

"I wasn't born disciplined. I became so. Indiscipline became discipline by the force of the fist," Mr. Dion says of his father's scolding. "I barely studied my math or geography. But once my subjects coincided with my interests, I became very strong. After that, I always got A's."

Founded in 1634 and closed by the British after the Conquest, the Jesuit college had been reborn in 1930 as a high school for Quebec City's elite. But promising lads from families of modest means also made it in, culled from the masses by priests trained to spot the brighter ones (René Lévesque, for example). Of course, the Jesuits hoped that their rich, but rigid, curriculum would produce upstanding Catholics, some of them priests. They probably did not count on teaching the generation that would displace them, and other Catholic orders, as the guardians of the education system. But the Quiet Revolution swept them out, almost overnight.

"When I started at the Collège des Jésuites, we still had had to take Latin Elements and the Jesuits still had a lot of power," Mr. Dion recalls. By the time he left, the government had taken over education, and "it was bedlam. There was no authority anywhere."

The swiftness of the change left a lasting impression. "There is no society that secularizes faster than a Catholic society," he adds. "I remember as a child being scolded by our neighbours because we went skiing on Sunday instead of going to mass. And a few weeks later, they were all on the ski hills with us."

By the mid-seventies, he was studying political science at Laval - and flirting with the hot ideologies on campus. Briefly. He was a Marxist for 24 hours; a Trotskyist for about as long. "It was to confront my father," he says, "to become an adult by challenging his ideas - but he easily convinced me to change my mind.

"Where I held on longer was in my indépendantisme."

Yes, the future leader of the federal Liberals campaigned for the Parti Québécois and wrote his master's thesis on the debate within the party about how to achieve independence. He even "corrected" some of his father's teachings.

Léon Dion may have seen his son's support for sovereignty as an act of defiance, but it wasn't a gargantuan leap from where his own thinking was headed. He never truly embraced separatism, but he voted Yes in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association (to strengthen Quebec's hand at the federal-provincial bargaining table, he said) and blasted the "crippled federalism" that would have resulted from the watered-down counterproposals for Constitutional reform tabled by the provincial Liberals under Claude Ryan.

Nor did he trust the prime minister's pledge to renew federalism. "We must remember that Mr. Trudeau does not want constitutional reform, even if he says so now," he said.

What did his son think of all this? Tellingly, he didn't vote in the first referendum. By 1980, having completed his master's degree at Laval, he had done what his father couldn't - gone to Paris for his doctorate. He was studying at the elite Institut d'études politiques (IEP), and suddenly indifferent to politics back home. He watched the results pour in with anguished Yes-leaning Quebec expats at the offices of the province's Délégation générale. But, in a 1997 interview with L'actualité, he claimed to have "neither felt moved nor outraged" by what happened. "To tell the truth, I had no particular feeling. I was analyzing, asking myself why there was such a big gap [60 to 40]between the Yes and No."

Mr. Dion's seeming detachment from such a vital Canadian debate makes more sense when Ms. Krieber is factored into the equation.

The two had met as political-science master's students at Laval when they attended the birthday party of a mutual friend. It was the beginning of an enduring partnership of intellectual equals.

The daughter of an Austrian-born photographer who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht and come to Canada after the war, Ms. Krieber was unimpressed by campus politics. "It was the era of every radicalism going," she explains over croissants and café au lait at a bakery near the couple's townhouse in downtown Montreal. "The big question was whether the national revolution [Quebec sovereignty]should take precedence over the proletarian revolution." Meet Stéphane Dion's alter ego.

Like him, she speaks frankly. Asked recently by a Montreal Gazette reporter if she wore a burka when she visited Afghanistan in 2004, she dragged on her cigarette and replied that she doesn't "collect instruments of torture." But anyone who finds such behaviour unbecoming of a political wife may very well be won over by her extreme warmth, wit, charm and intelligence.

She is clearly enamoured of her husband, and now that she has taken a leave from her teaching post at the Royal Military College in Saint-Jean, Que., his public image - and political prospects - will benefit hugely from her presence. She is more socially adept and, friends say, more instinctually savvy about politics. She, not he, after all, is the expert in the art of war.

Thirty years ago, one of her Laval professors asked her to translate a German newspaper report on the kidnapping of business leader Hanns Martin Schleyer by the Red Army Faction (the urban guerrillas better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang). By the time the kidnappers announced a month later that they had executed Mr. Schleyer, a riveted Ms. Krieber (who admits she has since lost most of her German-language skills) had nailed down the subject of her doctoral thesis: left-wing terrorism.

There was no doubt in her mind about where she wanted to do it. She admired the work of Alfred Grosser, an expert in Germany at the IEP, so for her, it was Paris or bust. Her boyfriend also had his sights set on the IEP, disappointing his father, who thought a U.S. university would better prepare his son for a teaching career on this continent. But Stéphane Dion was determined, and Ms. Krieber, no doubt, had something to do with it.

Gaining admission to the elite grad school was difficult even for the most gifted students. It is a testimony to the young Mr. Dion's self-confidence that he requested a personal meeting with IEP faculty member Michel Crozier when the internationally renowned sociologist came to lecture at Laval.

The two met at a restaurant in Vieux Québec and the young Canadian left with half of his ticket to Paris in hand: a promise that Mr. Crozier would become his thesis director. Before long, Mr. Dion and Ms. Krieber had clinched the other half by securing grants from the newly created Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Choosing Mr. Crozier as his mentor was no accident. Among French sociologists, he alone disputed the notion that the 1968 uprisings that destabilized France had given a salutary bounce to the march of history (toward communism).

"He did not agree with the left's idea that there is a sense to history," explains Denis Saint-Martin, a friend and former student of Mr. Dion who now teaches political science at the University of Montreal.

"For Crozier, as for Stéphane, all that exists is the individual. Everything else is a social construction, hence, does not exist . . . So, when Quebec nationalists say: 'History pushes us towards independence,' Stéphane says, 'No, we determine history.' "

Of course, in 1979, Mr. Crozier's primary claim to fame was the publication, 15 years earlier, of The Bureaucratic Phenomenon, a groundbreaking work that transformed thinking about how organizations work. Its main finding was that bureaucracies grow because individuals fear face-to-face communication (and especially confrontation) with those in authority, and hence prefer impersonal forms of contact.

The book is highly theoretical, and Mr. Dion hints that he doesn't entirely agree, but "it led me to become an expert in organizations. Bureaucracy triumphs when process triumphs over results. . . . But I came out of it all with a desire to be concrete, to get out of the esoteric domain of ideas that have no roots in reality."

His own doctoral thesis dealt with the workings of municipal governments in the suburbs of Paris, which veered from Communist red to Socialist pink around the same time François Mitterrand won a tight victory as France's first Socialist president in 1981.

"You know, you have to earn the right to talk about France," Mr. Dion says. "The problem is, if you don't talk about France, the French find you uninteresting. And if you do talk about it, they say that you have no right," as an outsider.

The four years in Paris, spent mostly in a tiny apartment in north-end Montmartre, expanded Mr. Dion's horizons beyond just the ivory tower. It offered him a chance to get to know his "cousins Français" - the relatives of his mother.

He became a frequent Sunday dinner guest at the nearby apartment of Mr. Bironès, the resistance fighter and his great uncle. "He was the president of the 18th arrondissement's veterans association and my mother's hero. He took me under his wing and ensured that the student ate meat once in a while, not just pasta,"

Then bushy-haired, Mr. Dion also underwent constant teasing about his uncanny resemblance to his grandmother. " Ah, c'est la tante Marie," relatives would gasp upon greeting him. If he had been until then ambivalent about the French citizenship his mother passed on to him, he was no more. He became profoundly attached to it.

Mr. Mitterrand's victory over right-wing incumbent Valéry Giscard d'Estaing unleashed an unprecedented expansion of the French welfare state and government intervention in the economy. Within months, Mr. Mitterrand and the Socialist-controlled national assembly had boosted social assistance and housing allowances, abolished the death penalty, granted amnesty to illegal immigrants, reduced the work week and retirement age, increased basic holidays to five weeks, introduced pay equity and nationalized the banks.

Ms. Krieber remembers the "euphoria" that gripped Paris in the wake of the election and reforms. She and Mr. Dion shared in it. Today, though, she is less wide-eyed about the Mitterrand reforms, many of which were subsequently repealed. "I might have described myself as a Socialist at the time," she says. "But, in the, end, it did not really change anything. That was the end of my political romanticism."

In any event, it was soon time to go home. With his doctorate secured, Mr. Dion arrived back in Canada just before Christmas, 1983, to take a teaching post at the French-language University of Moncton. "It was a shock," he concedes.

The course was introductory political science for hormonally charged first-year students, but his lectures were geared more toward serious postgrads - like himself. He left his young Acadian charges baffled from day one. "A student asked me in the next class if Machiavelli was Scottish. And another talked about Marx Weber.

"I said, 'Okay, I'm going to erase everything,' and I wrote on the board: dé-mo-cra-tie."

It was good training. As he later learned, cabinet ministers also have short attention spans.

Even so, Mr. Dion lasted just one semester at Moncton. By the fall of 1984, he was teaching courses in bureaucracy in the poli-sci department at the University of Montreal.

The move to Montreal coincided with the election of Brian Mulroney and, soon after, the beginning of a new round of constitutional negotiations. Léon Dion remained a vocal participant in the debate leading up to the 1987 Meech Lake Accord aimed at recognizing Quebec as a distinct society in the Constitution. His son was not.

"Stéphane knew France much, much better than he knew Canada," Prof. Saint-Martin says, "and I don't think he was that interested in it, either." In fact, as the accord was collapsing in 1990 - and support for sovereignty-association hit 70 per cent with international correspondents rushing to cover the pending breakup of Canada - Mr. Dion left the country.

He had decided to take a sabbatical year at the Brookings Institution, a centre-left think tank in Washington. His topic of study? "Are bureaucrats budget maximizers? In other words, do they always seek to make their agencies bigger?" recalls Kent Weaver, then a senior fellow at the Brookings and now a professor at Georgetown University.

For the first time, Mr. Dion was not living in a French-speaking environment. It showed. Prof. Weaver recalls his colleague's laborious English. But even more he remembers the doting father who arrived with a three-year-old daughter in tow.

The couple had adopted Jeanne, a baby from Peru they still call their "Inca princess." While Ms. Krieber remained in Montreal to work on her thesis, father and daughter went to Washington. Almost two decades later, Prof. Kent still recalls that Mr. Dion "took such joy in her, he was so devoted."

Unable to conceive, the couple had turned to Peru in the hope of avoiding the years-long wait to adopt in Quebec. Unexpectedly, the process turned out to be both cumbersome and, for Mr. Dion, dangerous.

Deeply religious Peru required that adoptive parents be married, so Ms. Krieber and Mr. Dion quickly tied the knot. They also tracked down one of Mr. Dion's college buddies, who had become a priest, to write a letter of reference on their behalf.

Mr. Dion spent three months in Peru waiting to complete the adoption. When Ms. Krieber arrived later, she took the opportunity to attend the trial of members of the notorious Shining Path guerrillas. But her husband had a taste of real danger when he was brutally robbed by bandits while hiking in the Andes.

Today, Jeanne is 18 and worked tirelessly on her father's leadership campaign, having taken a year off school before starting university. She keeps a low public profile, but recently told a community newspaper in Mr. Dion's riding that he and she "avoid fighting so we don't waste the little time we have together.

"What's more, he has a unique sense of humour. He's always telling absurd jokes, even when my friends are around."

One such joke has done him more harm than good.

When he arrived in Washington, no one at the Brookings suspected they were dealing with a future contender for the Prime Minister's Office.

"Did I have any idea that this was a guy destined for politics? Not even close," Prof. Weaver says with a laugh. "My first impression was that this was the quintessential academic, very curious intellectually. We talked mostly about U.S. politics. But his English was not great."

Also at the Brookings were fellow Canadian political scientists Andrew Stark from the University of Toronto and Keith Banting from Queen's University. Prof. Weaver saw a golden opportunity to assess the post-Meech lay of the land.

For Mr. Dion, the experience ending up being, well, another epiphany. Not only did writing down his thoughts on Quebec nationalism spark an academic interest in the politics of his homeland; it became a voyage of self-discovery.

"I was seated at my computer at 11 o'clock and, by noon, I had a text that was so interesting the Americans wanted to publish it," he told L'actualité in 1997. "It was that day that I realized I was truly a federalist."

Mr. Dion's 45-page chapter in the resulting collection of articles published as The Collapse of Canada? certainly took more than an hour to write. He called it Explaining Quebec Nationalism - as much to himself, perhaps, as to others - and it largely set out the template that years later would guide his work as Jean Chrétien's minister in charge of the unity file.

It also marked a clear schism between his thinking and that of his father.

After Meech died, an angry Léon Dion issued his most famous ultimatum to the forces of federalism. In a brief to the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, which had been created by Liberal premier Robert Bourassa to chart Quebec's post-Meech path, he declared: "English Canada will not make concessions - and we are not even sure of that - unless it has a knife at its throat."

Describing himself as a "tired federalist," he still did not endorse sovereignty, but he made it clear that he probably would if there were no constitutional recognition of Quebec's distinctness and no substantial devolution of federal power to the province.

A few months later, the Quebec Liberals overwhelmingly endorsed a report prepared by party member Jean Allaire that called on Ottawa to cede exclusive jurisdiction to Quebec in 22 areas, including health, immigration, communications and energy. Mr. Bourassa distanced himself from the report, but vowed to make good on Bélanger-Campeau's principal recommendation: a referendum on sovereignty by the fall of 1992 in the absence of a new constitutional deal with Ottawa.

From his perch in Washington, Mr. Dion concluded it was all histrionics. On one hand, he wrote, Quebec nationalism was produced by a legitimate fear of linguistic assimilation and, on the other, by the confidence that accompanied francophone Quebeckers' success in taking control of their economy after the Quiet Revolution.

What lights the flame, though, is the overwhelming sense of rejection that infects Quebec every so often. But, according to Mr. Dion, that feeling of rejection always wanes, and probably would again. He did not see Quebec separation as inevitable - the march of history - as so many of his professor counterparts suggested, given the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We talked a lot about that," Ms. Krieber recalls. "It was a watershed year. It was the beginning of CNN. The Gulf War had started. The Cold War was ending. We watched as the Eastern empire crumbled, and everybody asked if the Western empire would hold."

In the book, Mr. Dion denounced the notion that Quebec needed a massive transfer of federal powers to stay in Canada. That, he argued, might backfire. "The rest of the country would question the role of federal MPs, ministers - and even perhaps a prime minister - from Quebec; it would seem too odd that those politicians should be involved in so many decisions that would not apply in their constituencies."

He also showed that he is first a Québécois by arguing in favour of granting Quebec exclusive control over language policy, which he deemed "both necessary for the majority and fair for the minority. . . . French Canadians in the other provinces can only dream about having such conditions."

But one sentence he wrote would eventually come back to haunt him: "Territorial objections to Quebec sovereignty are in many ways judicially and politically disputable." That is, he disagreed with the idea that Quebec's native and English-language communities could remain in Canada if the rest of the province broke away. As events would show, even Stéphane Dion can change his mind.

Back in Montreal, he started showing up on Radio-Canada public affairs shows and on the op-ed pages of La Presse and Le Devoir. He wasn't the only Quebec intellectual defending federalism, but he may have been the only one who wasn't clamouring for constitutional renewal, or else. He supported recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. But separate if it isn't? Please.

It was around this time that Mr. Dion first articulated what he considers to be federalism's primary fault line. He calls it "symbolic politics" and, to him, it is a "sickness."

Most Canadians, and even most Quebeckers, had at best a sketchy understanding of Meech, he maintains. The accord was, however, a symbol, and symbols - from Meech, to " la nation," to the fiscal imbalance - are powerful even if they are vague. Politicians play with them at their peril, and that of the country. Doing so, in his view, is irresponsible.

"I'm not saying we should never engage in symbolic politics," Mr. Dion says in his riding office when asked if his approach rules out any chance of having Quebec sign the 1982 Constitution. "I'm saying you should not lead people into making mistakes in the name of symbolic politics. And the independence of Quebec would be a tragic error for us, for our children and for future generations."

He remains highly critical of Mr. Ignatieff's move during the leadership campaign to have federal Liberals recognize Quebec as a nation, and his support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's subsequent Commons motion declaring the Québécois just that was at best grudging. Had he been PM, he says, it wouldn't have happened.

Nor would he, like Mr. Harper, have wooed "soft" nationalists by promising to end the so-called fiscal imbalance between surplus-rich Ottawa and the cash-strapped provinces. More symbolic politics, he scoffs. "In what other country would a budgetary surplus be transformed into a reason to separate?"

Talk like this shows why, following the close vote in the 1995 referendum, a seriously shaken Mr. Chrétien reached out to Stéphane Dion. Almost everyone else was saying the prime minister's strategy had almost cost Canadians their country; Mr. Dion was not willing to concede that point. In his view, the near-loss wasn't really because the federalists refused to make concessions (until the final days of the campaign). It was because they failed to challenge the separatists' tactics: an ambiguous question on the referendum and the assertion that sovereignty could resemble a "partnership" with the rest of Canada. As a result, Quebeckers were almost lulled into breaking away.

It was Mr. Chrétien's wife, Aline, who brought the earnest professor, then 40, to his attention. She had become a fan while watching him on Radio-Canada. On Nov. 25, unbeknownst even to his own chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, and Eddie Goldenberg, then his special adviser, the prime minister personally called Mr. Dion and offered him a spot in his cabinet. They met in Ottawa the same day, and Mr. Dion said he would have to think about it. And think. It took six weeks, several hours of discussion with Mr. Chrétien, and trips to Belgium, Germany and Spain (all federal states), before he finally said yes on Jan. 6, 1996.

"I remember it very well," he now says, "because it was the Epiphany."

His first inclination had been to say no. That is what his father had advised, fearing his son would sacrifice a promising academic career for a risky (and possibly short) political one. Léon Dion himself had left academe in the mid-eighties to join the staff of then Quebec intergovernmental affairs minister Gil Remillard. He lasted less than a month in the job.

Denyse Dion was equally skeptical. "But what are you going to do when you think white and your party wants black?" she asked him.

He replied: "I will do everything to convince them to think white. And if they still don't, I would come around, in hopes of having more influence at a later time."

In the end, he had plenty of influence. Even when he lost, there were times when Mr. Chrétien probably wished he had taken his young recruit's advice.

Mr. Dion opposed the fateful sponsorship program aimed at increasing the federal government's visibility in Quebec by financing sporting and cultural events. He was against Mr. Chrétien's creation of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which he considered an intrusion into the provinces' jurisdiction over postsecondary education and a needless provocation of Quebec. He advised against going to court to fight Quebec's demand that Ottawa transfer a pot of employment-insurance money so the province could launch a more generous parental-leave program. Mr. Chrétien spurned the advice, but lost in court.

But at first no one in Ottawa quite knew what to make of the lanky new intergovernmental affairs minister after he was sworn in on Jan. 25, 1996. There was the now-famous backpack, of course, a cheap nylon number acceptable on campus, but highly out of place on the shoulders of a minister of the Crown. How could he not have known that? Then there were the suits into which two of him could have easily fit. If he had a sense of humour, he clearly did not bring it to the office.

In his recent memoirs, The Way it Works, Mr. Goldenberg recalls Mr. Dion saying: "Prime minister, this is a serious matter, and we do not have time for joking around." Was it naiveté or hubris that allowed him to tell his boss, a man who started every conversation with a joke, to cut out the banter? With Mr. Dion, no one could tell.

Mr. Goldenberg describes the frustration Mr. Dion expressed shortly after he joined the cabinet. "Tell me, what's wrong with the minister of trade?" he asked. "I can't get anything through his head. And by the way, what's his name?" He was talking about Art Eggleton, the former mayor of Toronto.

Ms. Krieber laughs when she remembers the early days in Ottawa: "It was tough for him to always have to repeat himself. He'd come home and say: 'Well, I've already told them three times.' And I'd say: 'Well, you're just going to have to tell them six times or nine times.' Politics is the art of reiteration."

It's also the art of retaliation, and the Dion posting was truly counterintuitive. When federalists in Quebec were almost unanimous in telling Mr. Chrétien he needed a carrot to safeguard national unity, he hired a stick. Lucien Bouchard - the charismatic "chief negotiator" for the Yes side who took over as PQ premier three days after Mr. Dion took up his post in Ottawa - seemed to have a direct line to Quebeckers' hearts. Many questioned whether Mr. Dion even had a heart.

The appointment was an immediate flop in la belle province. A clever headline writer at L'actualité dubbed him "Dion Quixote." Pierre Pettigrew, who joined the Chrétien cabinet at the same time, concedes that the nickname was not entirely inappropriate, given the enormousness of the challenge Mr. Dion faced. "To accept the job of becoming a federal Liberal minister in Quebec is to accept the worst job possible, to accept that you will never have the support of the tiny elite that holds the pen in Quebec."

It was at Mr. Dion's insistence that Mr. Pettigrew, an international trade consultant who had been chief of staff to Claude Ryan in 1980, became Mr. Chrétien's other star recruit in Quebec after the referendum. Both had grown up in Quebec City and had attended the College of the Jesuits, although it would not be until the early nineties that they struck up a friendship in Montreal as the two lonely advocates of federalism who routinely showed up on Rad-Can.

After going to Ottawa they were dubbed " les deux colombes" (the two doves) by the Quebec media - a reference to " les trois colombes' - Mr. Trudeau, Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier - recruited by Lester Pearson three decades earlier to bolster Liberal fortunes in Quebec.

Of course, Mr. Dion turned out to be no dove at all. Mr. Pettigrew, named minister of international co-operation and minister responsible for Francophonie, generally played bon cop to Mr. Dion's bad cop, stressing Plan A (reconciliation) over Plan B (tough love). But in reality, Plan A didn't stand a chance.

Blame Michel Crozier.

Prof. Saint-Martin detects the French sociologist's influence in Mr. Dion's primary legislative legacy, the Clarity Act. In an uncertain world, according to the Crozier theory, the political actor who stakes out a territory first holds the upper hand in any debate. "The Péquistes had never taken the trouble to define what exactly happens after a Yes vote. Stéphane did."

For his entire political career, Mr. Chrétien had decried " les séparatisses," but most Quebeckers had always just laughed it off as another example of the mangled and hyperbolic French spoken by le petit gars de Shawinigan.

No one laughed when Mr. Dion talked. His unflappable demeanour was enough to drive many Quebeckers -who are generally boisterous and wear their hearts on their sleeves - to distraction. Whereas his father was the "tired federalist," the younger Dion's windy responses to every sovereigntist claim, famously laid out in a series of letters to Mr. Bouchard and others, made him the "tiresome federalist." He was ceaselessly portrayed as a rat by La Presse cartoonist Serge Chapleau. Premier Bouchard belittled him.

And when he changed his mind on partition and took the side of those who maintained that parts of Quebec could stay with Canada if the province separated, things turned nasty. Traitor. Sellout. Fascist. Mr. Dion was spared no slur.

"At the beginning, I read all the newspapers. Everything," Ms. Krieber recalls. "But it just became too painful. I even stopped my subscription to La Presse."

Never once, though, did Mr. Dion consider returning to the comfortable confines of academe. It speaks, his wife says, to his biggest quality. "Constancy. He is coherent with himself, true to his choices."

The new unity minister demonstrated this quality in May, 1996, when he made his maiden Commons speech after winning a by-election in Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, an ethnically diverse, suburban Montreal riding that votes Liberal the way most people choose toothpaste: by reflex.

The Bloc Québécois had tabled a motion asking the House to endorse a quotation from Mr. Chrétien's 1985 autobiography, Straight from the Heart, in which he declared: "If we don't win, I'll respect the wishes of Quebeckers and let them separate." Mr. Dion clearly relished the opportunity to demolish the Bloc pretensions and elevate the tone of discourse in Canada's rowdy Parliament.

"Let us begin with that great prophet of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, and I quote: 'I consider unjust and ungodly the maxim that, in matters of government, a majority of the people have the right to impose their will.' "

Then he cited Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "The more important the decision, the closer the prevailing opinion should be to unanimity."

And, finally, Montesquieu: "If I knew something that could serve my nation but would ruin another, I would not propose it to my prince, for I am first a man and only then a Frenchman - because I am necessarily a man and only accidentally French."

These "three French authors," he made sure to point out to the Bloc, would guide his actions.

If the way to go was clear to him, no one else got it at first. Mr. Dion needed every bit of steadfastness he could summon to persuade his cabinet colleagues to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to review the legality of Quebec separation. The move was an enormous political risk because it challenged the widespread notion in Quebec that the province could alone determine its future. Few cabinet ministers could see the upside, and the downside seemed bottomless.

The court's opinion, handed down in August, 1998, was extremely judicious. A unilateral declaration of independence would be illegal, the court declared, but Ottawa would be obligated to negotiate the terms of secession if a clear majority of Quebec citizens wanted it.

That could, maybe should, have been that. But Mr. Dion wanted it all enshrined in law - even if it risked provoking Quebec further.

"He was absolutely alone at first," Ms. Krieber says. "He had to convince his [cabinet]colleagues one by one. There had been a lot of discussion of 'government by judges,' and Stéphane felt the legislator had a duty to act."

Adds Mr. Pettigrew: "There were a lot of reservations about the political timeliness . . . while Lucien Bouchard was still so strong. Some of us feared we'd be adding fuel to the fire."

Guess whose arguments won the day? Mr. Dion tabled his "Draft Bill to give effect to the requirement for clarity as set out in the opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec Separation Reference" on Dec. 13, 1999. It went far beyond the limited framework set out by the court. Under the new law, Ottawa would have to approve the referendum question and be satisfied that an unspecified supermajority of Quebeckers had voted Yes before the federal government would negotiate secession. And the negotiations would include all provinces and first nations and would, if successful, need to be ratified by an amendment to the Constitution before Quebec could go.

Sovereigntist leaders called it a straitjacket. Au contraire, Mr. Dion countered - Canada had become the only constitutional democracy that was prepared even to contemplate its own divisibility. Mr. Bouchard seethed.

The Clarity Act passed the Senate in June, 2000. On Sept. 28, Mr. Dion's 45th birthday, Pierre Trudeau died. In the November election, Mr. Chrétien's Liberals won more Quebec seats than the Bloc. The following January, a worn-out Mr. Bouchard quit politics, passing the sovereigntist torch to the charisma-challenged Bernard Landry. There had been no public backlash in Quebec to the Clarity Act. Indeed, sovereigntist support sagged to pre-1995 levels of about 40 per cent. What could there possibly be left for Mr. Dion to do in Ottawa?

Plenty, it turned out. "No minister," Mr. Goldenberg writes in his memoirs, "was better prepared for cabinet discussions on a wide variety of issues far beyond national unity. When Stéphane Dion spoke, his colleagues put down their coffees, stopped signing correspondence and listened attentively."

That was not enough for Paul Martin. When he took over from Mr. Chrétien in 2003, the new prime minister dumped Mr. Dion from the cabinet. Led by David Herle, the coterie of advisers that surrounded Mr. Martin considered Mr. Dion a liability in Quebec. The prime minister's Quebec lieutenant, Jean Lapierre, called the Clarity Act a "useless" piece of legislation.

"That was very hard for Stéphane," says Pierre Pettigrew. "He was someone who had gone into politics for all the right reasons."

Then a rival, Martin-backed candidate started selling Liberal memberships in Saint-Laurent-Cartierville. "When they tried to take away his riding, that is the moment he became a politician," Ms. Krieber declares. "It was not an ideological debate. It was a power struggle.

"They could have asked me how to get rid of him and I would have told them: 'Leave him alone, ignore him.' Instead they provoked him. . . . You know, my husband is a romantic knight."

Mr. Martin, bloodied by the media after the ouster of Sheila Copps from her Ontario riding, backed down when it became clear that Mr. Dion was not going to go quietly. By the final days of the 2004 election campaign, the flailing Liberals had enlisted Mr. Dion as a key campaign spokesman - touting the Chrétien record - to save their bacon. How ironic is that?

Mr. Martin thanked Mr. Dion by making him environment minister. That had been Mr. Dion's plan all along. "After intergovernmental affairs, Stéphane needed a new cause," Ms. Krieber explains. "So he worked to become environment minister; it didn't fall from the sky."

Health care, not the environment, was the top concern of Canadians in 2004. Mr. Dion might, then, have angled for that portfolio. "But health care is provincial jurisdiction," Ms. Krieber counters. "He needed a federal cause."

Adds Mr. Pettigrew, who, as human resources development minister in the late nineties, counted Mr. Dion as a key ally in persuading Mr. Chrétien to transfer responsibility and cash for labour-market training to Quebec: "Stéphane has always been very protective of provincial powers."

But health and the environment are both shared jurisdictions, each giving rise to its fair share of federal-provincial conflict. Holding the environment portfolio in Mr. Martin's pro-Kyoto Protocol cabinet may have helped Mr. Dion rehabilitate his image in Quebec, where the international accord governing reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions is cherished. He tabled a blueprint to have Canada comply with Kyoto targets - a $10-billion plan to cut emissions called Project Green. But he continued to spar with his provincial counterparts as much as he had in intergovernmental affairs, this time over funding to help Quebec meet Kyoto standards. "The word 'contemptuous' is not strong enough to describe what I've encountered," then Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair said of Mr. Dion in 2005.

It turned out to be a short-term engagement, and chairing a United Nations conference on climate change in Montreal and acquiring a Siberian husky named Kyoto are the biggest legacies of his stint in the portfolio.

He raised a few political eyebrows outside Quebec when he insisted on presiding over the conference even though it coincided with the fall of his government. After all, for six months he had tirelessly travelled the planet preparing for it.

The meeting was a big success, but with the Conservative victory, his days as minister were over.

Stéphane Dion launched his campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada on April 7 at the multicoloured glass pavilion that is Montreal's Palais des congrès. It was where he had enjoyed his moment of glory as chair of the UN conference.

In comparison, the leadership launch looked sad - and even sadder compared with Mr. Ignatieff's slick kickoff the same day in Toronto. A single sitting Liberal MP was spotted in the audience at Mr. Dion's event, Marlene Jennings from Montreal's heavily anglo Notre-Dame-de-Grâce riding. You could hardly count the number of past and present MPs who turned out for Mr. Ignatieff, the suave Harvard professor who had returned to Canada to run in the 2005 election. Could Mr. Dion not take a hint?

The French-language media largely ridiculed Mr. Dion for even trying. His friends had warned him. "There was a big dinner with Stéphane . . . just before he announced his candidacy. We were unanimous. We said: 'No, Stéphane, don't do it,' " Denis Saint- Martin recalls.

Ms. Krieber, however, never doubted. "When Mr. Martin announced he was stepping down, Stéphane wondered aloud, matter-of-factly, who might make the best leader. I said: 'Why you, of course.' "

Soon after he won an upset, fourth-ballot victory at last month's convention - also held at the Palais des congrès - reporters asked Mr. Dion to identify his greatest weakness. It is being underestimated, he replied. "But at the same time, it is my strength, so I don't know what to do with it."

He could have said the same thing about his image in Quebec.

The unity file has always been the joker card in Canadian politics. It almost never pops up when everyone expects it to. It inevitably does when they don't. Everyone thought the Clarity Act would create a backlash in Quebec. Were they wrong, or is that it just hasn't happened yet?

" J'accuse Stéphane Dion," writes Jean-François Lisée, former adviser to Jacques Parizeau and Mr. Bouchard, in the current issue of L'actualité. "Never has anyone acted with as much method and determination to make his party, prime minister and the Canadian Parliament adhere to the poisoned thesis of partition. . . .

"You have to work hard to commit the inexcusable and the irresponsible. But the Dion law has not finished with its series of padlocks. . . . Of course, I want the average Quebecker to be moderate. But how can one, unless one names, in order to rebuke and distance oneself from, extreme behaviour?"

Quebeckers can be terribly tough to gauge sometimes. But they will almost certainly determine whether Mr. Dion, newly installed in Stornoway, ever gets to move into 24 Sussex Dr. If he is to be prime minister, he probably needs to add at least a couple of dozen seats in the province to the paltry 13 the Liberals now hold.

The reaction to his leadership victory was far less hostile in Quebec than anyone expected, undermining the conventional wisdom that he is the most detested politician in the history of the province. But it would be going too far to suggest that he is, or can be, truly popular. His people skills are atrocious and probably always will be. Mr. Harper isn't much better, in French or English, but most ordinary Quebeckers don't find him bizarre - and a lot of them think Mr. Dion is.

When he appeared on the Télé-Québec public affairs show Les Francs-tireurs last fall, interviewer Patrick Lagacé asked him to prove that he has a sense of humour.

Mr. Dion replied by asking whether he was familiar with the world's shortest bedtime story.

"Do you know Bam, The Dog?"

Mr. Lagacé admitted he did not, so Mr. Dion recited it for him: "The car goes by, and bam, the dog. Now go to sleep."

Mr. Lagacé was incredulous. "It's not funny," he said as Mr. Dion laughed almost uncontrollably and, it turned out, viewers squirmed.

Afterward, he was widely criticized in online chat rooms and around the water cooler for telling such an absurd joke in such an inappropriate setting. According to La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert, it demonstrated "that he lacks emotional intelligence. It sums up his social awkwardness."

It also sums up the big question facing voters in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Stéphane Dion is clearly intelligent, brilliant even. He is the intellectual product of his many epiphanies - a man who, as his wife puts it, is constant and "true to his choices."

But what about the emotional intelligence? Is he too socially awkward to be the country's next prime minister? Because lucky as he may be, Mr. Dion can't pull that crown out of a cake.

Konrad Yakabuski is a member of The Globe and Mail's Montreal bureau.

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