This is the third in The Globe's series of profiles of the Liberal leadership candidates.
QUEBEC - Stéphane Dion remembers the taunts he heard as a child in the early 1960s, growing up in a family of secular intellectuals in this sedate, old-fashioned provincial capital.
"You're going to burn in hell because you don't go to Sunday mass," the neighbourhood kids used to tell him.
Quebec was then on the cusp of tectonic social shifts, moving from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church to the modernity of the Quiet Revolution. So it wasn't long before those who mocked him changed their tune, Mr. Dion recalls. Soon, "they, too, were on the ski slopes with us on Sunday."
Similarly, when it comes to politics these days, Mr. Dion is no longer hell-bound.
The onetime pariah of Quebec politics has gained newfound respect after joining the leadership race of the Liberal Party of Canada. A man who entered politics solely for his expertise on the national unity file is now accepted as a well-rounded, tier-one candidate.
Observers, even some of the Quebeckers who saw him as a humourless hard-line federalist, praise his intelligence, his experience in government and his integrity.
The anecdote is also a reminder of the immense shadow cast by his father, Léon. For when Mr. Dion was teased as a child, it was because his father was an independent-minded academic who did not fit into the rigid mould of the old religious Quebec.
Léon Dion would become the most influential political scholar of his day, though his federalism was of an ever-morphing, diffident type, unlike his son's unalloyed faith in Canada.
Today, Stéphane Dion, 50, having forsaken a promising career in the world of academia that his father so cherished, is going after Canada's highest political office.
Mr. Dion and his followers boast that, with nearly a decade at the cabinet table in Ottawa, he has more experience in federal government than all the other leadership candidates together.
"It doesn't mean there isn't a fringe of population that still can't stand me. I know that. I can hear some people in the street react at my sight. But it's more marginal now," Mr. Dion says in an interview one recent afternoon, midway through a 14-hour day of meetings and events.
His organizers say they hope that, by the time the leadership convention unfolds in December, he can push through the first ballot and surge in later rounds.
Mr. Dion will prevail in later ballots because he has less baggage and fewer liabilities than the other candidates, his campaign chairman, former public works minister Don Boudria, predicts. "Mr. Dion has very few Liberal enemies. I don't know of any anti-Dion people in the Liberal Party."
Neutral observers are less sanguine and forecast that Mr. Dion will finish high but not the winner, perhaps having to settle for being a kingmaker.
In the Liberal Party tradition, it is a francophone's turn to be the leader.
But would voters in the rest of Canada countenance another francophone prime minister or another one from Quebec? Would Mr. Dion be able to rebuild the party in his own province, where it shrivelled after the sponsorship scandal?
At a recent campaign event in his hometown, the turnout and the mood are tepid, a reminder of the Liberals' anemic support in the francophone heartland of Quebec where the Conservatives broke through in the last election.
The event is in Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles, which has voted Bloc Québécois since 1993. Voters switched back to a federalist party in January, but they elected a Conservative.
Riding president André Garon thanks Mr. Dion and four other leadership candidates for showing up at a debate organized by Quebec City's eight ridings.
"We were feeling abandoned. We need to still see Liberals so we can give ourselves confidence again."
Mr. Garon, it turns out, decided in the previous days that he would support Bob Rae.
Mr. Dion is accustomed to being the outsider who goes against the prevailing wisdom.
He was raised by small-l liberal parents when Quebec was still shedding its traditionalist, religious mores. When he was in university, he didn't agree with the Marxism that was the trend of the day among his lecturers. As a politician, he defended federalism just after Quebec had nearly voted to leave Canada in 1995.
Mr. Dion was the second of four boys and a girl who grew up in Sillery, a leafy, affluent suburb, though acquaintances note that the book-filled family home was a relatively modest one.
Mr. Dion's mother, Denyse, was a real-estate agent. Born in Paris, she gave her children their dual citizenship; Léon Dion would joke he was the only one in the household to be solely Canadian.
(Mr. Dion does not have a French passport and has not voted in a French election, his staff says.)
"As far as I remember, I have always had a rather willful temperament," Mr. Dion once said in a speech.
Some acquaintances think that Mr. Dion's spirited personality is closer to his mother than his more mild-mannered father. Denyse Dion, however, says her son acquired his combative nature and thick skin watching the jabs his father took in his career.
While Léon Dion became an influential scholar, he was stifled by the conservative, Catholic environment of the 1950s. His rector warned that his course on Marxism and fascism was subversive. The religious officials who ran the university press didn't want to publish his doctoral thesis on national socialism.
By the time Mr. Dion was a teenager, however, his father held such authority that the children grumbled that the phone line was tied up by the likes of Premier Robert Bourassa calling for advice.
Mr. Dion, who as a child had a pet parakeet that could say "ideology," was the only one of the children to follow his father's footsteps and study political science. "I fell in the pot when I was a child," he says.
He did his undergraduate degree at Laval University with little taste for the Marxism that dominated campuses in the late 1970s.
Mr. Dion earned a doctorate at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris, studying with the noted sociologist Michel Crozier. Then he settled for a life in academia, specializing in public administration.
His wife, Janine Krieber, a fellow political scientist, is an expert in strategic studies and counterterrorism issues and teaches at the Saint-Jean campus of the Royal Military College.
(Their 18-year-old daughter Jeanne has completed junior college and, before deciding which university to attend, is helping her father's leadership campaign.)
Political scientist Jacques Bourgault, who co-authored several studies with Mr. Dion, remembers him as a hardworking, trustworthy colleague, who published more than average.
Prof. Bourgault recalls Mr. Dion professing his admiration for Pierre Trudeau's leadership style. Mr. Dion, he says, had a striking "capacity to take a counterview, even when everyone seems to think the opposite, because he believes that his way is the better one."
As a teenager, he felt sympathy for Quebec nationalism and later said he flirted with sovereignty and was happy when the Parti Québécois took office. However, by the time of the 1980 referendum, Mr. Dion was studying in Europe and felt detached from its emotions.
His views cemented in 1990. A guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, he was asked to give a talk on the events in Canada, where the debate on the Meech Lake constitutional accord raged.
Writing his presentation, he came to the clear realization that he favoured federalism.
Back in Canada, teaching at the University of Montreal, Mr. Dion was the rare francophone academic willing to speak up for federalism.
This led to increasing media exposure. It was Aline Chrétien who, on watching Mr. Dion on television, suggested that her husband recruit him as a cabinet minister.
For years in Quebec, the independence movement and its dream of creating a new country was the sexy option, while federalism was for the square and the squarehead. There was no lack of federalists; it just wasn't fashionable to champion federalism.
As the new intergovernmental affairs minister in 1997, Mr. Dion undertook a methodical, dispassionate criticism of his fellow Quebeckers' common wisdom. He notably waged a letters war with Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. He shepherded in the Clarity Act that spelled out the rules of secession.
It wasn't just that he was cerebral and Cartesian, but that he delved into issues such as partition, that Quebeckers until then considered taboo or the domain of hard-liners.
"He had a role to play and his public image paid a price. It was a role in which he had to go counter to what two-thirds of francophone Quebeckers thought," Prof. Bourgault says.
In addition, Prof. Bourgault says, "Stéphane Dion suffers from his style, which was rather abrasive. He wasn't a man who presented his ideas in a supple way. He presented his views in a stern fashion that some saw as conceit."
Tales about his unpopularity in Quebec always mention the newspaper cartoons portraying him as a rat. But there was also the cream pie in the face. The people who wouldn't shake his hand. The columnists who deemed him arrogant and bilious. The letter writers and the radio callers who labelled him a sellout. The students who disrupted his speeches on campus.
"He is the most despised politician in Quebec history. He managed to get booed at a funeral," an exasperated Mr. Landry once said, alluding to the reaction of some fans when Mr. Dion attended the memorial service for hockey star Maurice Richard.
Mr. Landry's remarks - issued at the famous news conference where the PQ stalwart called the Canadian flag a "red rag" - also included a pointed suggestion that Mr. Dion emulate his father, who had served Quebec "in an exemplary fashion."
A confessor and mentor to Quebec politicians, Léon Dion was a federalist but an ambivalent one who always hoped for a renewed, more decentralized country. After Meech collapsed, Léon Dion said the threat of separation was needed because "English Canada will not make concessions ... unless it has a knife at its throat."
Bringing up Léon Dion was a customary way for critics to attack Stéphane Dion, suggesting he wasn't worthy of his father. The separatist firebrand Pierre Bourgault joked in his speeches that while Léon Dion called himself a "tired federalist," his son was a "tiresome federalist."
Columnist Michel Vastel called Mr. Dion a "dog pound helper," the turn of phrase Léon Dion bestowed on those he considered too servile.
In fact, Léon Dion had seemed quite happy at his son's appointment. Though he warned that entering politics could hurt his son's teaching career, Léon Dion enjoyed a stimulating exchange of ideas. He told a reporter at the time that he looked forward to seeing both his son in Ottawa and Mr. Bouchard in Quebec City.
Less than two years after his son became a cabinet minister, Léon Dion died in an accidental drowning.
In person, Stéphane Dion can be friendly and affable. He tends to answer questions in a more forthright fashion than most politicians, rarely dodging or taking refuge in formulas or partisanship.
But that candour also means he won't sugarcoat his words. At the time of the sponsorship scandal, he irked some Chrétien loyalists when he said that buying ads and sponsoring events was a poor way to clinch Quebeckers' loyalty.
At a recent meeting with representatives from a seniors group, he wasted little time before rejecting their suggestion to have a cabinet minister for the elderly. "Please, do we have a better topic?" he asked impatiently.
Mr. Dion's leadership campaign focuses on his "three-pillar" approach to government, combining his party's traditional emphasis on social issues and economic growth with an equal commitment to environmental concerns.
He wants to tax polluters more heavily. He wouldn't tax fossil fuels but supports carbon markets, where companies that cut their greenhouse-gas emissions below a limit can sell their unused room as credits to other firms, creating an incentive to reduce emissions.
He is running "for the same reason that I ran for office 10 years ago as unity minister - because I have a feeling no one else would do it," he says, explaining that no other candidate devotes as much attention as he does to sustainable development and environmental issues.
"Other candidates could talk about it, may have some intentions about it, but to have all the necessary policies, the ability to express them in English and French, to convince the Canadian nation, to be ready tomorrow morning to be a G8 leader and push in that direction - I think it has to be me ... If I felt that another candidate had it, I would support him."
One problem is that he has yet to capture the popular imagination.
He is not a magnetic man who will suck in all the attention when he enters a room, nor a schmoozer who is a natural at glad-handing.
Whenever he does something catchy or slick, it feels odd. Like naming the family dog Kyoto or having a photo on his website, in a tough-guy pose, the thumbs hooked into the belt.
He has that ungainliness that some tall, thin men have, especially one as energetic as he is.
More tricky is the language issue. By his own account, as a child he only knew one English phrase that he used each time a tourist asked for directions: "Go straight ahead, you can't miss it." His French is precise, well enunciated, never straying into slang or anglicisms, while his English can be rushed and wobbly. He speaks in what political junkies would call a Robert Bourassa style, with English words plopped into a French syntactical structure ("What he said to you about that?").
He has drawn an eclectic mix of followers. Businessman Stephen Bronfman, an heir of the Seagram empire, fundraises for him. The maverick Saskatchewan politician-cum-farmer David Orchard, twice a Tory leadership hopeful but now a Liberal, has thrown his support behind Mr. Dion. Marc (Boris) Saint-Maurice, the pot activist who once headed the Marijuana Party of Canada, is a campaign volunteer.
In the backroom, the operatives aren't familiar names to the public, but are well-connected insiders. One is Ottawa lobbyist Herb Metcalfe, the campaign chairman of John Manley's 2003 leadership bid. Others include Montreal-area MP Francis Scarpaleggia, who has a reputation as a strong organizer, and Mark Marissen, a veteran British Columbia strategist.
Fundraising is a sore spot. His officials say donations are increasing.
"He's doing remarkably well, considering where we started and where we got. And we have three more months before the convention," Mr. Boudria says.
In January, Mr. Dion lost his tenure because he had been away from the University of Montreal more than 10 years. But, he says, after toying with the idea of returning to teaching two years ago, he is convinced that his future is no longer on a campus.
He says he feels his long absence has irremediably affected his academic credibility, in essence proving the warning his father gave a decade ago. He will remain in politics, a world that gave him much acclaim, but also much venom.
"Everyone loves to be loved," he says. "I adore being loved. But it's not my first goal. My first goal is not to get people's love. It is to get their respect. The love will follow."