Skip to main content

The troubles facing Stéphane Dion this week brought back memories of the early days of his transition from academia to political life.

In 1997, just a year after Jean Chrétien plucked him from a university lecture hall and put him in cabinet, Mr. Dion's senior ministerial staff felt he needed to show his warmer side to junior members of his office.

They insisted he take them for breakfast, but not talk policy or politics. Rather, books or movies or television shows were acceptable topics of conversation.

Mr. Dion, according to a former colleague, brought up the movie Titanic. He made a few comments about it (he thought the love scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet was ridiculous: Who does that in a garage, in a car that is in the hull of a boat? he said, according to a colleague).

But it was not long before he could no longer sustain that discussion and quickly turned to another colleague to talk policy and social union.

Mr. Dion, who was elected leader over his current deputy Michael Ignatieff toward the end of last year, moved this week to change his office staff, appointing a new principal secretary, Johanne Sénécal, as he works to sustain his leadership.

Vowing two days after last month's by-elections rout in Quebec to "bare his soul" and let Canadians get to know him so that they may like him better, he has hardly been seen.

He has not responded to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ultimatum this week that the opposition is either with him on the Throne Speech or against him: fish or cut bait is what Mr. Harper told his foes.

The other two party leaders, the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe and the NDP's Jack Layton, came out right after Mr. Harper's statement, saying there was little there that has changed their minds about voting against the Throne Speech.

He will not be out this weekend. Instead, he will be spending time with his family over turkey. Canadians may see him on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Friday, a senior Dion aide acknowledged that it has not been "hunky dory" these past two weeks but that his boss is "not a guy who folds."

"He stands firm in the face of a challenge," he said. "He's not what I would describe as depressed or discouraged. He's quite focused. He's determined. He's feeling feisty."

Colour-blind, he's a man who likes very strong mustard, and fishes to relax. He prefers lake fishing for pike but, even then, people describe him as an "intense" fisherman.

That intensity is also on display on the tennis court where a friendly game between colleagues became a very long match that he didn't want to end, even when it became dark, instructing his ministerial driver to turn on the lights of his limo so the game could continue under the headlights. Mr. Dion and his partner eventually won.

His determined nature also incorporates a large degree of self-sufficiency.

The Dion dilemma - should he or shouldn't he defeat the government - will see Mr. Dion return to his books, colleagues say. He likes ideas, he likes to debate but he also likes to get a lot of his information from books. Indeed, in January of 1996, when Mr. Dion, then a political science professor, accepted Mr. Chrétien's call to become a federal cabinet minister, he reached for a book rather than the telephone to talk to a real, live person for advice.

Books would show him the way.

"He's more theoretical than practical or pragmatic," a former colleague said. "He read all the books about … what is the interface between ministers and their deputies … [he's]often too theoretical."

"I think he would try to find his way through this, looking for books on the subject," the colleague said. "He wouldn't be asking people for help."

His mother, Denyse, said Friday: "He's extremely intelligent and hard-working. If he doesn't stay in politics, he'll do something else." So far he appears determined to stick with it. With a report from Ingrid Peritz

Interact with The Globe