By James Stairs
Montreal – A night that was supposed to be the ascension of Michael Ignatieff quickly became a stunning political upset in the race to lead the opposition Liberals into an expected spring election battle against Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Stephane Dion, the academic-turned-politician rocketed from fourth place to first, beating out a strong field of eight candidates that included two Rhodes Scholars, an ice hockey legend and a respected social activist.
By winning the leadership, Dion positioned himself to have a strong shot at becoming the next Canadian prime minister. Harper’s Conservative Party currently holds a teetering minority in the Canadian parliament.
As the votes were read out on the final leadership ballot, Dion, 51, threw his arms into the air, his face flashing with disbelief.
Dion’s run to the leadership was improbable from the beginning. At the forefront of the federalist forces in the constitutional civil wars between Canada and the province of Quebec throughout the 1980s and 90s, Dion has long been a controversial figure in his powerful home province.
Pulled from the lecture halls of a Montreal university by then-prime minister Jean Chretien in 1996, Dion inherited the national-unity portfolio and immediately began challenging what he saw as Quebec separatist propaganda.
He was the author of Bill C-20 in 2000. Commonly known as the Clarity Act, the bill set out clear rules should Quebec attempt to leave Canada.
The legislation was seen as a betrayal by many in Quebec and made worse since Dion was a native son and his father, a prominent political scientist, had been an influential contributor to the province’s long-standing identity debate.
At the height of the tension in the aftermath of the unveiling of the Clarity Act, a political cartoonist famously drew the younger Dion’s face onto the body of a rat for a major Montreal newspaper.
Heading in to the convention, Dion was not seen as a serious contender. His many political opponents argued that, given his controversial image in vote-rich Quebec, the risks were too great to allow him to lead.
Dion responded to his critics by declaring that he had presented his views clearly and forcefully and the fact that he has never shied away from discussing them lends him credibility with moderate Québécois voters.
‘I have defended, and will always defend the principle that there is no need to choose between being a Canadian and a Quebecer,’ he thundered Saturday to an appreciative crowd.
The four-day convention in Montreal was supposed to be a political showdown between Ignatieff,the internationally renowned war correspondent, writer and scholar and his longtime friend and fellow Rhodes Scholar Rae, whose record of public service and powerful political backers made him a legitimate threat.
Ignatieff and Rae appeared to be justifying their front-runner status, charging through the candidate speeches and the first ballot of voting, invigorating supporters on the convention floor with focused and determined performances.
The francophone Dion was not so fortunate. He struggled at times in English, his second language and misjudged the time limitations on his presentation. As music drowned out his final lines, Dion looked confused and angry, his dismay seemingly passing to his supporters.
Third place candidate, Gerard Kennedy, a former food bank manager and the youngest leadership hopeful at 44, followed Dion with a strong speech, energizing his youthful backers.
But as the 5,000 first ballot results returned, Ignatieff and Rae held the lead but Dion had jumped into third place with Kennedy fourth by just two votes.
Four other candidates, including ice hockey legend Ken Dryden, received minimal support and withdrew early.
The results stunned observers, who had expected Dion to drop off and for Kennedy to make a run.
Saturday held more drama. On the second ballot, the three front-runners maintained position while Kennedy fell farther behind and shocked the floor by bowing out and throwing his support behind Dion, launching him into the lead and leaving Ignatieff and Rae, who had appeared to have been safe, scrambling for the same remaining votes
As the Rae and Ignatieff campaigns stalled, Dion’s gained momentum. Rae was eliminated on the third ballot setting a final ballot showdown between the fading favourite and the invigorated underdog.
Ignatieff was unable to rally enough support on the final ballot to catch Dion and watched helplessly as he soared to victory.
When he took the podium for his victory speech, Dion, also a former federal environment minister, who had campaigned on economic sustainability, social justice and cleaning up Canada’s environmental record, took direct aim at the prime minister.
Harper has been criticized by opponents for withdrawing Canada from the Kyoto Accord in favour of a watered-down ‘made in Canada’ version.
‘I am convinced that to beat Harper in the next election, it will not be enough to capitalize on his mistakes,’ Dion told delegates. ‘It will not be enough to be a government in waiting. To win, we must offer our own project to Canadians, a generous and ambitious vision that is in stark contrast to Mr Harper’s selfish and narrow idea of Canada.’