Liberal Québec MPs New Faces

Ninety minutes into their first encounter at 24 Sussex Drive on Nov. 25, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien interrupted University of Montreal professor Stéphane Dion's scholarly discourse on how to keep Quebec within Canada to make a startling offer.

Liberal Québec MPs New Faces

Ninety minutes into their first encounter at 24 Sussex Drive on Nov. 25, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien interrupted University of Montreal professor Stéphane Dion's scholarly discourse on how to keep Quebec within Canada to make a startling offer. "By the way," Chrétien said in an almost offhand manner, "I have a question for you." The answer to that question - whether the 40-year-old committed federalist would abandon a lifetime of academia to enter the political fray as a member of Chrétien's cabinet - may change the nation's future as much as it has already disrupted Dion's life. The professor was not easily convinced. Through three sessions, spanning eight hours of intense debate, the two men spoke about Canada's history, its values, its turmoils and its strengths - with Chrétien arguing that Dion was needed in Ottawa. "It was not the plan of my life. My plan was to be a professor," Dion told Maclean's last week. "But we are in a special situation. When you are facing a crisis, you make exceptional decisions." On Jan. 6, Dion accepted Chrétien's offer.

In last week's cabinet overhaul, the Prime Minister demonstrated that he, too, can make exceptional decisions when the country's future is at stake. In a controversial manoeuvre to bring fresh thinking on national unity to the cabinet table, Chrétien moved three Quebec veterans off his team - and replaced them with four newcomers: two Montreal MPs, Alfonse Gagliano and Martin Cauchon; and two unelected Montrealers, Dion and international trade consultant Pierre Pettigrew. The message was clear: Chrétien was responding to demands that he deal with the new political realities in Quebec.

Chrétien's strategy is not without risk. Both Dion, who took over as intergovernmental affairs minister, and Pettigrew, who was appointed minister for international co-operation, must win byelections in a province where the Liberals trail the Bloc Québécois in public support and little can be taken for granted. Articulate and precise, they still hold unpopular pro-federalist views in Quebec. And neither has extensive political skills, experience or contacts in the rest of Canada. Those drawbacks may cause serious problems: it is extremely difficult to sell their commitment to decentralization and the recognition of Quebec's distinctiveness outside the province. Finally, the two must woo their fellow Liberal MPs, many of whom were openly dismayed by their ascension to cabinet with no intervening time in the political trenches. Warned Nova Scotia MP Ronald MacDonald: "There's a danger to the morale of caucus."

But after months of reflection, the Prime Minister decided to change both the team and the strategy that will take him through the second half of his mandate. Last week, Chrétien identified four priorities: job creation and economic growth; the renewal of the federation; deficit and debt control; and the preservation of Canada's social programs. Still, it was with his choice of new Quebec ministers that Chrétien most clearly telegraphed his new approach. The portfolio of Labor was given to Gagliano and the 33-year-old Cauchon was named to the junior post of secretary of state for regional development in Quebec. More importantly, the very presence of Pettigrew, a 45-year-old Oxford-educated member of the Quebec federalist establishment, is expected to highlight the province's pivotal role in the international economy. Senior Liberals said he was also selected because he can take on the separatists, particularly deputy premier Bernard Landry, with his well-honed debating skills.

The most publicly onerous task will fall to Dion, the star of the new Quebec team. As the minister who must deal with the relationships between the 10 provinces and Ottawa, the former public administration professor must broker deals on the Constitution, the economy and the social union. "A strong federal government must not be confused with a centralizing government," Dion said in a statement, which, in a break with tradition, he issued before his induction into cabinet. "Canadians will not accept provinces behaving like 10 egotistical republics."

Some of the biggest fights may occur inside cabinet. Last week, new Human Resources Minister Doug Young told Maclean's that he wanted the government to spell out the full consequences of separation for Quebecers. Although his Quebec colleagues warn that such tactics could be dismissed as threats, Young, like many MPs from the rest of Canada, was adamant. "Am I supposed to take Valium because somebody in Quebec is going to be upset because I am talking about reality? Who cares?" When asked about that approach, Dion countered that positive arguments were the best approach in every part of the country. "We want to convince Quebecers that Canada works."

Dion has had ample opportunity to hone his federalist views. His father, Laval University political scientist Léon Dion, is a veteran of the constitutional wars who became a Quebec icon when he advised former provincial premier Robert Bourassa to hold "a knife to the throat" of English Canada. With great reverence, the younger Dion told Maclean's last week that he and his 73-year-old father both want to keep Quebec within Canada. The difference, he added, was that while his father could one day give up on the federation, he would never do the same.

Maclean's February 5, 1996