National Column: A tale of two cities for defiantly eccentric Dion

by Paul Wells

In the end, today’s not that different from the day in 1995 when he moved to Ottawa. In the perilous hour, Stephane Dion is packing his book bag and marching into the fray.

It sure took him long enough to make up his mind. Tuesday marked three weeks to the day since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had shuffled Dion out of his job as foreign minister.

Trudeau’s original goal was to offer what he hoped would seem a triple-barrelled response to a world grown briny with menace. Chrystia Freeland as foreign minister, with a mandate to tame the Trumpian beast if it can be done. John McCallum to Beijing. Dion as ambassador to Germany and to the European Union simultaneously, somehow in Berlin and Brussels at once, the world’s first quantum diplomat.

McCallum leaped at the chance. Dion told Trudeau he needed a week. He took three to accept. He comes from universities. He always did need an extension on assignments.

Now at last there was a decision. McCallum rose first, thanked everyone, pointed to his wife, Nancy Lim, in the gallery. A standing ovation, one of several, ensued.

“The Chinese have been telling us, ‘We want a David McNaughton of our own,'” one of Trudeau’s helpers told me when McCallum’s new assignment was first made public. McNaughton is Trudeau’s ambassador to Washington. Everyone knows he has the boss’s confidence and his ear. McCallum, in theory, will, too.

An academic economist before he entered politics, McCallum told the Commons he aims to improve trade relations.

“It being 2017, I know that a successful trading relationship must not only pass some economist’s test,” he said.

He leaned on the “it being 2017.” He meant it’s the year after 2016 swept Donald Trump into the White House, and Britain, perhaps, out of Europe.

Thus, McCallum said, a trade deal “must also be demonstrably job-creating and prosperity-creating for hardworking Canadians. And it is in that spirit that I will be offering my advice on trade with China to the
government.”

Now it was Dion’s turn. Handy context for his assignment had been laid out that very morning in an open letter to European leaders from Donald Tusk, the formidable Pole who presides over the European Council.

“The challenges currently facing the European Union are more dangerous than ever before in the time since the signature of the Treaty of Rome,” 60 years ago, Tusk wrote. He listed the threats. An “assertive China, especially on the seas.” “Russia’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine and its neighbours.” “Wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and in Africa, with radical Islam playing a major role.” And – appearing for the first time on Tusk’s list of woes – “worrying declarations by the new American administration.”

In Ottawa, Dion was still in valedictory mode, savouring the memory of a political career that had lasted longer than anyone expected – though not as long as he had hoped.

His speech was a marvel, defiantly eccentric – I’d know it was Dion if you showed me only a transcript – delivered in a French so literary it seemed at times to echo MoliËre or Rostand. Translation wrecks it. We’ll do what we can.

He started by evoking Sunday’s massacre. “Mr. Speaker, a son of Quebec City, proud of the Muslim community in my riding, I denounce those two scythes of life that are ignorance and hate. I mourn the victims, express my sorrow to the families and loved ones, wish the injured a prompt recovery and congratulate the police for arresting the presumed author of this senseless massacre.”

He continued in this vein. An ode to Canada: “A country as vast as a continent, a land of grandiose and sublime beauty, enjoying one of the greatest qualities of life, with two international languages, strengthened by its indigenous peoples who understand the things that last.” The kid always did swing for the fences. “Canada represents for billions of human beings a universal idea of openness, tolerance and generosity that we must always strive to attain.”

There remain logistical challenges. That’s an understatement. Around Ottawa, old diplomatic hands are aghast. “When the chancellor (of Germany) wants to see him, he’ll be in Brussels,” a former Canadian ambassador told me the other day. “When the president of the European Council wants to see him, he’ll be in Berlin.”

A European diplomat was delicate. “It’s a very interesting assignment,” he said. “Somewhat special.” Obviously the PM’s goal was to emphasize the importance Canada puts in Europe, this source said. “It’s a hard job he will have.” Did that sound harsh? Hastily: “And an interesting one.”

Off he goes. On the doors of identical offices in Brussels and Berlin he can hang a line from Stephen Sondheim: “Come see me soon in my hideaway/ If you can find me I’m here.”

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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