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Reading Stephane Dion

On big questions like national unity, Dion's writings reveal a fierce wonk.

By Richard Warnica 12 Oct 2006 |

Richard Warnica is a free-lance journalist and former senior editor at The Tyee.

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Dion: academic rigor
  • Straight Talk: Speeches and Writings on Canadian Unity
  • Stephane Dion
  • McGill-Queens University Press (1998)

Even after a decade in politics, Stephane Dion, former professor, cabinet minister and now contender for the leadership of federal Liberal party, remains, in the public imagination, a bookish wonk. The former University of Montreal academic certainly looks the part. Tall, slim and awkward with a stiff, jerky stance, it often seems as if Dion would be more at home in a book-lined office than in front of a political rally.

But while profiles and analyses almost invariably mention his academic past, Dion's actual output during that period remains largely invisible. Despite having authored more than 10 books and heaps of scholarly articles, Dion's writing remains mostly hidden, at least in English Canada.

Language barrier

It seems odd. If a man spends the first phase of his life writing about liberal democracies, you'd think that writing might be relevant when he decides he wants to lead one.

That has certainly been the case for the race's other professor. Michael Ignatieff had his books well pawed over by the Canadian press even before he officially entered Canadian politics. So what's the difference?

For one, language. Dion's work is mostly in French. And most, as far as I can tell, hasn't been translated.

Tone is another. Ignatieff is a Booker-nominated novelist. Content aside, the former Harvard man's writing is smooth and easily accessible. Dion, on the other hand, was no public intellectual. His work was academic, written for journals and aimed at an audience of experts. Even his translated writing is peppered with multi-syllabic jargon worked into complicated sentences and overlong paragraphs. It's hard to make sense of and harder still to quote effectively.

Consider this excerpt from an article, "The Voting Behavior of Bureaucrats," written with fellow scholars Andre Blais and Donald Blake:

The evidence of a sectoral cleavage in voting behavior, therefore, does not unequivocally demonstrate the validity of the budget-maximizing bureaucrat model. It is simply consistent with it and tends to support it. Whether the pattern uncovered here is best explained by interests or values is a more difficult question and requires a close examination of specific elections, of the issues involved, and of the party stands on these issues.

The subject -- do bureaucrats vote for big government parties more than their private-sector counterparts? -- is pretty interesting. But the format, unless you have a PhD in political science -- or maybe boring writing -- is decidedly not. That's not to condemn Dion. He wrote like an academic because he was one. But it does go some way towards explaining why so little has been written about his pre-government work.

What's more, an academic investigation of voting patterns, unlike, say, an essay on torture, doesn't say much about what kind of leader Dion would make. How he went about writing it though, speaks volumes.

The idea of the budget-maximizing bureaucrat was around for years before Dion and company wrote the piece quoted above. It was pretty well accepted wisdom that, because they had a vested interest in big budgets, bureaucrats voted left. But it wasn't until Dion et al arrived that anybody actually tried to prove it one way or the other. The article indicates a pattern that became more visible as Dion's public prominence grew.

Sovereignty and truth

As an academic and later a politician, Dion's writing was characterized by rigorous interrogations of perceived truth. Never was this more visible than in the lead up to the second sovereignty referendum in the early 1990s.

Dion had flirted with sovereignty as a young man. But by the time he was established as a professor at the University of Montreal, he was a firm federalist. As the referendum loomed, Dion was more and more in the public eye, attacking what he saw as the myths and mistruths of the sovereignty movement.

In this excerpt, from "The Dynamic of Secessions: Scenarios after a Pro-Separatist Vote in a Quebec Referendum," published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science just weeks before the 1995 referendum, Dion says that even a yes vote does not guarantee sovereignty:

With a thin referendum majority, something below 55 per cent, and a No majority in crucial regions like Montreal and the Outaouais, the Quebec government will find itself in a very uncertain situation. Editorialists will question the legitimacy of such a slim margin of victory. Jacques Parizeau will have won because he will have convinced many voters that secession may be implemented smoothly and without difficulties. As his assurance is demonstrated to be false, the support for sovereignty will rapidly decrease to well below the 50 per cent threshold in the polls. It is very likely that federalist forces in Quebec will agitate for a new referendum, or that the federal government will use this opportunity to call an election. The separatist electoral defeat will nullify the referendum victory.

This is the scenario of the impossible secession, not of an inevitable one. I do not believe in the feasibility of secession under democratic rule unless it is based on a consensus. It is unwise for a society to engage itself in secession upon the authority of a thin majority. This being said, I certainly do not dismiss all credibility of Young's scenario. [Robert Young, the author of one of the books under review, argued that secession would inevitably follow a Yes vote, likely within six months of the vote.] Things may become so bad that a quick split may impose itself as the least costly solution. Ironically enough, that it the only feasible argument for secession that one may find in these five books. Things might become so bad as to lead to secession: what a good reason to vote Yes!

The yes side in the referendum lost, if barely. And soon after Dion was off to Ottawa, recruited by Jean Chrétien to serve as his general in the war on sovereignty.

Demolishing Bouchard

It was in his early years in government that Dion wrote what became his most widely cited works. In three short letters to then-leaders of the Parti Quebequois (all of which are included in Straight Talk: Speeches and Writings On Canadian Unity, published by McGill-Queens University Press in 1999), Dion dismantled much of the legal thinking that justified the sovereignty movement.

The first letter, addressed to Lucien Bouchard and published on August 11, 1997, set about to correct the Quebec premier's public claims about Quebec's right to separate:

Your argument is based on three rules that you claim are universally accepted: that a unilateral declaration of independence is supported by international law; that a majority of "50% plus one" is a sufficient threshold for secession; and that international law rejects any changes to the borders of the entity attempting to secede. We are convinced that such assertions are contradicted by international law and state practice.

Dion, in what became a recognizable style, set about demolishing Bouchard's contentions.

On a unilateral declaration of independence:

There is no democratic country in the world where the government of a province or other constituent entity has been allowed to determine these procedures [for secession] unilaterally.

The vast majority of international law experts...believe that the right to declare secession unilaterally does not belong to constituent entities of a democratic country such as Canada.

On the "clear majority":

If I had enough space, I would cite a series of examples from other countries in which a referendum verdict that was too uncertain was not acted on, for decisions much less important than the break-up of a country. But let us confine ourselves to your secession project...You yourself acknowledged on June 15, 1994, that an attempt at sovereignty with a slim majority would adversely affect "the political cohesion of Quebec." And on September 12, 1992, in the case of a simple constitutional referendum (on the Charlottetown Accord), Mr. Bernard Landry [then the deputy premier] linked the legitimacy of a "yes" vote to obtaining a substantial majority in Quebec.

On territorial integrity:

There is neither a paragraph nor a line in international law that protects Quebec's territory but not Canada's. International experience demonstrates that the borders of the entity seeking independence can be called into question, sometimes for reasons based on democracy. For example, you are no doubt aware that France insisted on portioning the island of Mayotte form the Comoros at the time the latter gained independence because the residents of Mayotte unequivocally expressed their desire to maintain their link with France.

It was that last line, with its casual reference to an obscure moment in international law, which was most indicative of the Dion style. And nowhere was that style more visible than in the last letter in the series.

Writes a mean letter

In August of 1997, Bernard Landry publicly questioned Dion's knowledge of international law, calling his assertion that "no country had been admitted to the United Nations without the approval of the predecessor state" a "fundamental historical error."

Dion, all pretences to courtesy abandoned, responded with this:

You claimed that, "to use one example out of fifty," Germany recognized Slovenia as an independent state within hours of its declaration of independence. Here are the actual facts on Slovenia...Despite the almost unanimous support of its population, Slovenia had to wait until the international community had determined that the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation was irreversible before obtaining international recognition.

The case of Slovenia shows how difficult it is to obtain international recognition. Our fellow citizens have the right to know that.

I am at your disposal to talk about the forty-nine other cases of international recognition you had in mind.

It is ironic, maybe, that the author of more than 10 books is best known for three letters, none of which is more than a handful of pages long. Should Dion overcome his current unenviable position and become Liberal leader, that might change. Who knows, if Dion ever comes up against Stephen Harper in an election, probably no more than a year away, "La dimension temporelle de l'action partisane : l'étude d'un cas : le débat au sein du Parti Québécois sur les modalités d'accession à l'indépendance" and other early Dion gems could become required reading for the Ottawa press corps.

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.  [Tyee]