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Dion demotion signals Quebec’s waning influence

It is quite ironic that the removal of Stéphane Dion from the federal cabinet has come to symbolize Quebec's loss of influence in the government of Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Dion, a distinguished political science professor at Université de Montréal, was recruited by Jean Chrétien as an intellectual champion of the federalist cause. In the 1990s, Mr. Dion was one of the rare public figures in the Quebec social sciences scene to offer a relentless defence of federalism. He sparred frequently – both in print and verbally – with sovereigntist leaders.

His first accomplishment as a politician was to father the Clarity Act, which stated a certain number of conditions for the secession of "a province" (can you guess which one?). Lucien Bouchard's Parti Québécois government went ballistic over the bill, and the statute was also widely criticized outside the separatist movement. Almost 20 years later, nobody seems to bother. No referendum is on anyone's radar, and since the Scottish referendum there is a general agreement that the parties have to agree to some rules of the game.

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Mr. Dion was vilified, portrayed as a renegade, a federalist hit man, etc. The comparison with his late father, Léon Dion, was inescapable. Himself a renowned political scientist, the late Mr. Dion was an adviser to several Quebec governments and regular contributor to the Quebec media. A self-declared federalist, Léon Dion was a much more ambiguous political soul. He formulated the theory of the "knife on the throat" – threaten to leave Canada and get bargaining power in order to achieve more powers and autonomy for Quebec.

Dion the son threw that knife away and declared an unconditional commitment to Canada. That was a very unconventional way to be a federalist in intellectual Quebec.

So when Jean Chrétien left politics, many thought Stéphane Dion would go back to academia. Not quite: he reinvented himself, turning from red to green. Not surprisingly, he was a very well read and thoughtful minister of the environment. It softened his image in Quebec.

Then, against all odds, he became leader of his party. Many thought his lopsided electoral loss would surely signal the final chapter of his political career. But then he resurfaced again as Mr. Trudeau's minister of foreign affairs.

However, it seems that since Donald Trump's election as U.S. president Mr. Dion was seen as no longer being the right person for the delicate and crucial job of Canada's top diplomat. Some question his communications skills, or the fluidity of his English. It is without a doubt that Prof. Dion cast a large intellectual shadow over some of his cabinet colleagues. He is a man of content who masters his files – and many belonging to other ministers.

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Whatever the motives, this leaves Mr. Trudeau with a very light Quebec cabinet. Except for Transport Minister Marc Garneau, all others have very little experience or junior portfolios. As visible as she may be on social media, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly is not an influential voice in Ottawa.

Being a Montreal MP, the Prime Minister has decided he does not need a Quebec lieutenant, as his predecessors did. Even Stephen Harper had a close ally in Quebec, and he had to draw from a smaller pool of of talent.

On many issues, there is a growing feeling that the voice of Quebec is not being heard in cabinet. An important political weight is being dropped, and no one would have guessed it would be symbolized by the firing of Stéphane Dion.

yves.boisvert@lapresse.ca

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