OTTAWA — Former Liberal leader and foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion ended weeks of speculation Tuesday when he said he has accepted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's offer to be Canada's ambassador to the European Union and Germany.
Dion made the announcement while saying goodbye to his House of Commons colleagues, following a similar tribute from former immigration minister John McCallum, both of whom were shuffled out of the federal cabinet earlier this month.
Dion, who represents a Montreal riding, was shuffled out of cabinet earlier this month in favour of Chrystia Freeland, a move widely seen as part of the Liberal government's response to the ascendance of Donald Trump.
Stephane Dion speaks in the House of Commons on Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
McCallum had already agreed to be Canada's ambassador to China; Dion, weighing his options, finally ended the suspense after question period Tuesday, saying he would embrace the challenges associated with strengthening Canada's ties with the EU.
Both were casualties of a cabinet shuffle aimed at preparing for the ascendance of Donald Trump, who has also provoked China at a time when Canada seeks to deepen economic co-operation, including pursuing a free trade agreement.
If Dion was apprehensive about the role, McCallum clearly had no such misgivings: "This China assignment,'' he said, grinning, "is the perfect job for me.''
Dion takes up his new diplomatic post at a tumultuous and pivotal time as the 28-country EU bloc negotiates its historic Brexit divorce with Britain. He will also have a front row seat for the rise of anti-trade populism and far-right political clamouring as he tries to shepherd Canada's massive free trade deal with the EU to conclusion.
Dion is applauded by MPs in the House on Jan. 31, 2017. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Dion was replaced as foreign affairs minister by Chrystia Freeland, who as Trudeau's trade minister and in a previous career as a journalist had forged strong connections in the U.S.
Dion did not initially accept the "senior position'' he was offered by Trudeau, a sign that he was not happy about the decision to relive him of his portfolio. That uncertainty continued well into his speech Tuesday, nothwithstanding the awkward moment when McCallum — who spoke first — appeared to spill the beans about Dion prematurely.
Dion said he considered taking a university job, but in the end of the pull and "adrenalin rush'' of public service proved too hard to resist.
"In its own way, the European continent is facing the same challenges as us, ensuring that openness and inclusion triumphs over exclusion and xenophobia, ensuing a path to inclusive growth and demonstrating that free trade be combined with workers' rights and respect for the environment,'' he said.
"At this critical time, I will do my part to strengthen Canada's relationship with Europe.''
Dion had to choose between 2 passions
In the end he said he had to choose between two of his passions — teaching and public service.
The University of Montreal offered him a guest professor job "under very attractive conditions. I almost said yes, because in my eyes there is no better profession than that of a teacher,'' he said.
"But I don't have to explain to anyone here how much of an adrenalin rush we all get from taking action or just how irresistible the call to public service is especially when that call comes from the prime minister.''
Trudeau paid tribute to man he described as a friend, mentor, skilled politician and a "defender of the Canadian project.''
But Trudeau also hinted at tension around the cabinet table and in his early days as an MP.
"Thankfully for everyone here, cabinet confidentiality — and, in my first years, leader-to-rookie-MP confidentiality — doesn't let me tell you all the stories of our time together,'' the prime minister said.
He said he learned a lot from the elder Liberal statesman, "often through a full dressing-down, and not just when I was a rookie.''
It's unusual for Canada to have one ambassador for the EU and Germany, suggesting Trudeau had to sweeten the offer, said Fen Hampson, an international affairs expert at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.
But sending a former party leader and foreign minister to Brussels and Berlin "sends a strong message Canada is deeply committed to both missions,'' Hampson said.