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Stephane Dion Was Always More Than A Shrug, And He's Earned This Moment

11/04/2015 07:05 EST | Updated 11/05/2016 05:12 EDT
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Not so long ago, I found myself in the same crowded room as Stéphane Dion.

He was in charge of the Liberal Party of Canada then, though the attack ads told us -- again and again and again -- he was no leader.

A friend asked if I wanted to say hello, to shake the hand of someone who might one day become prime minister.

We watched him for a while -- the gangly, grey-haired man making polite small talk in the corner.

We didn't bother.

I was thinking about those ads recently and that image of a shrugging Dion that seemed to encapsulate feebleness.

You'd never know from those spots that he was a brilliant political scientist who famously landed on Parliament Hill with a backpack, ready to work. You'd never know that he was an architect of the Clarity Act or a respected former environment minister who named his dog Kyoto. That he was someone's husband, someone's dad, and a pretty good MP.

But he was not, in the eyes of many, a prime minister. He was a nerd. He had odd mannerisms. And he seemed, at times, to have trouble expressing himself in English.

Who can forget the 2008 election campaign when Dion stumbled three times over an awkwardly phrased question during a TV interview? His re-starts and outtakes all hit the airwaves, even if he was told they would not. More chum for the sharks.

Mike Duffy, then just a guy on TV, made sure he played the moment over and over until he punched his ticket to the Senate. And, well, we know how that turned out.

And then came another image that would stick. The one of Dion speaking to a too often out-of-focus video camera in a poorly lit room resembling a bunker, trying to convince Canadians there was nothing dirty about the word coalition. We know how that turned out, too.

When he was replaced by the guy from Harvard, the one for whom some Grits pined despite his three decades outside the country, who could have blamed Dion if he called it a career? There were books to write and, back home, a Husky eager to play fetch.

But he stayed. And he put his name on a ballot again -- an act of patriotism that isn't celebrated enough.

It was almost as if he believed that public service was about more than being the headliner. It was almost as if he still had something to contribute.

The guy from Harvard would leave Liberals worse off than he found them, his image, in some ways, similarly defined by a catchphrase.

And Dion would find himself in the corner of another crowded room.

Just weeks ago, in the dying moments of a marathon campaign, the leader of the federal NDP would liken Dion to "roadkill" at the feet of Stephen Harper and his big, blue machine.

But on election night, Dion won the same seat he's held through the good or lean years since 1996. His party won a majority government.

And on Wednesday, the man dubbed "not a leader" was named Canada's foreign affairs minister. It's one of the most coveted and prestigious roles in government.

Dion will now get the chance to represent Canada on the world stage, a prospect that might have seemed impossible back when the death of the Liberal party was being exaggerated.

At a press conference outside Rideau Hall with his new ministers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he put together an "extraordinary" team to help him lead.

"Government by cabinet is back," Trudeau said, signalling an end to the one-man-band style often associated with Harper.

A cynic may see that as an admission from Trudeau that he lacks the stuff needed to lead the way on his own.

Others, though, may choose to believe the prime minister is sincere about wanting to tap into the experiences and perspectives of those in his inner circle.

I couldn't help but notice Dion standing in the sun somewhere just behind Trudeau.

He wasn't shrugging at all.

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