Advocate for Environment to Head Canada's Liberals

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 3, 2006

MONTREAL, Dec. 2 -- In a convention that underscored the rising political weight of climate change issues, Canada's Liberal Party on Saturday chose Stéphane Dion, a former environment minister, to lead the party and try to wrest power from the ruling Conservatives in the next national election.

Dion, 51, was elected head of the party over seven other candidates, including Michael Ignatieff, a renowned Harvard professor who returned to Canada last year and had quickly become a front-runner in the race to head the opposition against Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Ignatieff's drive for the post stumbled in the fourth and last ballot over his opinions on Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. The fragmented delegations at the convention turned to Dion, whose environmental credentials overcame his thickly accented English and lackluster convention speech.

In his acceptance speech, Dion repeatedly emphasized his main goal: dealing with what he called "the greatest challenge we have today, sustainable development."

He was elected, he said, because "Canadians have a deep concern about the main issue of our time -- building a sustainable environment for our children."

It was a message the delegates embraced.

"We've recognized that global warming and Kyoto are agenda items we have to deal with. Canada has gotten the message," said a delegate on the convention floor, Paul Mulligan, 60, a retired cartographer.

Dion must regroup the Liberals, long the dominant party in Canada, to try to reverse the loss in January to Harper's Conservatives. The party hopes that disillusionment with Harper for cutting social programs, rising despair over Canadian military losses in Afghanistan and opposition to Harper's retreat from the Kyoto environmental accord will topple the Conservative minority government.

As visual evidence of the importance of environmental issues, the sea of green T-shirts worn by Dion's supporters grew as the balloting continued in Montreal's cavernous Palace of Congress. Each of the candidates had pledged to make aggressive strides on the environment, but Dion's long work to strengthen the Kyoto accord carried those who put the issue at the top of the agenda.

An academic and native of Quebec City, Dion entered Parliament a decade ago and has held a variety of cabinet posts under Liberal governments. But in his last post, as environment minister, he won credit for devoting enormous effort to extending the provisions of the Kyoto accord. He owns a husky named Kyoto.

But he is less well-liked in his home province of Quebec because of his opposition to the popular movement to make the French-speaking province an independent country. In the late 1990s, Dion carried on a long-running debate with supporters of separatism and eventually assisted in drafting a law that many Quebecers feel helps block their movement.

"Quebec people don't like Stéphane Dion," said Jean Pierre Laine, 54, an alternate delegate from Montreal. "He is a federalist." Quebec newspaper cartoons at the time portrayed him as a rat; he was pilloried as a traitor to his province.

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