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Stéphane Dion, MP

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Fighting for a united and better Canada

Posted on August 11, 2011

On August 6, 2011, the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs presented Stéphane Dion with the 2011 Couchiching Award for Leadership in Public Policy, in recognition of his contribution to the Clarity Act of 2000 and the green fiscal reform proposed by the Liberal Party during the 2008 federal election campaign. 

He delivered a speech entitled, “Fighting for a united and better Canada”, where he talks about the democratic principles that inspired him throughout his involvement in these policies.

The Honourable Stéphane Dion, P.C., M.P.
(Privy Council of Canada and Member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent/Cartierville)
House of Commons, Ottawa

“Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.”

That is the telegram that poet and writer Boris Pasternak sent the Nobel Foundation when he won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Try as I may, I cannot choose better words today.  I am thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed, to receive the 2011 Couchiching Award for Leadership in Public Policy.

The Couchiching Institute defines leadership, among other characteristics, as ” the courage to speak the truth”.  Well, imagine the courage it must take when you know that saying what you believe to be the truth might cost you your freedom, your livelihood or even your life.

Pasternak was forced by the Soviet regime to refuse his award.  I am grateful that I have the freedom to stand here with you and accept the mark of esteem that you have bestowed upon me.

Reading Couchiching President Gwen Burrows’s good-news letter, the first thought that crossed my mind was how fortunate we are, in a democracy such as Canada, to be allowed to fight for our convictions, safe from any political system threat to our freedom and wellbeing.

How fortunate to be free to accept an award from an independent and non-partisan institution, an institution shaped by a diversity of people – Liberals like me, but also others – Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens…!  Men and women who might not have voted for me or supported my policies, but who give me credit for having fought for my ideas, my ideals and my fellow human beings.

It is institutions like this that make Canada a better democracy.

Democracy.  That is the theme that underlies my address today.  You have been kind enough to say that I have showed leadership.  What I know for sure is that whatever leadership I might have shown was inspired by the democratic ideal, an ideal that pushed me to fight for a united Canada, a better Canada.  Let me explain this.

1.    The battle for a united Canada

I cherish democracy.  And this love of democracy is the prime reason why I left academia for politics, in 1996, at the invitation of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

It was just after the 1995 Quebec referendum.  During the Referendum campaign and the years leading to it, I had become a prominent advocate for a united Canada.  At the time, I taught political science at the University of Montreal.  I enjoyed academic life, very satisfied with my students and my research.

When Jean Chrétien invited me to join his Cabinet as Unity Minister, with the mission to help keep our country together, I decided, after weeks of reflection – and many discussions with Janine! – that it was my duty to fight for my convictions in the political arena.

I was convinced then, and still am today, that to break up a country such as Canada would be a huge mistake.  We Canadians would fail the world if we stopped showing how a truly democratic state can absorb the tensions inherent to differences – and even benefit from these differences.  We must continue showing the world that cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences present an opportunity to build a stronger country and, for each one of us, to become better human beings.

The democratic ideal encourages all the citizens of a given country to be loyal to each other, regardless of language, race, religion or regional considerations.  We Canadians have the duty to show the world that not only is this ideal achievable, it is the only workable solution to bring a modicum of peace and harmony to a world that counts some 3000 human groups – each one of them with a legitimate reason to claim a collective identity, distributed among less than 200 member states in the United Nations.

So, rather than breaking up the Canada we have, we should have more Canadas around the world: democratic countries whose diverse populations can develop and flourish within their own cultures and institutions, while working together toward common goals.

I came to politics because I love Canada and what it represents, but also because I love the culture and society into which I was born and to which I belong: the Quebec culture and society. In 1995, I was convinced – and still am – that the referendum process was confusing, unilateral and unlawful, particularly the crafty and confusing referendum question, and that it had the potential to lead to a disaster for everyone.

I respect those of my fellow Quebecers who want Quebec to be an independent country.  I think they are mistaken but I respect their views.  I am also convinced that the process the Parizeau government wanted to use to separate Quebec from Canada would have failed to deliver their dream of independence.

I was convinced in 1995, as I am today, that an attempt at secession made without clear support of the population and without the safeguard of a legal right would divide Quebeckers in a dangerous and unacceptable fashion.  A Quebec secessionist government, acting unilaterally and outside the law, would have no way to compel obedience and impose secession to the numerous Quebecers who would not want it. That would confront the entire Quebec society with dangers that are unacceptable in a democracy.

An attempt at the unilateral secession of Quebec from Canada would be an irresponsible act, and it would be perceived as such by the international community.

Finally, without the clear support of Quebecers for secession and without a legal leg to stand on, the Parliament and Government of Canada would not be able to put an end to their constitutional obligations toward a quarter of the country’s population and proceed with the break-up of Canada.  No democratic government would do that.

Those were my convictions in 1995 and they haven’t changed today.  I came to politics because I believe in a united Canada and because I care about Quebec.  To my separatist friends I say: even in the best of conditions, the break-up of a modern state such as Canada is a very difficult goal to achieve; but if pursued without clarity and outside the rule of law, it becomes an unreachable goal.  I also say to them that if we Quebecers clearly showed that we want to stop being Canadians and want Quebec to be an independent State, nobody would keep us in Canada against our will.  In such clear circumstances, a separation agreement would be negotiated, within the Constitutional framework, with an attempt to be fair for everyone.

Separatist leaders have been having a hard time convincing Quebecers to give up Canada.  That does not give them the right to resort to confusion to achieve their goal.  In a democracy, clarity has virtues for everybody.

As a Canadian, Quebecer, democrat and citizen of this world, I am proud to have participated, under the leadership of Jean Chrétien, to that much needed clarification exercise which resulted in the 1998 Supreme Court Opinion and the 2000 Clarity Act that gave it effect.  That was a difficult but necessary debate.  I am thankful that the Couchiching Institute considers my involvement in that debate as an act of leadership.

2.    The battle for a better Canada

So my prime reason for entering politics was to help keep Canada united.  But underlying my decision was a strong urge to help make this a better country.

As minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, I was involved in the countless issues of contention that arise between Federal and Provincial governments.  I remember that after a long Cabinet committee meeting that lasted late into the night, where I had fought for Manitoba’s financial interests, my friend and colleague Ralph Goodale told me: “Never will Manitobans know what a French Quebecer did for them tonight”.  I still consider Ralph’s comment as one of the best compliments I have ever received in my political career.  I told Ralph: “Isn’t this what Canada is all about?”

In July 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin gave me the opportunity to keep up the fight for a better Canada as minister of the Environment.  I was convinced then – and even more today – that protecting the natural environment is not just another social policy issue among others.  In the 21st Century, environmental stewardship must become one of the three Government policy pillars, along with economic policy and social policy.  What is at stake is nothing less than the reconciliation of the people with the planet.  And I strongly believe that our country can and should play a leadership role in this crucial reconciliation effort.

As minister of the Environment, and later as leader of the Liberal Party, I fought for this “three pillars” approach.  I fought for a richer, fairer, greener Canada.  I fought to help Canada become better educated, more innovative and more economically competitive.   I fought for a more caring and inclusive Canada, able to tap into the skills and talents of all its citizens and to make a significant dent in the number of people living in poverty; a sustainable Canada, intent on protecting the environment for this generation and the ones to come, on promoting clean and renewable energy, and on leading the global effort for clean water and against climate change.

During the 2008 election campaign, the Liberal party proposed a plan that would have been a tremendous move toward this goal of a richer, fairer and greener Canada.  At the core of this plan was a fiscal reform that would have significantly reduced income and corporate taxes: that would have been good for the economy.  These tax cuts would have been especially targeted toward middle and low income Canadians: that would have been good for our social fabric, and it would have decreased the poverty rate by a third (by half for children).  And the tax burden would have been shifted onto polluters through the imposition of a price on carbon emissions – a necessity if we want to be serious about fighting the climate change crisis.

I take full responsibility for the disappointing 2008 election results.  I failed to convince Canadians of the virtues of this plan.  Every day reminds me of the opportunity we missed to make our country better in 2008.  Every day that passes provides me with new reasons to disagree with Prime Minister Harper’s policies.  I know today is not the day to expand on the wrong choices this Conservative Government makes for our economy, our social fabric, our natural environment, and our role in the world.  So I’ll just stop here.

Instead, I’ll go back to my main theme: democracy.  One of the beauties of democracy is that it always gives you more than one opportunity to prevail.  As difficult as the recent succession of defeats has been for us Liberals, each more severe than the precedent, we are still alive and well, and eager, the next time around, to offer Canadians a better leadership than what the Harper government is proposing.

This is why I keep up the fight in the political arena, with Bob Rae and my Liberal friends.  This is why I will give my best to help the next Liberal leader prevail.

Winston Churchill once said about awards: “Never solicit them, never refuse them, never wear them”.  Well, while I did not solicit the Couchiching Award for Leadership in Public Policy, I am sure pleased to accept it.  And notwithstanding Churchill’s wise exhortation, I am going to wear it:  in my heart, as yet another motivation to carry on my quest for a united Canada, a better Canada, a Canada that the world can look up to once again; a richer, fairer and greener Canada – for all of us today and for the generations to come.

Thank you.

Stéphane Dion

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