Five things to know about Canada’s new Foreign Minister, Stéphane Dion

From his approach to war and the environment to his history of record-setting, this is what you need to know about the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. 

By: /
November 6, 2015
Stephane Dion
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at middle, congratulates Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS

Stéphane Dion, the Liberal MP of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville in Montreal and former leader of the Liberal party, was appointed Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, during the swearing-in of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his new 31-member Liberal cabinet.

Dion was a surprising choice, as Marc Garneau, Chrystia Freeland or Catherine McKenna (who all did receive cabinet positions) were the favourites for the position (though his name had come up). The new cabinet fulfills Trudeau’s promise of a 50/50 gender split, adds a Minister of Science and changes the name of the Minister of Indian Affairs (now Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs) and Minister of Environment (now Minister of Environment and Climate Change).

What do we know about Dion so far, apart from his stint as Liberal leader between 2006 and 2008? With nearly 20 years of political experience, this will be Dion’s third term on a Liberal party cabinet. As he prepares to dive into the role of Foreign Minister — heading to several upcoming conferences, including the G20 summit in Turkey and the Paris climate change conference — here are five things to know about Mr. Dion:

1. He’s a champion of environmental issues. 

In 2007, Dion tabled a motion that would reaffirm Canada’s position on the Kyoto Protocol, taking advantage of the backlash against the comment by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the accord was a “socialist scheme” designed to suck money out of rich countries. Dion was successful in passing the motion, adding to his long list of successes in environmental issues. He was Minister of the Environment from 2004 to 2005 and also chaired the UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal in 2005. His extensive background on the environment had many believing he would be appointed to that ministry but his new position within Foreign Affairs is a message to the world that environmental issues are back at the forefront of Canadian national and international politics. (Dion also owns a husky named Kyoto who was welcomed into his family in an attempt to cheer them up after the Liberals lost in the 2006 election.)

2. He’s been in the hot seat before.

When Dion became the 11th leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2006 he tried to unify the Liberal party as well as Canadians. A point of contention within the party was the fact that Liberal MP Wajid Khan was working as an advisor for Harper on Afghanistan and Middle-Eastern affairs. Dion felt it unsuitable that a member of the Official Opposition be serving the government and told Khan he must forfeit the position. Confident Khan would stay with the Liberals, Dion was shocked when Khan decided to cross the floor and join the Conservative Party. This incident only added to inner party tension and Dion’s embarrassment at the hands of the Conservatives who aggressively targeted him with attack ads and negative campaigning throughout his term as leader.

3. He was once a dual citizen.

Dion was born in Quebec City to mother Denyse Kormann, a native of Paris, France, and father Leon Dion, a Canadian. During his term as Liberal leader, the Conservative Party attempted to stir controversy by saying that Dion’s French citizenship would impede him from making the right decisions for Canada, and that he would be influenced by France. The story garnered so much attention that Dion gave up his French citizenship in order to appease Canadians with concerns about his loyalty to Canada.

His French connection is beyond citizenship however. Dion studied public administration for four years in Paris with his wife, Janine Krieber.  Professor and former colleague Denis St. Martin said about him: “His vision of Canada was very influenced by his views on the politics and society of France – very Cartesian, very much about clarity.” Of course, not to be confused with his love for France is his value on the French language. In a letter earlier this year, he urged all government ministers to communicate in both English and French on social media. (Whether he pushes for the same within the new government is yet to be seen, though he walks the talk on Twitter.)

4. He is known for setting records.

Setting records may not be what Dion is after but in his 20 years of political experience he has created records both good and bad:  Under Dion, when the Liberals lost the 2008 election, going from 103 seats to 77 seats, they received the lowest share of the popular vote in Liberal history. Dion resigned his role as the Leader of the Liberal Party shortly after the loss, which made his term the shortest served by a non-interim leader of the Liberal Party. He is also only the second Liberal Leader in history to not become Prime Minister.

On the more positive side, Dion has won his riding eight consecutive times since 1996 and is the second-longest serving Quebec MP in Parliament, after Bloc Quebecois MP Louis Plamondon who has been in Canadian politics for 31 years. Dion needs to catch up by approximately 10 years, which wouldn’t be too outrageous a number considering Dion has outlasted many of his early colleagues and opponents.

5.  When it comes to war, he is cautious.

Earlier in 2006, before becoming Liberal leader, Dion criticized Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, saying it was “misguided.”  In January 2008, Dion travelled to Kandahar to visit a provincial reconstruction team with deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. He then suggested troops stay in the country in an aid or peacekeeping capacity, but withdraw from combat. Assuming those views are consistent with an overall approach to military missions, he certainly fits in line with Trudeau’s vision. Trudeau campaigned on the promise to withdraw Canada’s aircraft from the current bombing missions in Iraq and Syria, which he reiterated to U.S. President Obama after winning the Oct. 19 election.