Mixed reviews from Catholic observers on Liberal leader Dion

By  Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
  • January 26, 2007
Stephane DionOTTAWA - The new Liberal leader Stéphane Dion gets mixed reviews from Catholic observers who like his stress on a sustainable environment and social justice but raise concerns about his highly individualistic notion of rights. That approach could mean clashes down the road with group rights, especially those of families, religions and nationalities, they say.

"Stephane Dion is to be congratulated for setting the tone of the Liberal leadership debate that has now contributed to making the environment the key concern of Canadians," said Joe Gunn, director of the Congregation of Notre Dame's Visitation Province justice, peace and integrity of creation office.

Daniel Cere, director of the Institute for the Study of Marriage, Law and Culture at McGill University, agreed Dion's proactive approach will "receive a sympathetic hearing," noting John Paul II had called for "an ecological conversion among Catholics."

Cere assumes Dion will follow former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's "just society" approach that will also appeal to Catholics. Dion has made social justice one of his "three pillars," along with a sustainable environment and economic prosperity.

Cere also sees Dion in "lockstep" with the Trudeau legacy left by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The charter, however, is a "thin document" that does not go "far enough in the robust conception of rights that grounds the Catholic tradition," Cere said.

"His position is so grounded in an individualistic conception of rights," he said. "That kind of conception can be corruptive of forms of communal identity — family, religion or nationality."

The Catholic tradition sees human rights grounded in an authentic conception of the human person that recognizes the communal dimensions of family, social and national identities, he said.

"I don't think the Catholic community can feel completely comfortable with the Dion vision," he said.

Cere is worried about religious freedom, especially the rights of religious institutions to hold views that are inconsistent with so-called charter values. He warned that the individualistic notion of rights is increasingly narrowing the conception of religious freedom to freedom of conscience even though the charter and the courts recognize both conscience rights and religious freedom.

Luc Gagnon, editor of the French-language conservative journal Égards and president of Quebec Campagne-Vie, agrees.

"He's in the same line as (former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin) but worse, because Martin was a serious Catholic, and that placed some limits on his liberalism," he said. Gagnon fears that Dion will go even further not only in the separation of church and state, but also in the separation of morality and politics.

Gagnon fears that the next "right" that might be championed is the "right to die."

"I would say he is dangerous because he will let the left-wing of the Liberal Party govern Canada, the party and the agenda." Gagnon does not see Dion as a man of principle on moral issues, either for or against. Instead he sees Dion as the spiritual son of Chrétien, whom he characterizes as more interested in power.

Born in 1955, Dion grew up in Quebec City, son of famous Laval University political scientist Leon Dion, who opposed the "priest-ridden" Quebec society under the Duplessis regime. Dion's parents were ahead of the curve in the Quiet Revolution that swept Quebec in the 1960s. Dion attended Catholic schools, and, according to a recent story in the Globe and Mail, during an obligatory confession "mocked the priest by seeking forgiveness for having lost his faith." When he started attending College of the Jesuits, an elite high school, he told the Globe, the Jesuits still held a lot of power in Quebec, but by the time he left, education was under provincial control and "it was bedlam. There was no authority anywhere."

Dion and his wife, Janine Krieber, lived together from the time they met as students at Laval, while they pursued studies in Paris and upon their return to take teaching posts in  Montreal. According to a Dec. 9 Montreal Gazette article, they married in order to be able to adopt a child from religiously conservative Peru.

"It shows to you his respect for the traditional institutions and for marriage and religion," Gagnon said, noting Dion would see marriage as irrelevant, so "of course he was for same-sex marriage."

Dion is best known for his staunch defence of Canadian federalism before and after the Quebec Referendum in 1995, and as architect of the Clarity Act, which became law in 2000. His robust, principled defence of a united  Canada despite being vilified in his home province has given him a reputation for courage and integrity in the rest of Canada. Though he served as a cabinet minister under Chrétien, his reputation has remained untouched by the sponsorship scandal that dogged Chrétien's government and contributed to Martin's defeat in 2005.

Cere suspects that Dion's approach on the environment will tend toward using federal power to effect change rather than working closer with civil society, private associations, business and institutions to do so. While Gunn hopes Dion's familiarity with the environment file will "create the changes needed for Canada to face the ecological crisis of our time," he pointed out Dion's record while Canada's environment minister from July 2004 to January 2006 got a failing grade from Canada's Environmental Commissioner for lack of progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on protecting biodiversity and fish stocks.

"The government asked Canadians to buy 'green' but had no green purchasing policy itself," Gunn said. "And the government had weak policies and even weaker policies concerning clean water, especially on native reserves."

Described as someone who does not suffer fools, earnest and without people skills, Dion is often compared in personality to his opponent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has similar traits. Both are capable of articulate defences of unpopular ideas, leading some pundits to forecast that maybe the level of political debate will rise as each man carves out their vision for Canada.

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