OTTAWA – It was the straw that broke Stephane Dion’s political back.
But now the videographer responsible for Dion’s out-of-focus swan song is helping produce a video tribute he hopes will refocus attention on the former Liberal leader’s accomplishments.
“He’s a brilliant, principled, hard-working man,” says Mick Gzowski, who helping the ad agency involved in producing a video for Dion’s official send-off at a party convention in Vancouver later this week.
Gzowski, a documentary film-maker and former official videographer for the Liberal leader, was blamed – some say scapegoated – when Dion flubbed a golden opportunity to sell the merits of a coalition government to millions of Canadians via a televised address to the nation.
The videotaped Dec. 3 address, which was supposed to be aired immediately following a televised statement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arrived too late for some networks to broadcast. And the amateurish quality of the fuzzy tape left some wags wondering if it had been shot on a cell phone camera.
Liberal MPs were already having second thoughts about trying to form an unpopular coalition government headed by a leader who was in the process of being ushered out the door by his own party after leading it to one of its worst-ever electoral showings only two months earlier. The video fiasco gave them an excuse to demand Dion’s immediate departure.
He reluctantly complied and the Liberal national executive summarily short-circuited the party’s democratic leadership process to install Michael Ignatieff, runner-up in the 2006 leadership contest, at the helm.
Ignatieff will be formally crowned leader Saturday at the Vancouver convention, which was originally supposed to be the culmination of a vigorous leadership race.
But first, Liberals must pay ritual respects to the man they couldn’t get rid of fast enough.
Gzowski is hoping Friday night’s tribute will provide some redemption for himself, as well as Dion.
“We spent a lot of time together. There were huge victories, big and small victories, and that one day was the one black mark that everybody remembers,” he says.
Gzowski refuses to discuss what happened that day. But insiders have said the real fault lay with Dion’s senior staff. They were preoccupied with drafting a letter to the Governor General and left no time for the rushed videographer, using a camera with a jammed focus button, to produce a quality tape.
Gzowski says he has plenty of other high-quality video, shot during Dion’s turbulent two years at the helm. And some of those highlights, along with praise for Dion from the likes of prominent political scientist Peter Russell, will be featured in two short video clips at Friday’s tribute.
“If there is a legacy from his time in leadership it was that at least he moved the environment onto the front and centre of Canadian discourse,” Gzowski says.
However, given that Dion’s decision to champion an unpopular carbon tax flopped badly with voters, it’s not surprising that the tribute will focus as much, if not more, on his time as a cabinet minister before ascending to the leadership.
In particular, it will hail what Gzowski calls Dion’s “two great successes” as intergovernmental affairs minister under Jean Chretien and as environment minister under Paul Martin – his determination to clarify and codify the rules for Quebec secession and his successful, against-all-odds, chairmanship of a fractious United Nations conference on climate change.
“Mr. Dion has given 13 years to the Liberal Party of Canada,” says former party national director Jamie Carroll, a Dion stalwart who is helping to organize the tribute.
“He’s got lots of accomplishments to his name in that time.”
Organizers say party brass have been unstinting in their willingness to cover any tribute costs. But at Dion’s request, they’re keeping it “simple and elegant,” lasting only about 45 minutes and costing no more than about $20,000.
Ignatieff is expected to introduce Dion, who will briefly address the convention.
The party and Ignatieff have been equally unstinting in their efforts to help Dion pay off some $150,000 in debts left over from his 2006 leadership campaign. The party has organized a fundraising reception to take place just prior to the tribute and Ignatieff has personally sent out a letter urging party members who haven’t yet donated their maximum $1,100 per leadership contest to contribute.
“Mr. Dion has spent the past three years working tirelessly to hold Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to account,” Ignatieff says in the letter.
“From his steadfast commitment to Canadian unity to his principled work to address the challenge of climate change facing our world, Mr. Dion has put the needs of the Liberal party before his own and it is our turn to help him.”
Dion continues to serve as a Montreal MP but his service to the party may be drawing to a close.
Insiders close to Dion say he’s still bruised by his experience and would likely quit politics altogether should an appropriate opportunity to do something else arise. His friends are hoping he’ll be able to parlay his international environmental credentials into an important role on the world stage.