10 reasons why Stéphane Dion’s 2006 Liberal leadership win was no accident | Burrard Strategy

Mark Marissen
Principal, Burrard Strategy

This is one of Burrard Strategy’s in-depth case studies. View more case studies here.

On the occasion of Burrard Strategy’s 25th anniversary, we thought it would be good to go back to 2006 to the Liberal Party of Canada’s leadership vote, which was the last time in Canadian history that a major political party chose its leader through an in-person national delegated convention.  

I served as the national campaign director for Mr. Dion.  His leadership campaign proved to be one of Burrard Strategy’s most memorable clients.

While Dion’s victory was regarded as shocking or “accidental” by most observers, their analysis would have been very different if they had spent some time paying attention to his key strategic advantages.


Prime Minister Paul Martin resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, after losing to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the 2006 Canadian federal election.   

Liberals had been in power since 1993. Exhausted from division and scandal, they were to choose a new leader in Montreal in December, in what would become the last national delegated leadership convention in Canadian history. 

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Interim Liberal Leader Bill Graham, Leader-elect Stephane Dion, and former Prime Minister Paul Martin

In preparation for the convention, Liberals from across Canada were to elect over 4,500 delegates under a complex formula to ensure local leadership preferences could be directly reflected when delegates cast their first ballot at the convention..  Slightly more than 1,000 “ex-officios,” (a.k.a. “super delegates”) were also eligible for delegate status, and could vote as they pleased from the start.  There would be as many rounds of balloting as necessary until a majority could determine the winner.

Ten years earlier, Dalton McGuinty dramatically won the Ontario LIberal leadership after placing fourth on the first ballot under this hybrid “one-member-one-vote”/ brokered convention system.


Mr. Dion wasn’t your normal politician.  A quirky political scientist and son of famous Quebec intellectual Leon Dion, he was recruited directly to cabinet from academia by Jean Chrétien to help solve Canada’s unity crisis following the near-fatal 1995 Quebec referendum.  He arrived on the Ottawa scene carrying his backpack everywhere he went, as if he was still on campus.

As Chrétien’s Unity Minister, Mr. Dion authored the controversial Clarity Act, ground-breaking legislation that set a global standard for combating separatism.  Dion also served as Paul Martin’s Environment Minister, hosting Montreal’s 2005 United Nations Climate Change conference, the city’s largest gathering since Expo ‘67.

The late NDP leader Jack Layton described Dion as “a man of principle and conviction, and therefore almost certain not to be elected leader of the Liberal Party.”   With very little caucus support, imperfect command of the English language, and limited resources, Mr. Dion was determined to win. 

As he began his campaign, he needed to tell everyone who would listen that he was not there to simply “animate the debate”, a suggestion that genuinely offended him after hearing it a few dozen times.   

Little did many know, Mr. Dion was holding the winning hand before stepping into the Montreal convention.  


Upon examination, Mr. Dion had many more advantages than first met the eye.  

Here are the top 10 reasons why Mr. Dion succeeded in what was perceived to be one of the most startling leadership races in Canada’s history. 

1. Dion provided the best story for grassroots Liberals.

Stephane Dion with his dog Kyoto

First, Mr. Dion saved the country.  Now he wanted to save the planet.  He even had a dog named Kyoto.  These points made him popular with true believers, the kind found especially in the ridings where Liberals do not typically win in general elections. (See reason #6.) These ridings tend to have a small, committed membership base and have equal delegate representation at the convention.

Not weighed down by scandal, managing caucus supporters, or a conventional political style, Dion was in a league of his own.  This allowed him to be perceived as an “outsider.” 

But DIon was simultaneously the “loyal soldier.” His decade of service in the Chrétien  and Martin cabinets meant he must know the current inner workings of government far more intimately than any of his top competitors.  

And many Liberals blamed their party’s fall from grace on the ongoing feud between Paul Martin’s and Jean Chrétien’s  wings of the party.  Dion worked well with both Prime Ministers and made enemies of neither.  Who better for the job of party unifier than the former Unity Minister himself? 

2. Dion was the best defender of the party’s legacy.

Acting as the defender of the party’s legacy to convention delegates — the proudest Liberals in Canada — also couldn’t hurt, especially when contrasted with his top three opponents, all of whom had just arrived on the scene.

3. Ignatieff, Rae and Kennedy had issues too.

There were eleven other candidates.  Three of them were perceived to be ahead of Mr. Dion right up until the convention.

The first two:

Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff
  • Bob Rae, the calmly experienced veteran without a current seat in the House of Commons, would prove adept at bringing rivals onside. However, as the Ontario NDP Premier who defeated David Peterson, “closing the deal” with life-long Liberal activists wasn’t going to be easy, especially on his first try.

As scions of Canada’s establishment, both were well positioned to gain support from the party elite, but the last time most rank and file delegates interacted with them as LIberals was almost 30 years prior in 1968. At that time they were both youth delegates for Pierre Trudeau.  (They were also college room-mates.)

Since then, Mr. Ignatieff had left the country to explain the world, and Mr. Rae had left the party for another party altogether.  

Mr. Ignatieff’s time away gave him international caché, but it revealed a political style from a bygone era.

By not seeking a Liberal seat in the election that precipitated this race, Mr. Rae left himself vulnerable to charges that, after all these years, this prodigal son was willing to return to the party only when its leadership became available to him.

The third candidate:

Justin Trudeau, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy

The other candidates were never in a position to garner enough support to win.  Ken Dryden was the only one to make it to the second ballot at the convention.  Carolyn Bennett, Maurizio Bevilacqua, Hedy Fry and John Godfrey withdrew before the convention.  Scott Brison, Joe Volpe and Martha Hall Findlay dropped out after the first round of voting.

4. Montreal was a way better place to come from than Toronto.

The top three candidates – as well as three of the other four contestants –  were all angling to become the party’s first Toronto leader since Lester Pearson.  None of them could contemplate supporting the other without abandoning ambitions for “next time.”  Chances were very unlikely that the Liberal Party of Canada would ever choose two Toronto leaders in a row.

Any third-place Torontonian would quickly discover the need for an alliance with a strong candidate from elsewhere in the country to gain any hope of thwarting the others, and maintaining viability for any future race.

Dion was the only candidate from Montreal, the city where the convention was being held.  Claiming the role of “home-town host”  (Dion hosted the world just the year before) could build nothing but good will for 2nd and 3rd ballot support.   

Many delegates were excitedly coming to Montreal for the first time in their lives.

Dion’s home-town status allowed his campaign to make an arrangement with all the Montreal airport taxi drivers to turn their taxis into mini “Stéphane Dion campaign” offices so that every delegate who arrived — regardless of who they supported for their first ballot — could be properly welcomed to town.

5. Dion was the sole francophone candidate.

Dion was the only francophone candidate.  Canada’s Liberals alternated between English and French leaders throughout history, much to their lasting strategic benefit.

6. Dion appealed to the iconoclasts often found in “non-held” ridings.

Stephane Dion with supporters in Montreal

Given that so much political energy was being placed on Toronto, Dion’s campaign could focus its limited resources in other regions, especially in unheld ridings (ie. where Liberals were defeated by other parties.).  Picking off GTA delegates could wait until each of their candidates were forced to drop off the ballot.  

  • Each riding sent the same number of delegates to Montreal regardless of its level of membership. Lower membership counts in unheld ridings meant that a smaller number of new recruits could make a much bigger impact.  
  • Also, the lower the support for the party in any given community, the more iconoclastic grassroots local LIberals became.  Liberals from western Canada were the ones bravely defending bilingualism and the metric system from Conservative opposition in the 1970s and 1980’s, and were defending same-sex marriage and fighting climate change now.  Liberals from rural Quebec were often the only people in town with a Canadian flag flying on their property.  Iconoclasts were the kind of people Stéphane Dion could invest a lot of time in appealing to.  
  • When electing delegates at the local level, Dion’s campaign fared twice as well in the three western provinces than he did in Ontario.  He came second in Quebec only to Ignatieff, even though almost the entire establishment in the province was against him.

7. Most Liberals mistook Mr. Dion for a Trudeau-Chrétien  federalist, to his benefit.  

Stephane Dion prior to being elected to office

Liberals outside Quebec are always happy to see a Quebecker who loves Canada on the national stage, especially after Quebec almost voted to leave the country in the 1995 referendum.

Canada’s national unity is an emotional thing for a lot of people.  Many Liberals participating in the 2006 Leadership process cut their teeth in internal debates around the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. 

This role of “captain Canada” fits a narrative arch that Liberals subconsciously associate with Wilfred Laurier, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chrétien . 

But Dion’s Clarity Act was no War Measures Act or “night of the long knives.”

Demanding a clear question and a clear result was controversial in Quebec’s political class and caricatured as “hard-line federalism,” but it was allowing elegance — not forcefulness  — to stop separatism in its tracks. 

And the Clarity Act was actually popular with Quebec voters, contrary to conventional wisdom, including Dion’s.  Dion was actually so spooked by the opposition in his home province that he didn’t want to spend too much time talking about it.  

When I was serving as National Campaign Co-Chair for the party after Dion won the leadership, I asked our pollster, Michael Marzolini, to poll Quebeckers on the principles of the Clarity Act, and found more than 75% support for the twin concepts of a “clear question” and a “clear result.”  

Who on earth would want to split up their country over a convoluted question or an uneven result?

While Mr. Dion required around-the-clock police protection during his time as Unity Minister because of death threats over the Clarity Act, his views about federalism were actually much more nuanced than his predessesors.  

Observers also glossed over his support for Bill 101 (which was still controversial at the time with most federalists) and the fact that he voted Yes in the 1980 Quebec referendum.  

Mr. Dion also refused to make Chrétien -style speeches talking about how he “loves Canada” at every turn.  His love for Canada was real, but it was more personal and pragmatic rather than emotional or – as Dion would say – “jingoistic.” 

Mr. Dion was more of a Quebecker than he was a Canadian.

In a move most likely designed to destabilize the leadership convention, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a motion to recognize Quebec as a “nation within a nation” just as the convention began.  

At the time, Harper’s office attempted to reach Mr. Dion, through a former mutual staff person, to gain Mr. Dion’s endorsement for the motion.

While Mr. Ignatieff enthusiastically supported the motion, Gerard Kennedy had already announced his opposition to the motion as the convention began, taking the hard-line traditional Trudeau federalist position.  Rae was more cautious, wanting to consult before coming out with his stand.   I urged Mr. Dion to do the same, and wait until hearing from at least Mr. Rae and Mr. Dryden for their views on the subject before saying anything publicly to the media.  Dion initially agreed, but little more than half an hour later, I heard from one of the Press gallery reporters that Dion confirmed with him that he approved of the resolution.  

Dion defended himself to some of the more traditionalist hard-line federalists working on his campaign, saying that this was an innocuous motion, recognizing a “sociological” rather than an “ethnic” nation.  These are the sort of words that no other Liberal leader would have said before him. 

But Dion’s hard-won reputation for standing up for Canada with the Clarity Act meant that his position resulted in virtually zero blowback at the convention.

8. Dion had the most appealing branding for Liberal activists – first in red and then in green! 

Dion supporters at the Palais de Congress, Convention Hall in Montreal

Every candidate had good qualities and bad ones, but Dion’s handicaps were not nearly as devastating as those of his top rivals:

  • Michael Ignatieff, “the American,” 
  • Bob Rae, “the New Democrat,” and
  • Gerard Kennedy “the Unilingual Anglophone.”   

Dion’s greatest attribute was his policy legacy, the Clarity Act, which was one of the most popular Liberal accomplishments with convention delegates.  He was also the strongest champion for the environment amongst all of the candidates.  

This combination – the country AND the planet – was important to so many Liberals.

As was party unity.

Given that party unity had been such a huge issue with the previous two leaders and national unity has been such a big issue for most of Canadian history, the campaign’s slogan was “Stephane Dion.  A United Party.  A United Canada.”  

The green branding was a card that was going to be played on site at the convention itself the morning after the first ballot was cast.

Martha Hall Findlay, the first candidate to be eliminated after the first ballot held the evening before, showed up with her supporters in neon green!.

Stéphane Dion’s campaign colours dramatically switched from Liberal red to climate-friendly green overnight.  

That morning, every Dion delegate was given a handful of the new green scarves, signs, and hats, and were each assigned about half a dozen supporters they knew from other camps to find them on the floor as their candidates were eliminated from the ballot.  

The entire convention hall looked like it was morphing into a sea of green, spreading like a virus (albeit a good one!). It was the best visual demonstration of momentum anyone could imagine.

Interestingly, Mr. Dion is colourblind, and couldn’t tell the difference between the red and the green.  As a result, he was not affected by the phenomenon that every Canadian watching TV was experiencing.

9.  Very few thought Mr. Dion was going to win. 

Few thought that Stephane Dion was able to win, even up to the convention itself.  This is often a blessing.

Dion’s underdog demeanour and youthful support gave his campaign a real insurgent feel.  

The Ignatieff, Rae and Kennedy teams also feared “litigating” Dion’s candidacy in conversations on the floor of the convention because they didn’t want to alienate Dion supporters from voting for them on subsequent ballots.

It was also easier for Dion’s campaign to obtain 2nd and 3rd ballot commitments from supporters of the perceived front-runners when it seemed unlikely that such commitments would ever need to be fulfilled.

Stephane Dion, Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Findlay

This was especially true for Gerard Kennedy, who agreed to a mutual pact with Dion to support whoever survived the first rounds of balloting.  Kennedy made this commitment when everyone was convinced Kennedy would arrive at the convention with more first-ballot votes than Dion.

While Kennedy received slightly more first-ballot votes from elected delegates than Dion did, Dion edged 2 votes ahead of Kennedy with ex-officio delegates on the first ballot, much to the dramatic surprise of almost everyone present.

When Kennedy dropped out after the second ballot, he was able to deliver almost every single one of his delegates to the Dion camp on the third ballot.  It would have been impossible for Dion to do the same.  

Since Dion’s Quebec delegates would have been reluctant to vote for a unilingual anglophone for leader of Canada’s natural governing party, it would have been virtually impossible for Dion’s team to deliver his supporters with the same iron discipline Kennedy demonstrated.

10.  Climate Change was the issue of the hour.

Just one year before the leadership convention, Environment Minister Stéphane Dion was the star of the show at a different kind of conference in Montreal – the United Nations Climate Change conference.

This is where he made a name for himself around the world and cemented his reputation as someone who cares deeply about the planet.

Climate change had catapulted to the top of international news for months now.  Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth played at theatres across the country earlier that year.  British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell introduced North America’s first carbon tax two years later.

While there were other key factors (being francophone and the author of the Clarity Act, for example), the environmental issue was at the heart of Dion’s leadership campaign and its success. 

Stephane Dion and Prime Minister Paul Martin at Montreal Climate Change Conference 2005
Green swag handed out on the Saturday morning of the convention

Dion talked about his “three-pillar” approach – treating economic, social AND environmental concerns holistically in a modern way –  and gained a lot of youthful support which also allowed his campaign to appeal to the idealistic Kennedy supporters with sincerity.

Just before the convention, a key byelection in London North Centre was held where the Green Party candidate came a strong second, for the first time.  

Recognizing this symbolism, Glen Pearson, the riding’s newly elected Liberal MP, was chosen to introduce Dion on Friday night for the candidate speeches.

While Michael Ignatieff himself took the more radical step of supporting a carbon tax (Dion was for cap-and-trade, and didn’t support a carbon tax until after he won the leadership), Dion had the actual green credentials that Liberals felt they could trust.


Hindsight may be 20-20, but anyone paying close attention to the 2006 leadership race would know that Dion’s win should not have come as any kind of surprise.

Stéphane Dion’s earnestness and intellectual honesty were refreshing, and his dogged determination on national unity and climate change stood in stark contrast to the perceived opportunism and/or entitlement coming from the other leading contenders.

Given the results of the 2011 election, and, at the time, recent memories of Bob Rae’s premiership under a different party banner, it became pretty clear that Dion’s leadership victory wasn’t some kind of odd-ball accident or mistake. 

Regardless of Dion’s challenges, Liberal delegates recognized his strategic advantages, demonstrating their collective grassroots wisdom by choosing the best candidate on offer. 

Stephane Dion and I having a serious conversation on the convention floor
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