SIPPING SUDS WITH STEPHANE

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Dana Lacey

Ram in the Rye, 4:00 pm, St. Paddy’s Day:

I’ve hunkered down in a dark, sweaty corner of the pub so I can observe, and hopefully, sneak in a few green beers that will release me from this horrible churning, twisting bundle of nerves my stomach has become. And even though my driver’s licence expired and I’m branded with a red, “stop the minor” wristband, it’s only a matter of minutes before I’m gulping down green booze — compliments of the unsuspecting Liberal party and one Mr. Stéphane Dion, who is the reason I want to drink in the first place.

Any minute I’m expecting my phone to bleep and glow and finally tell me, Mr. Dion is ready for you.

If you had 10 minutes with the man who could be Canada’s next prime minister, what would you ask him? Every person I asked gave a different answer: tuition, the environment, the war, Stéphane who?

I’m planning my questions word for word, my mind racing, when suddenly, Bob Rae thrusts his hand in my face. I didn’t notice his arrival, but he made the handshake rounds quickly, and now he’s in front of me.

I’m wondering: Do I shake hands with the man who caused my tuition fees to go up? I trip back to Grade 3 — those two glorious weeks of school-free Rae Days, an extended vacation full of naps and Nintendo. I forgive him instantly, grasping his hand with a grin before he moves on.

For the next 27 minutes I work my way through two plastic cups of dyed beer, wondering and worrying — he better show up, I’ve already told my mom and bragged to all my friends — until my phone announces that Dion is on campus.

Looking around at this growing, whirling crowd of Irish-green shamrocks and Liberal-lime sweater-vests, I feel privileged. I’m flying — they don’t know what I know. I’m off to see the green man himself, the former environment minister who named his dog Kyoto.

What am I going to ask him? I look at my notebook, but suddenly, it’s all gibberish. My God, I’m on my way to meet our potential future PM and I have no idea what I’m going to say.

I rush to the Oakham House’s Thomas Lounge and before I know it, Dion is shaking my hand (his hands are so soft) and introducing himself in his quiet, accented drawl — the same one that will later boom across the Ram in the Rye, filling the eager ears of Canada’s “future generation.” He folds his tall, lean frame onto a hideous Ryerson-style couch and looks at me expectantly. Okay Dana, breathe. His smile is slight yet reassuring, and I struggle against conjuring up any of the rodent-related metaphors I’ve read about his appearance.

I start with tuition fees and, of course, its close buddy, Horrible Crippling Debt. His answers are manicured, politician-style, and he gets as many Harper hits in as he can — albeit in soft, logical you-can-trust-me Dionese. He tells me how Paul Martin, before that whole scandal thing, had promised to invest $3.1 billion in a program that would have the federal government pay a quarter of a student’s tuition — half of first-year fees, and half of their graduating year.

Imagine how wonderful it would have been to not have to worry about money in these last frantic months of school! Focus, Dana, focus, he’s still talking.

“We are very concerned that the PM cancelled this plan and instead gave students an $80-a-year tax rebate on their textbooks.” Dion rolls his eyes and looks at me with genuine, politician sympathy. “Lucky you.”

Tax rebate? Gotta remember that. Dion promises he has a similar support plan in mind, adding, “we don’t want to be a country where only the upper and middle class can afford to go to university … we’ll lose a lot of good talent.”

Okay, then what about the working class? What about grants and scholarships? What about interest-free loans? Anything but the terrible, life-sucking OSAP? “Those exist already.” Gotta find me some of those…

This is all a part of what Dion calls the three-tier approach to our country’s future: Competitiveness, meaning investment in research, such as grants to post-secondary institutions; Social Justice, “to care about the most vulnerable of our society;” and last, but most trendy, the buzz words of every Canadian political party, Environmental Sustainability. Dion, everyone’s second choice at the Liberal leadership convention in December, wants to pump up Canada’s international reputation.

“I think the new generation of Canadians care about that,” Dion says. “Will we be a champion of Kyoto, will we take care of the Arctic, will we do what we need to do to fight against the world’s pandemics?”

His eyes alight, he sets off into another tangent — water, our very lifeblood, is rapidly disappearing, which is “the worst threat for humanity now.” He looks at me nodding sagely, scribbling frantically, and adds, “after climate change, of course.”

Dion wants economic competitiveness but stresses the need to “ensure what we are doing will also be good for the next generation. We are putting at risk their own future because we are not planning the consequences of our growth.”

I ask him about his new environment plan, which he announced on Friday, called Balancing our Carbon Budget. In it he promises to crack down on Canada’s worst industrial polluters — electricity, oil and gas and energy-intensive industries, which together produce 50 per cent of this country’s greenhouse gases. The plan is to put a price on carbon — $20 for every CO2 tonne over Kyoto targets — and create a market to trade it. Like a mutual fund, the money will go into a bank account and 80 per cent will be used in that province to fund green projects.

But what about the other half of Canada’s emissions, I wonder? How will Dion change the way Canadians consume energy?

Dion acts surprised that I didn’t want a “Down with Big Oil” speech (he must be thrown off by my dreadlocks). Here the Liberal leader’s plan is less clear. “The other half is transport, housing, municipalities, renewable energy.” Those devilish details will be released later.

He mentions environmental tax reform, (whatever that is), stressing that he will take a horse-and-carrot approach to greening the country by creating tax incentives like the Climate Fund — a grant program that will provide venture capital for eco-technology and innovation. “If the federal government is backing (programs like this) we’ll see how much we can reform the society in every corner,” says Dion.

Dion’s press secretary signals that our 10 minutes are up. People are waiting for him, but he looks at me (again, with that politician sympathy).

“Do you have any more questions?” he asks. Now, I’m full of them. I ask what he thinks of how the Tories cut programs, despite the surplus, with a viciously narrow ideology. Kyoto, Status of Women, Court Challenges (which helped fund human-rights lawsuits against the feds) and medical marijuana research, among others, are all crippled. He calls the Conservative’s approach “hostile” and “insulting.” So how are Canadians going to get any of these programs back? “By electing me.”

And then, as his entourage whisks him away to yet another sweaty bout of photo-ops and handshakes, Canada’s next leader says, to no one in particular, “can I get a beer?”

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