Living

The Krieber factor

Accomplished, assertive and witty, the wife of prime ministerial hopeful Stéphane Dion isn't the submissive kind of political spouse. Does that make Janine Krieber a political asset or a liability?

When the five-foot-four-inch Janine Krieber tap tap taps her way into the room in four-inch black suede high heels and sits down to chat, the wife of Stéphane Dion – and renowned terrorism expert – makes it clear that she hasn’t arrived in Ottawa as a rose in her husband’s lapel.

Instead she is eager to stress that she’s a political force in the Liberal leader’s life – from policy briefings in the morning to political strategy over dinner. And the 52-year-old Krieber is refreshingly candid about the blueprint she’s laid out for both of them. “This goal to move to 24 Sussex is a big one. We need to work together, be together to reach it,” she says over tea and fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, served by a butler at Stornoway, the residence of the leader of the opposition. “I am a specialist in strategies. You make your move one after the other and stay flexible.”

Stornoway is a waiting room for politicians who either go big or go home. And it’s a showcase for the partners who come with them. “Some spouses have been really vocal and present: Mrs. Mulroney and Mrs. Clark for example,” Krieber says. “Madame Chrétien was very shy and didn’t like to speak out in public. Mrs. Martin chose to stay in her intimate house in Quebec – I think she doesn’t like politics. For me, I love politics. I’m a political scientist.”

Indeed she is. But it’s the social sciences that Professor Krieber needs to bone up on for her new role as the chatelaine of Stornoway.

Krieber was a graduate student at Laval University in Montreal in the ’70s when Maureen McTeer said the staff of Stornoway would not care for her infant daughter, Catherine – lest they spoil her – and the media went ballistic. Krieber had just returned from her doctoral studies at the haute monde L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris when Mila Mulroney dared to install two sinks in the children’s bathroom, never to live it down. In the early ’90s, Krieber was the mother of a toddler entertaining intellectuals in her downtown Montreal condo when the wives of the leaders beat a hasty retreat to the drawing-room to escape scrutiny. There was nary a public peep from Aline Chrétien for the 13 years she was the doyenne of Stornoway and then 24 Sussex.

Krieber, however, remains Krieber. During Dion’s quick and surprising ascent to the leadership, she has not been shy about presenting her views on everything from Quebec nationalism – “Non” – to her sang-froid take on the future of terrorism. “It’s been with us since the beginning of humankind. Fear is part of the human condition.”

There is a perception that a political spouse of this stature should be ribbon-cutting submissive, smile sweetly and keep her opinions to herself, and some Ottawa insiders are starting to wonder whether this bright, outspoken woman is a liability to her husband’s political career. Says one disgruntled Liberal who doesn’t want to be named, “She has the potential to overshadow him. The scuttlebutt here is that he’s being cast in a role that’s weak, a guy who lets his wife pick his clothes for him and asks her advice on policy – it doesn’t play well for him.”

On the other hand, there are other Ottawa politicos who say she’s intelligent, confident and utterly charming, an asset to the leadership who brings a new dimension to a cookie-cutter role. MP Carolyn Bennett writes in an e-mail, “She’s continental. And she can be a huge asset in bringing our caucus together.”

Born in Alma, Que., in the district of Lac St. Jean, she grew up à la nature, as she puts it, in a house her parents built on the shore of the Saguenay River with her younger brother, Michel, now 50, and sister, Édith, now 48. The daughter of an Austrian photographer father who served in the German infantry on the eastern front during the Second World War, she remembers, “He hardly ever spoke of the war but was marked by it and had terrible nightmares all of his life. We would call that post-traumatic stress syndrome today.” He met her French-Canadian mother, Thérèse Gagné, now 76, when he immigrated to Canada.

A natural athlete, Krieber remembers, “Summers were fantastic. We had a sailboat, a canoe, a motorboat and a kayak. In winter we crossed the ice to the ski hills on the other side.” She was even skilled as a ski patroller at the age of 14. It was a utopia in some respects. But other childhood experiences shaped her in more profound ways. Lac St. Jean was the spiritual home for the separatist movement. Her brother, Michel, a financial analyst in Toronto, recalls, “Because of our last name, it was impressed upon us as kids that we weren’t pur laine dyed-in-the-wool Québécois. I didn’t like it. She didn’t either.”

Conversations at the Krieber family dinner table were lively, far-reaching and international in scope. “We were not debaters per se,” says Michel. “But we would naturally adopt an examination of the issue at hand until all the pros and cons were covered.”

Krieber learned dispute management at an early age. When the inevitable arguments in a home with three kids started, the ones who were fighting were confined to the library and told they couldn’t come out until they’d resolved their differences. “We had an expression,” her brother recalls, “Nous ne nous faisions pas disputer, nous nous faisions discuter.” Which translates: you can’t fight about it; you have to discuss it.

It was during these teenage years that Krieber took up acting, piano (she still plays) and painting. “With acrylics today – they’re environmentally friendly,” she quips.

While she was doing her master’s degree at Laval University, she became interested in the terrorist movements that emerged in the ’70s. “The Baader-Meinhof Gang was active in Germany. The Vietnam War was a guerrilla war. There were riots in the U.S., and student revolts throughout the world.” Closer to home, the Front de Libération du Québec was responsible for more than 200 bombings and the death of a cabinet minister. “I was fascinated by the topic and wanted to link terrorism to ideology,” she says. Her studies were among the first to examine a scourge that continues to plague the planet. “Terrorism is not a true way to fight. It is a way to speak out,” she explains. “It is not a military strategy. It’s a strategy with words. It’s social violence. It’s always done with ideology – religious, communist, far-right ideology.”

While writing her thesis, she met a fellow student – Stéphane Dion – by chance at the birthday party of a mutual friend. Immediately she was struck by the quiet intellectual. Their relationship developed fast and became what she calls “a commonplace love story.” As soon as they graduated, they left for Paris to do doctoral studies at the renowned Institute that the French refer to as Sciences-Po.

Léonard Beaulne, a Canadian diplomat, studied at the same school and remembers being impressed with Krieber from the first time they met. “My wife and I were living on the sixth floor of a small apartment near Montmartre,” he explains. “Stéphane and Janine lived a few blocks away in a bigger apartment that was infinitely better heated. There was a group of students from Canada and all over the world – places we’d never been exposed to such as Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Iraq – and we’d invite ourselves over to their place and stay as long as we could for the warmth as well as the atmosphere.”

They eventually returned to Montreal in 1984. The newly minted professor Krieber took a long-distance post teaching at Laval University, and Dion became a political science professor at the Université de Montreal. But there was a missing element in their carefully planned life – children. When they discovered that they couldn’t have a child of their own, they went to Peru and adopted Jeanne, the daughter, now 19, they still call their Inca Princess. While Dion did the legwork – staying in Peru for months at a time to fulfill adoption requirements – Krieber stayed in Montreal and ultimately organized their marriage, which had never been part of their plan but became a necessary convenience for the adoption process. Life was good. She’d by now taken a job teaching at Collége Militaire in St. Jean, Que., about 50 kilometres from the city. Says Krieber, “I saw our lives continuing as two academics travelling all around the world to international conferences and coming home to Montreal to give classes. We expected nothing else.”

Then in 1995 Prime Minister Jean Chrétien asked Dion to come to Ottawa as the unelected minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. Of all the surprises she’s had in her life, she says the biggest was when Dion returned from a meeting in Europe a few weeks after the prime minister’s phone call and said, “Okay, I’ve made my decision. I will say yes to Mr. Chrétien.”

The circus began.

When Krieber talks about her life, she says, “It’s really two lives – before and after politics. A typical day before politics – he would make the breakfast for Jeanne and me. I prepared Jeanne for school. He took her to school. I made dinner. He helped with her homework.” After 1996, he would leave for Ottawa at 5:00 a.m. Monday and return Friday night. She didn’t like it. “I hardly ever saw him.”

It was when Paul Martin announced his resignation from politics that the serious business of upheaval began – in the car on the way home from the speech. “Stéphane was talking about who should replace Monsieur Martin. I said, ‘You, of course.’ ” And Krieber, the strategist, went to work. She says Jeanne did the day-to-day work on the campaign, but she admits that even though she was busy with her classes at the Collége Militaire, she provided input from the outset of the leadership campaign and was confident that her man would win. In January they moved to Stornoway and left Jeanne behind with their infamously named dog, Kyoto, at their Montreal condo.

Dion may be the leader of the opposition, but Krieber is the CEO of Krieber-Dion Inc. She does the banking, writes the cheques, keeps the books, files the taxes and buys all of his clothes – even his underwear. “Our relationship began like that – for us it’s a natural division of labour.”

She could have kept the job she loves and already misses but says, “If you knew Stéphane, you’d know that couldn’t happen. It’s impossible. He’s colour-blind. You don’t leave him in a house alone.”

It’s comments like this that have backroom Liberals shaking their heads. Says one, “Many suspect she controls him. She reads his briefing notes. He takes her advice and brings it back to staffers. She’s the one people need to go to in order to get to him. Who are people reporting to?” There’s even a suggestion circulating in Ottawa that Dion is saving a riding for his wife in the next election.

The truth is they’re better together. “It’s been part of our whole lives to discuss things together. As long as I can remember it’s been like that. He comes with certain ideas and we discuss them.”

They escape when they can to their chalet in Rivière-Rouge, an hour’s drive north of Mont Tremblant, where Krieber kicks off her high heels, dons jeans and a T-shirt and digs in the garden. In the winter, she skis downhill with Jeanne while Dion hits the cross-country trails. She’s a Renaissance woman who’s knitted sweaters for her family and even practised the ancient art of smocking a dress and then knuckled down to write an academic paper on al Qaeda while smoking cigarettes. She loves movies – Lawrence of Arabia is her favourite – but doesn’t have time for TV, except for the news. She used to do Pilates but now relies on climbing the stairs at Stornoway for her exercise.

Jeanne says her mother’s getting used to the fishbowl life, but adds, “The thought of my mom being subjected to the same mean attacks as my dad is different. I hope no one will say bad stuff about her. She’s just trying to help my dad.”

There’s something delightfully sophomoric about this woman’s take on life in Ottawa. It could lead to a grand slam or turn into a crucible. If her husband loses the next election, will she be content to remain there? “We’ll win,” she says.

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