It was on an unassuming Flag Day in 1996 when an incident would happen that would become part of Canadian lore. It has been parodied, debated and much more. It was the Shawinigan Handshake, and today I am talking about the event that made news across Canada, and the world.
During Flag Day, Prime Minister Jean Chretien was in Hull, Quebec to attend the commemorate the first National Flag of Canada, which I will be looking at next week on the show.
Unfortunately, at the time the federal government had been slashing its budget to deal with the fiscal crisis in 1994. Canada had also seen its credit rating fall between 1992 and 1994. Chretien and the Minister of Finance, Paul Martin, were looking to cut the deficit anyway they could and that included overhauling the unemployment insurance program.
Chretien had handed out awards of excellence to students at Parliament Hill before getting into his limousine and going across the Ottawa River to Jacques Cartier Park.
As Chretien was addressing the crowd, several anti-poverty protesters began to heckle the prime minister over changes that were coming to the unemployment insurance program in Canada, yelling “Make Chretien unemployed”. Chretien, looking visibly frustrated, cut his speech short and walked away from the microphone.
Following the speech, Chretien made his way to his limousine after shaking hands in the crowd and it was there that he was confronted by a protestor named Bill Clennett. As Clennett approached and yelled “Chretien, you should be unemployed!”, Chretien grabbed him by the back of the neck and the chin, threw him to the ground and broke one of his teeth in the process. Another protestor came forward to block Chretien’s path to the limousine. Chretien then knocked the megaphone out of the protestor’s hand and the protestor was tackled by the RCMP.
Some have speculated that Chretien had dealt with the matter as he did because of an incident a few months previous. On Nov. 5, 1995, Chretien and his wife escaped injury when Andre Dallaire, armed with a knife, broke into the prime minister’s residence. They stayed in their bedroom with the door locked, with Chretien holding a stone Inuit carving in readiness, until security arrived, seven minutes later.
As can be expected, the Prime Minister of Canada personally dealing with someone confronting him was almost unheard of in Canada and it quickly spread across the country, and even to international outfits.
Chretien would defend his actions, stating, quote:
“Some people come my way, and I had to go, so if you’re in my way.”
He would go on to say later, quote:
“I just moved him and I wish I had not to do that. Some people were in my way. I had to go. I had to keep walking.”
He also criticized the RCMP for allowing someone to get so close to the prime minister, but the RCMP stated they saw no breach of security.
A week after the incident, RCMP Commissioner Philip Murray would state, quote:
“We will in the future ensure a more controlled access to the prime minister.”
Clennett, as can be expected, saw the incident differently.
“I kept my ground and then he came and threw me to the ground.”
Phil Nolan, who was the Global Television cameraman that captured the incident and the iconic image, thought it would just be in the news for a few days. He would say in 2016, quote:
“I knew it would be on a front page or two and I knew it would most likely dominate the news for a day or so. But I didn’t think it would be as big as it got.”
He continues, describing the incident from his perspective.
“As Chretien approached me, we met. I put the camera onto my shoulder, still rolling and a protester was in Chretien’s face shouting. Then it happened. There were other cameras there, but it happened right in front of me.”
Nolan’s father contacted him after seeing the photo from the video, which had spread across the country. His father said, quote:
“That’s an unbelievable shot. I’m very proud of you. Just the look of Chretien gritting his teeth with the shades on, he looked like a hoodlum.”
At first, the Shawinigan Handshake name did not appear. Newspaper headlines ranged between “Hull Hogan” in Ottawa, “Bring On Bouchard” in Toronto and “Chretien loses it” in Montreal.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said he understood Chretien’s frustration, stating quote:
Chretien overall did not take the entire Shawinigan Handshake incident seriously, jokingly stating that he thought the man was John Nunziata, who had recently been dismissed from the Liberal caucus after voting against the 1996 budget.
Paul Martin, 24 hours later when talking with Chretien about the budget, apparently jokingly said, quote:
“Before you do anything. I want to tell you I’ll do what you want.”
Some speculated that the Quebec Referendum of 1995 had drained Chretien in his effort to keep Canada united, causing him to be short of temper. Conservative Leader Jean Charest would say, quote:
“If there is any benefit to this episode, it is that everyone should give themselves a solid shake and remember that we have a responsibility that is more important than letting off steam.”
Most saw the incident in a humorous manner and the approval rating of Chretien actually went up afterwards.
According to Clennett, a few months after the incident the RCMP showed up at his door and offered to pay the $560 dental fee. At first he was not going to take the money but he did and then put an ad in the local newspaper, using the money, to criticize the Liberal government.
Nolan, who captured the image, received The Canadian Press photo of the year award, which is a rare honour for a TV journalist.
Due to Chretien’s nickname, the little guy from Shawinigan, the incident became known as The Shawinigan Handshake. Going along those lines, Deborah Grey, a member of the Reform Party, nicknamed Chretien The Shawinigan Strangler. Going further with this, Chuck Strahl, another Reform Party member, sarcastically nominated Chretien for a Parliamentary Oscar for his performance in The Shawinigan Strangler on Feb. 12, 1997. Don Cherry would say of the incident that he liked politicians being direct in that manner and the actions Chretien took.
As for the other man in the incident, Bill Clennett, he would go on to run for provincial office in the 2007 and 2008 elections, coming in third in 2008. He continued to protest for what he believed in for several years, including at the G20 Summit in Toronto.
Clennett has seen the handshake recreated many times but the man who was on the other end of the handshake has not seen it as something that should be celebrated. In an interview with CTV in 2010, he stated, quote:
“He’s a buffoon. It was just outrageous and it was something that never happened before. Chretien plays this persona. He’s not an idiot but he doesn’t act always intelligently from my perspective and he thinks this is something funny.”
The incident is still remembered today in Canada as both a serious and lighthearted moment. Poet Stuart Ross would arrange the text of comments made by Chretien, into a poem called Minor Altercation, published the day after the event. It has since been reprinted many times.
In Shawinigan, the incident has become part of the local lore, and a microbrewery there released an award-winning beer called Shawinigan Handshake, which depicts Prime Minister Jean Chretien strangling the devil on its label. The devil is made in the likeness of Isaac Tremblay, co-owner of the brewery. Chretien would sample that beer that depicts the incident. According to Tremblay, he saw Chretien sipping a Shawinigan Handshake in a local Shawinigan bar, he said quote:
“He liked the idea and thought it was funny.”
Clennett, did not see anything funny about the beer or the incident. He stated, quote:
“It is quite extraordinary to trivialize his behaviour only to sell beer. It’s pitiful. What Mr. Chretien did was not commonplace. There is nothing glorious there to celebrate.”
For the Memorial Cup, a special version of the beer was created that showed Chretien giving the handshake to Don Cherry, he said quote:
“Don Cherry had loved it that I grabbed a protester by the neck. So I said, It’s your turn, you will be the victim of that and he accepted. So, on the label of the beer it will be Chretien grabbing Don Cherry by the neck.”
Today, when people, famous and otherwise, interact with Jean Chretien, it has become somewhat of a tradition for Chretien to put them into a chokehold.
Information comes from CTV News, The Toronto Star, iPolitics.ca, Wikipedia, Winnipeg Free Press, Yahoo News, Maclean’s, the Huffington Post,