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After the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives, the rise of the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois, a new man would arrive in the role of prime minister. He was not new to the job by any means and had a role in Parliament that dated back to 1963, when Lester B. Pearson was prime minister. Of course, I am speaking of Jean Chretien, the man who led Canada through much of the 1990s.

Joseph Jacques Jean Chretien was born on Jan. 11, 1934 in Shawinigan, Quebec, the 18th of 19 children, 10 of whom did not survive. His father Wellie Chretien worked as a paper mill machinist in town, and as an organizer for the Liberal Party. That early exposure to the party would result in Chretien being drawn to it from an early age. That love of the Liberal Party went back to his grandfather, Francois, who was a supporter of the Liberal Party, while serving as mayor of his village for 30 years.

As a young man, Chretien was known for not only his temper, but his ability to fight. One of his classmates would say later in a biography written about Chretien that he had nightmares, quote:

“To be hit by a punch from Chretien.”

At the time, Chretien was at a boarding school while his mother was sick, and his goal was to be expelled so that he could go back home.

Another friend, Jean Pelletier, would say that Chretien was a fighter who always wanted to win.

When Chretien was 12, he was struck with a severe attack of Bell’s palsy, which would cause the left side of his face to be paralyzed. Later in life, he would use this to his advantage when he stated he was the only politician who did not speak out of both sides of his mouth.

As a young child, Chretien was often attending rallies and handing out political pamphlets for the Liberal Party. One time, he went to a pool hall that was next to the family house to exchange insults with supporters of the Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis. Later in life, while he was a student at Seminaire St. Joseph, he would meet Duplessis. According to Chretien, Duplessis asked if his father was Wellie Chretien, and his grandfather was Francois Chretien, to which Chretien replied he was. Duplessis then yelled, quote:

“Well then, you’re a goddamn Liberal!”

In 1957, he would marry Aline Chretien, who would always be by his side and support him throughout his long political career. Together, the couple would have three children, two sons and a daughter. His work ethic was shown in the fact that Chretien had the ceremony on a Tuesday so that he could work extra on the weekend. He would say quote:

“I had the chance to work all weekend at double time.”

In 1959, Chretien graduated from Laval University with a law degree, and he would join a law firm in his hometown of Shawinigan, while also continuing to be politically active in the area. While at Laval, Chretien would also join the Liberal Club on campus. His decision to go into politics influenced his choice of a law degree. He would say quote:

“I knew that was the best way to get elected in St. Maurice riding, to be a lawyer, a man who can deal with all the problems of all the people.”

It was around the time his law career was starting that Chretien first became involved in politics. In 1960, he would become the main organizer for Jean Lesage, the leader of the provincial Liberal Party of Canada, and soon to be the premier.

In 1963, Chretien won his first election to the House of Commons, serving as a Liberal and entering the Cabinet as a minister without a portfolio. In that first election, Chretien would take 45.7 per cent of the seat, defeating his Social Credit incumbent by 2,000 votes in the process.

For the first year in the House of Commons, serving as a backbencher, Chretien would improve his English and watch those around him. When he arrived in Ottawa, his knowledge of English was limited to ordering bacon and eggs. The new exposure to English would result in some humorous moments for Chretien. At one party with several Anglophone MPs, they asked him how he was able to defeat his opponent in St. Maurice. He stated quote:

“I went to all factories and shaked hands with everybody. When the work was finished, the men and women rush by so fast I did not have time to shake hand, so I touch them all on the bras,” Chretien said, meaning arms rather than bras. The other MPs broke out in laughter and said, quote:

“So that’s how you won the election you damn Frenchman.”

One of the first successes for Chretien would come in the task of renaming Canada’s major airline. At the time, the airline was called Trans-Canada Airlines, but some found the name confusing as it flew international routes, and no longer flew only in Canada. The other issue was that it did not translate well into French, which caused issues in Quebec. In 1964, Chretien submitted a private member’s bill proposing a name change from Trans-Canada Airlines to Air Canada. The bill would pass, and it would bring Chretien to the attention of Pearson.

Soon after, in 1965, Pearson would make Chretien his parliamentary secretary, and the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Finance. Chretien would later say he was disappointed that he was appointed as a parliamentary secretary to the Finance Minister, as he had hoped to become a cabinet minister. Pearson would tell him, quote:

“If I had taken you into the Cabinet today, in the traditional French-Canadian portfolio of Postmaster-General, it might not lead you to greater things.”

Two years later in 1967, Chretien was appointed as the Minister of State for the Department of Finance.

When Lester B. Pearson decided to retire, opening the leadership race for the Liberals that included 12 challengers, of which two, John Turner and Pierre Trudeau, would go on to become prime minister, Chretien chose to support Mitchell Sharp.

With the arrival of Pierre Trudeau as prime minister, Chretien saw his profile increase immensely in Canada. He would serve in several different portfolios including the treasury board, industry, trade, and commerce, and he became the first French-Canadian Finance Minister. His largest and most prominent portfolio was as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which he stayed in from 1968 to 1974.

In that portfolio, he would propose the 1969 White Paper that would have abolished legal documents relating to Indigenous peoples in Canada, the treaties, and the Indian Act, with the goal of assimilating all Indigenous under the Canadian state. The backlash against this paper was nothing short of immense, and it would be withdrawn in 1970 before ever being considered as an Act in Parliament.

Chretien would work to diffuse the anger of the White Paper by going to meetings with Indigenous leaders and residents, and state quote:

“Sock it to me. Speak your mind. Tell me that we stole your land.”

As the minister for Indian Affairs, Chretien would create 10 national parks, which was immense considering the previous 40 years had seen only four national parks created.

Chretien would relate one story in which he was in a plane going to the islands north of Baffin Island. He said, quote:

“Everywhere in that beautiful valley, fjord on both sides, the ice caps and so on. I was overly excited about it and I was telling everybody, look, look, look!”

Chretien then went to his wife later and said, quote:

“I am going to make a National Park in your honor. So, I consulted the Minister of Northern Affairs who was myself. I consulted the Minister of Indian Affairs, who was myself. I consulted the Minister of Parks, who was myself. The three agreed. So, I took out the map and I made this sign there and passed the law and now we have a great national park in the North, because I did all the proper consultation.”

With his high-profile portfolios, and frequent coverage on the news, Chretien became known for being a strong and emotional speaker. He was popular not only in Quebec but outside of it as well.

Chretien would say quote:

“I play politics like I ski, fast and with no style.”

In 1977, Chretien became the Minister of Finance, the first French-Canadian to have the post. As the Finance Minister, he would release two budgets, in 1977 and 1978. The first was designed to stimulate economic growth and would result in nine of the 10 provinces lowering their sales tax. In the 1978 budget, he was more conservative and there were no big spending promises. It was not all good times for Chretien in the role. One of the most notable incidents came soon after Chretien became Finance Minister when Trudeau humiliated him on national television by imposing a national program of government cutbacks without telling Chretien in advance.

By the 1979 election campaign, Chretien had been in politics for 16 years and was beginning to tire. He would tell one reporter after the campaign, where he once again won his seat, quote:

“I was afraid of not succeeding, and I hate to fail.”

As the Minister of Justice from 1980 to 1982, he would direct the federal forces during the Quebec Referendum over Quebec independence, which was defeated. This would be a sign of things to come for Chretien later in his career when a second referendum threatened to break up the country once again. Chretien would spend weeks traveling through Quebec persuading ordinary residents to reject the sovereignty option. He would state quote:

“Many Canadian still don’t realize how close or how significant the referendum result was.”

When Trudeau began to look at patriate the British North America Act and introduce the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he looked to Chretien to help in a significant way. Chretien would set off on a cross-country series of meetings to discuss constitutional reform. He then participated in a series of federal-provincial constitutional debates.

As the Attorney General, Chretien participated in the official signing ceremony at Parliament Hill with Queen Elizabeth II.

After Pierre Trudeau chose to step down as Prime Minister in 1984, a new leadership race was held and for the first time, Jean Chretien put his name in the ring. By this point, Chretien was known for his folksy style, and the rapport he had with his audience because of his forceful and engaging manner of speaking. He was also by this point a very skilled political organizer.

John Turner would state that his main challenger in the leadership race was Chretien, stating that he held a quote:

“privileged place in the hearts of Canadians. No one is more popular.”

In the Liberal Party Leadership Convention on June 16, 1984, Chretien took 1,067 votes on the first ballot, 800 above the third-place challenger but 500 behind John Turner, who had recently come back into politics after eight years away. On the second ballot, Chretien increased his total to 1,368 and 40 per cent of the vote, but he would lose to Turner, who finished with 1,862 votes.

Chretien would say after, quote:

“Every politician must learn to accept the verdict of the people. If you cannot take it, you don’t belong in the game.”

In the following election, Chretien was one of the few Liberals in Quebec to keep his seat, in an election that saw the Brian Mulroney government roar to the largest majority in Canadian history, including nearly sweeping Quebec. The popularity of Chretien was shown in the fact he was 10,000 votes ahead of his Progressive Conservative challenger in that election.

Chretien would remain in the official opposition, a rare occurrence for him during his early political career. From 1963 to 1984, Chretien had only been in the opposition for nine months, from 1979 to 1980. When Turner had his leadership renewed in 1986 with the party, Chretien chose to resign from politics, and he returned to his law practice. He would also release his autobiography, Straight from The Heart, which was a best seller in Canada.

After another election defeat at the hands of the Progressive Conservatives, Turner decided to resign as leader in 1990 and this opened the door to leadership for Chretien. In the Liberal Party Leadership Convention held on June 23, 1990, Chretien would take 2,652 votes on the first ballot, nearly 1,500 votes ahead of his closest challenger, future Prime Minister Paul Martin, to capture the leadership of the party on the first ballot. From 1919 to 1990, only two other men earned the leadership of the party on the first ballot, Louis St. Laurent in 1948 and Lester B. Pearson in 1958. 

Chretien would return to the House of Commons in a by-election win in New Brunswick. He found that his party, which had been the dominant party for Canada in the 20th century, was very disorganized and nearly bankrupt. Another issue was that Chretien had opposed the Meech Lake Accord, which cost him support among Quebec Nationalists.

By the time 1993 rolled around, Chretien was ready and so was the Liberal Party. He had spent the past three years building the party back up, as the Progressive Conservatives were seeing their popularity decline to historic levels. The Liberal Party also felt that it had the strongest slate of candidates heading into the election since the 1970s. Edward Goldenberg, the Liberal Policy Advisor, would state, quote:

“Anything can happen in an election, but we are as ready as we will ever be.”

As for Chretien, he for the most part stuck to attacking Brian Mulroney, rather than his successor, Kim Campbell, the current prime minister. He would say quote:

“Mulroney is an old adversary. I consider a woman different. You have to be a little more guarded, you can’t be rough. It’s natural because I still open the door to a woman.”

When the 1993 election campaign began, Chretien ran a nearly flawless campaign. He would target the issues of job creation and released The Red Book, a detailed platform that answered criticisms that he would return to the high spending of previous Liberal governments.

Prior to the election date, Chretien stopped at Shawinigan with reporters and toured through the community where he lived as a child. During the tour, he would say, quote:

“Politics is made of this thrill. When you skate on thin ice, you never known where there will be a hole.”

In that election, Chretien recaptured his original riding with 54.1 per cent of the vote. The Liberals also came back into power after a decade out of it following the loss in 1984. The Liberal Party cruised to a majority government with 177 seats, including picking up 19 seats in Quebec despite the growth in popularity of the Bloc Quebecois, who picked up 54 seats to become the official opposition. The Progressive Conservative Party, which had been in power from 1984 to 1993, collapsed to only two seats.

With that win, the Little Guy from Shawinigan, had become Canada’s 20th prime minister. The first thing he did was thank his wife Aline, stating quote:

“I wouldn’t be here today if she wasn’t next to me. I accept with humility the challenge to prepare Canada for the 21st century.”

In his first term, Chretien made it a priority of his government to cut or limit federal programs due to the high national debt and massive annual deficit. While Chretien had promised to get rid of the unpopular GST, he chose to keep it as it provided the government with a lot of money to deal with the debt.

Over the course of this series, I have looked at prime ministers who came along at the wrong time and could have been great if circumstances were different. R.B. Bennett, the prime minister at the start of The Great Depression was an example of this. Chretien is the opposite; he came along at the perfect time for his career. While Canada was dealing with that high debt and deficit, the economic conditions of the country and many industrialized nations rose and with it came a rise in revenues.

This allowed the Canadian government to register its first surplus in 30 years and even with the budget cuts, Chretien enjoyed high public approval, while his political opposition remained in disarray.

In the early 1970s, deficits became the norm in the federal government. By 1995, the deficit had reached $37.5 billion, and the total debt of the government had gone from $20 billion in 1971 to $588 billion in 1996. Maintaining this debt load accounted for 26 per cent of the annual federal budget by that point. In 1994, Chretien and his government would begin to institute massive spending cuts to federal programs and transfer payments to the provinces. By 1997-98, the federal government recorded its first annual surplus in 28 years. By the time Chretien would leave office, he would reduce the debt to $526 billion.

The elimination of the deficit did not come without major costs. Many felt that the reduction of the deficit came at the expense of the standard of living for many Canadians. The provinces were also unhappy about the cuts to the transfer payments.

Two small changes Chretien would make would be the renaming of the Department of External Affairs to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The Secretary of State for External Affairs became the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The change from foreign to external was seen as Canada downplaying its relationship with Commonwealth nations and that Canada wanted to pursue an effective foreign policy through fiscal restraint.

Soon after he was elected, Chretien met with President Bill Clinton in Seattle. During the election, Chretien promised to renegotiate NAFTA, but he dropped the idea after the Americans threatened to walk away from the deal.

One of the biggest challenges to face Chretien came in the October 1995 Referendum on Quebec Independence. The question put to Quebec voters was quote:

“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995.”

Chretien would speak to the nation on Oct. 25, 1995. He would say quote:

“Tonight, I want to speak to my fellow Quebecers, because at this moment the future of our whole country is in their hands. I also want to speak to all Canadians because this issue concerns them, deeply. It is not only the future of Quebec that will be decided on Monday. It is the future of all of Canada. The decision that will be made is serious and irreversible. With deep, deep consequences.”

He would end his speech to Canada, saying quote:

“In a few days, all the shouting will be over. And at that moment, you will be alone to make your decision. At that moment I urge you, my fellow Quebecers, to listen to your heart and to your head. I am confident that Quebec and Canada will merge strong and united.”

On the vote, the no side won by only 50.58 per cent of vote, the narrowest of victories.

After the near breakup of the country, Chretien would take measures to prevent it from happening again. He would introduce a motion that would pass that recognized Quebec as a distinct society, with its own language, culture, and civil law system. He also gave provinces more power in constitutional change and labour training. As well, he would introduce the Clarity Bill, which would frame future referendums for any province looking for sovereignty. The bill states that a province can only secede if its population has had a chance to vote on separation in a clear referendum question. The House of Commons could then decide if the question was stated clearly.

Soon after the vote, on Nov. 5, 1995, a man named Andre Dallaire broke into 24 Sussex Drive and spent 20 minutes throwing stones on the grounds and waving at security cameras while carrying a pocketknife. He then climbed a fence and went into the house after smashing a glass door. He wandered around until he was confronted by Aline Chretien. Aline ran back to the bedroom and locked the door and woke Chretien who told her she just had a dream. She then dialed the RCMP who were outside the house. One of the most well-known parts of the story involves either Chretien or Aline holding an Inuit stone sculpture of a loon in defense in case Dallaire broke through the door. Dallaire did not attempt to get into the bedroom and after seven minutes from when Aline called, since the first officer had forgotten his key to the residence, the man was arrested. Dallaire, who had paranoid schizophrenia, thought that after the No vote, he was a secret agent who was avenging the loss in the referendum and if he killed Chretien, he would be a hero in the nation. In 1998, Dallaire, after getting the help he needed, apologized for his behaviour, stated he was now on medication and he hoped that the Chretiens would forgive his actions.

In 1996, Chretien would create an iconic moment in Canadian history when he confronted a protester at the first Flag Day celebration in Ottawa on Feb. 15, 1996. That confrontation would result in what is now called the Shawinigan Handshake, taken from the image of Chretien grabbing the man by the throat and moving him aside. I did an episode on this moment back in February, so check it out.

While giving a speech in honour of Flag Day, Chretien was heckled by anti-poverty protesters during the event. He would soon end his speech and begin to leave the event. As he 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.

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.”

Due to the referendum, it was clear to Chretien that his popularity in Quebec was limited. To fix that, a sponsorship program was created to raise the profile of Canada and the federal government in Quebec through a targeted advertising program. Instead of achieving its goal, this semi-secret initiative ended up turning into a multimillion-dollar scandal that did little to raise the profile of federalism in Quebec. It was found that public money had been used to enrich Liberal-friendly ad firms and provide kickbacks and campaign funds to the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party. While Chretien was not personally implicated, it would have lasting consequences for Paul Martin, the man who would succeed Chretien.

In 1997, Chretien and the Liberals once again received a majority government, but lost seats and finished with 155, just enough to maintain the majority. In his second term, Chretien and the Liberals continued to benefit from the economic prosperity of the time and his government began to switch to human rights issues and domestic policy, including Canada participating in the Kosovo War of 1999. Chretien would also support the campaign of Lloyd Axworthy, his Foreign Affairs Minister, to ban land mines and create an International Criminal Court. Both campaigns would be successful, while Canada would also continue to send peacekeepers around the world.

In 1999, Chretien saw that the Reform Party was attempting to recast itself and absorb the Progressive Conservatives in a unite-the-right initiative. This created the Canadian Alliance in 2000, who elected Stockwell Day, a relatively unknown person in Canada. Chretien, seeing an opportunity, called another election even as his own party was not keen on it. The gamble worked as the Canadian Alliance was incredibly unprepared for the election.

In September of 2000, Canada had a surplus and Chretien would announce a $23.4 billion increase in health care spending.

On Nov. 27, 2000, the Liberals cruised to 172 seats and a third majority government. This was the first time the Liberals had achieved three consecutive majority governments since Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1904.

In his third term as prime minister, Chretien’s main issue was relations with the United States, who had recently elected George W. Bush as president, replacing Bill Clinton with whom Chretien had an excellent relationship. Chretien’s government would also begin the process of legalizing same sex marriage, while also contributing $50 million for a vaccine to for AIDS and to fight the epidemic in Africa.

When the terrorist attack occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, Canada supported the Americans, but decades of cost cutting had left Canada with a weak armed forces and limited resources to respond to a crisis. Canada would take part in the War in Afghanistan, which started in 2002, sending what soldiers they could. That war would claim 158 Canadian soldier’s lives, and result in 2,000 wounded.

Chretien would say quote:

“We are your neighbours, friends and family. We must work together. This problem concerns all nations of the world.”

Echoing the previous Liberal governments of Pearson and Trudeau who did not send troops to Vietnam officially, Chretien refused to participate directly in the Iraq War, without authorization by the UN Security Council.

Chretien, in his later autobiography, would claim to have told Bush six months before the invasion that he was not convinced. He would say, quote:

“I’ve been reading all my briefings about the weapons of mass destruction and I’m not convinced. I think the evidence is very shaky.”

In 2002, Canada joined the Kyoto Protocol from the UN Convention on Climate Change and when the G8 summit was held at Kananaskis in Alberta, he helped ensure that Africa was a central part of the agenda.

His stand with America, and his foreign policies made Chretien extremely popular in Canada, but especially in his home province of Quebec. Even with that popularity, Chretien could see that within his own party, there was fracturing over his leadership and Paul Martin’s supporters were undercutting the followers of Chretien. Rather than face a leadership vote, Chretien stepped down as Liberal Leader, resigning officially as prime minister on Dec. 12, 2003.

Chretien would say quote:

“I think back to the Canada that existed when I entered Parliament in 1963 and compare it with the Canada that existed when I left office. It is not the same country at all, and a great deal of its transformation came through political action. There is nothing that hasn’t been touched and shaped by politics.”

With his retirement, Chretien became a counsel for a law firm and remained involved in politics but not on an official basis. In 2008, he and NDP leader Ed Broadbent worked to form a coalition agreement to oust the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, but he would prorogue parliament to halt the efforts to create a non-confidence vote.

In 2013, Chretien criticized the foreign policy of Harper as well.

Over the past two decades, Chretien has been involved in several international organizations including the World Leadership Alliance, Madrid Club, and the Honour Committee of the Fondation Chirac.

In 2020, his wife Aline would pass away. At the time of her death on Sept. 12, 2020, they had been married for 63 years. She died only two days after their anniversary.

I will close out this episode with a quote from Chretien’s close friend Bill Clinton, who said quote:

“He had an enormous impact, not only because people like him, but because is a genuinely good man. I doubt most Canadians know just how admired Canada is as a result in the rest of the world.”

Information comes from MapleLeafWeb, Canadian Encyclopedia, Maclean’s, Wikipedia, CBC, Library and Archives Canada, St. Francis Xavier University, Encyclopedia of World Biography,

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