Jean Chretien

Chretien's critics criticized him for a lack of a legacy. It is true that he never created a landmark document like the Charter of Right and Freedoms or introduce a new national flag. After assuming the prime minister's office after the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debacles he never intended to shake the foundations of Canada and restore Canadians faith in Canada. Chretien inherited a country in debt and two years into his PM tenure he had to defeat the Quebec separatists in a referendum and prevent from being known the last Prime Minister of Canada. During his prime ministership he faced many crisis which forced him to react rather than to iniatiate change. He returned pride back to Canadians by balancing the budget, refusing to support the Iraq invasion, and keeping Canada united during the 1995 Quebec Referendum. Lawrence Martin has been one of Chretien's biggest critics but as even he doesn't dispute the impact Chretien has had on this country. "Joseph Jacques Jean Chretien, the man who never yielded, could look at the big picture and allow himself a wide grin. The toughest and luckiest prime minister Canada had ever produced ..."

Before Politics

Jean Chretien was born on Jan 11, 1934 exactly 119 years after Canada's first prime minister John A MacDonald. Only 8 of 19 Chretien's survied past infanty. He was small when he was young and received the nickname Peiti Jean from Shawanigan. This nickname later became the little man from Shawingan. His height troubled him.

As a boy, Jean Chretien was always in conflict with authority figures. One boarding school director wrote, "I had enough", when he booted Chretien out of a college. But sometimes it wasn't because he was a brat. When he was young he was deaf in one ear which caused alot of confusion. When spoke in his right ear people thought he was ignoring them. But he couldn't hear them. He didn't start talking out of one side of his mouth till he was 12. It is thought that it is a disease that has paralyzed that side of the face. But according to Lawrence Martin it is frostbite that paralyzed one side of Chretien's face. On February 16, 1946 the day before Jean's sister Giselle's wedding it was one of the coldest days ever in Shawinigan when Jean took a long walk to the church. "The walk froze him half to death. The fierce gales, cutting icily from the north, struck the left side of his face the hardest. When Chretien arrived at the church, his cheek was as numb as concrete." Jean never complained of the pain and in a week his face returned to normal. But a few months later, "a deformity began to appear in the area where the cold had hit. It looked as if Jean's mouth had shifted laterally. When he talked loudly, his lips pulled up and to the left. When he laughed, no such pull occurred. The abnormaility caused no physical pain, but it was horribly humbling for a boy entering his teen years ... For a boy as sensitive as Jean his was a distressing state: deaf in one ear, malformed at the mouth, no taller than a baseball bat. The gods, it appeared, had not chosen Jean Chretien to smile on." Jean Chretein's exact anahailment was caused by the frostbite that "damaged a facial nerve, causing a muscle paralysis known as Bell's palsy. The conditon usually occurred in young men, and often cleared up in a matter of weeks. In a small minority of cases, however the paralysis was permanent.

As a child Chretien's father Wellie pushed his children. He wanted to become powerful members in the community. He wanted them to become politicians, lawyers, or doctors. "You know, I was thinking law, because of my dad, but my mind was more scientific ... My brothers were all in science. And I have to tell you that I was very good in mathematics and physics." But Jean was destined to go into law because that was the education path he was headed into. In order to get them the best education he sent them to Quebec boarding schools. He despised them especially Joliette. He tried everything to get out of there. A fellow student in the boarding had an infected appendix and Chretien seized this opportunity. He asked this student what were the synthoms, the questions the doctors asked, and where to say it hurt. So petite Jean faked an appendix attack. He acted out the synthoms so good that doctors chose to take out his appendix even though the blood tests showed nothing was wrong. Jean no it was too late too back out and even he did he would have to admit that he was wrong. His appendix was removed. After the surgery the doctors realized the appendix was perfectly healthy and they had been duped.

In the seminary colleges Chretien was at a disadvantage because the other students came from wealthier backgrounds. But he learned that he was a fighter and they weren't a match for the skilled school fighter. There was a time when he levelled another student with a series of lightning shots to the head and left the audience watching the fight in shock. "I really socked it to him bad ... In front of everybody ... Don't mess with Chretien" He used this energy to fight for political causes he believed in. In his 20s, Chretien yells at a parish priest outside a church using a loudspeaker because he encouraged locals to support Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale.

As a Politician

Lawrence Martin analyzed Jean Chretien as a politician that loved being the underdog in politics. "He always found himself on the opposition side in these years- in school politics, in provincial politics, and now, with the election of the Tories, in federal politics. The role fit his underdog temperament. Despite his keen interest in business, he clearly saw himself as "a left-wing Liberal." His goal before moving to politics, he noted was 'to be a lawyer to the unions. That was very much my desire. My social ambition was to be on the populist side, not on the side of business.'" In his early 20's Jean Chretien was a youth delegate for the liberal party in 1958. As a liberal growing up in Duplesis's Quebec he was always the underdog. He continued this philosophy when he decided to support Paul Martin Sr. because he was the underdog. "It was clear that Pearson was going to win, that Paul (Martin Sr.) was the undergog. And when I saw that he was the underdog,, I said 'Goddam it, I am going with him."

To beat the Social Credits Jean Chretien had to find innovative ways to win the riding. "Beans were ladled from giant pots, with coffee and little white cubes of cake served for dessert. The fetes were advertised as special 'Canadian dinners.' Personalized invitations went out from Mr. and Mrs. Chretien, and Shawiniganites and workers in other communities came out by the hundreds, sometimes the thousands."

Chretien was a long time serving Native affairs minister. During his tenure he proposed numerous bold iniatives. The reforming of the Native Act wanted to make native leaders more accountable and integrate natives into Canadian society. "I'm sure that we were very naive in some of the statements we made in the paper. We had perhaps the prejudicies of small 'l' liberals, and white men at that, who thought that equality meant the same law for everybody ... But we have learnt in the process that perhaps we were a bit theoretical, we were a bit too abstract, we were not, as Mr. Cardinal suggests, perhaps pragmatic enough or understanding enough."

During Chretien's 40 year tribute Lorne Nystrom recalled a moment of Chretien's arrogance. "One of the moments that gave me the greatest pleasure was flying over the beautiful fjords... on Baffin Island. I was like a kid. I'd been there a few times before and had to tell everybody on the plane, Look, look, you have to see this. I sat down next to my wife and I said, You love it, eh? She said it was beautiful. I said, I will make it a national park for you. On Monday I went to my office and I consulted with the Minister of Indian Affairs, who was me. Then I consulted with the Minister of Northern Affairs, who was me. I then consulted with the Minister of Parks, who was me. And I took my pen, signed an agreement, and created a national park."

One of Chretien's greatest attributes as Prime Minister was his proud Canadianism. The naming of Air Canada was an iniative by Chretien that was passed by a rare private member's bill. "Chretien had become one of the few MP's in history to succeed with private members' legislation. That it was a bill of some consequence made the accomplishment all the more signifiant. The legislation had national unity connotations and was received as such. Furthermore, it was a harbinger of the name formula that would be used for countless government bodies. Transport Canada, Information Canda, Investment Canada would take their cue from it, and there would even be Team Canada for the country's hockey heroes." (Lawrence Martin) It was this proud Canadianism that fought for a united Canada in both referendums. Many of the patriotic moments for Canada were a direct result of iniatives by Jean Chretien. The naming strategy was part of such proud Canadian moments as Team Canada's hockey success that have been used to unite this country through weaker times. But Chretien's strongest Canadian patriotic moment was when he refused to join the war in Iraq.

Chretien also played a pivotal role in the fight against Quebec sepertatists. Chretien brought a street fighting style for the NO side on the referendum. In Chicoutimi he declared that 'a strike in Ontario is not hot news in New York, Chicago, Paris, or London, but separatism is,' If Quebeckers want foreign capital, he explained, 'it is extremely important that the climate be favourable and that was put an end to the sterile discussions, the disruptive statements, the extremist claims." Using reason and showing how seperatism would hurt Quebecker's pocket-books, he added an extemely pragmatic force in the Canadian unity fight.

Chretien's influence wasn't reduced to soley helping his own party. In a urinal he advised Joe Clark to run for the PC party, "if you don't run, you never win."

Chretien played a pivotal role in patriating the constitution and convincing Trudeau to agree to the notwithstanding clause. "I won't be putting on my running shoes for you. I've had enough enough of villages divided, French against English. A national referendum will be worse" Jean Chretien's most savy political move ever was forging an alliance with then Saskatchewan Justice minister Roy Romonow. The gang of eight was against patriating the constitution. The debate eventually came down to the notwithstanding clause and Chretien pursuaded the premiers and Pierre Trudeau to accept the agreement and the constitution was signed with the signature of 90% of the provinces.

After losing the leadership to John Turner and he wrote a best selling book about his beliefs. "The art of politics is learning to walk with your back to the wall, your elbows high, and a smile on your face. It's a survival game played under the glare of lights. If you don't learn that you're quickly finished. It's damn tough and you can't complain; you just have to take it and give it back. The press wants to get you. The opposition wants to get you. Even some of the bureaucrats want to get you. They all may have an interest in making you look bad and they all have ambitions of their own."

As Prime Minister

Lawrence Martin sums up Chretien's impact as Prime Minister. "Some compared him to the strong-willed Harry Truman, but Chretien's special appeal was more akin to that of Ronald Reagan. Chretien was to Canada what Reagan was to the United States. He embodied Canadian values in much the same way the Gipper embodied American ones. They each possessed a rare ability to communicate great truths in homely phrases. They were each imbued with a stellar patriotism that encouraged their fellow citizens to feel good about themselves and their country. He had passed such a large part of his life in the hellstorm of politics, but he was still able to look at things as average people do. Therein lay his basic appeal."

During the 1993 election campaign he anihalated Kim Campbell who started off the election campaign by saying high unemployment was unavoidable. Then after Chretien made strong statement saying he would not ignore unemployment and get more people working Kim Campbell all of a sudden said job creation was her number one priority.

One of Chretien's most entertaining moments involved a protester who got to close and the prime minister was without RCMP protection. He introduced the protestor to the Shawingan handshake. Many Chretien insiders thought he'd have to resign but Canadians loved it and wanted more.

Canada's hour of darkness occurred during the 1995 election. The fate of the country came down to a few votes. In a pivotal moment in the campaign. Jean Chretien addressed the nation in a nationally televised speech. "The end of Canada would be nothing less than the end of a dream. The end of a country that has made us the envy of the world. Canada is not just any country. It is unique. It is the best country in the world." The speech made solid arguments but Chretien was haggered and wasn't convincing enough. The world waited and the "no" side stumbled to a victory. Many Quebec seperatists called Chretien a trader and he was at his lowest point of his political career. Later that year a man broke into 22 Sussex armed with a pocketknife. The prime minister defends himself with an Inuit statue. From this point on things started going up for the prime minister and he won re-election.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 Jean Chretien was eating breakfast with Lorne Calvert. The prime minister would have to make some his most difficult political decisions in his 40 year political career. He decided to allow airplanes destined for the US to land in eastern Canada. But in Canadian airspace there was a few suspect planes that appeared to be hijacked. The most visible was a South Korean airliner that wanted entry to US airspace and there was a decoded signal coming from the plane indicating that it was under hijack. The prime minister gave the order to shoot it down if it was headed towards a large city such as Vancouver. The crisis passed and the Canadian government faced a difficult dilemma. Whether to fight terrorism and give up international principles developed after the Second World War. After keeping silent about his feelings he expressed his fears on the anniversary of 9/11. "You know, you cannot exercise your powers to the point that of humiliation for the others. And that is what the Western world, not only the Americans, the Western world has to realize, because they are human beings too, and there are long-term consequences if you don't look hard at the reality in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now. And I do think that the Western world is going to be too rich in relation to the poor world. And necessarily, you know, we look upon us being arrogant, self-satisfying, greedy and with no limits. And the 11th of September is an occasion for me to realize that it's even more."

The biggest positive impacts of Chretien's tenure besides defeating the separatists and balancing the budget are saying no to Iraq, Kyoto, and reshaping how political parties are funded.

Canadians didn't want to go to war unilaterally against Iraq but they were scared to say no because of how vehement ally Americans supported war against Iraq. Very few Canadian Prime Ministers displayed the courage that Chretien showed when he stood up to the Americans and refused to join them.

Kyoto had similarities to the Iraq war. The Americans had chosen not to participate in Kyoto but Chretien's obstacle wasn't the Americans, it was Canada's heavy CO2 emitters. He did show courage by standing up to big industry but failed to come up with a plan to meet Kyoto targets because he didn't want to hurt Canada's red hot economy by forcing Canada's heavy industry polluters to cut back.

But the biggest change that will be felt for decades is the reforming of political party financing. This reform achieved two major things that will make it impossible for any politician to revert to the old system. First, every Canadian's vote is now wasted because if their candidate doesn't win the party they voted for will receive $1.75 in political funding. Second, it prevents influence from corporations, unions, and lobby groups. It has already significantly altered Canadian political parties and will continue to change how Canada's political system works. It changes the Liberal Party because next time the Liberals take power they won't be able to funnel Public Works money back through ad companies. The Conservatives were forced to become more populist and not spend time catering to $1000/plate dinner crowds. The NDP now has the choice to be more independent and ditch the CAW. Finally, the Green Party now has a presence and doesn't need an elected seat to have a political presence. It will further change the political system as it favours national parties whose aim is to be competitive in every riding over regional parties whose aim is to get seats in limited areas of the country.

Jean Chretien's biggest failures as Prime Minister has been almost losing Quebec, political scandals relating to Quebec sponsorships and the Grand-Mere, and overspending in human resources and the gun registry. But despite critics who compare him to Louis St.Laurent he will be ranked as a much better prime minister.In his first election as prime minister, Jean Chretien promised more jobs and to defend Canada against Quebec separatism. Undeniably he delivered on these two promises.

Former Prime Minister Joe Clark gave the following speech on Chretien's 40th anniversary as an MP:

"He came to Jasper to meet a throng of citizens outraged by his policies and he told them, If you don't like things here, there is a road going east, and a road going west. In tributes, it is customary to point out good deeds. I will therefore not recall recent events today. As parliamentarians, and as Canadians, the Prime Minister and I have profound differences of opinion. And, of course, in all instances, the Prime Minister is wrong. The Liberal Party has no idea what it is losing. The Prime Minister has been here longer than the eternal flame, but he is still a relative newcomer in a Parliament that is sitting now in its third century. This chamber has seen the patricians and the trailblazers, the steady and the eccentric, and in the likes of MacDonald and Laurier, and Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas and Trudeau, the occasional sparks of brilliance. But the real promise of our democracy, in this land where wealth and privilege are not supposed to be decisive, the true accomplishment, is to be simultaneously the Prime Minister and le petit gars de Shawinigan."

Related Links:

Greatest Canadians

Canada's Top 10 Prime Ministers

Ratify Kyoto


Martin, Lawrence Chretien: The will to win

Chretien, Jean: Straight From The Heart

National Library of Canada Bio

External Links:

"He (Jean Chretien) chose to disregard this advice [from Bourgon] and, since he is directly responsible for errors committed by Mr. Pelletier, he must share the blame for the mismanagement that ensued." Gomery Report

Updated: January 3, 20011
Created: December 9, 2003 Creations 2003-2011