Jean Chrétien

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, 20th Prime Minister of Canada.

In office:
November 4, 1993 to  December 12, 2003

Born: January 11, 1934, in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada

Political party:

Shawinigan, Quebec

Alma mater:
Université Laval


Roman Catholic

Chrétien was born the 18th of 19 children. As a young boy his father made him read the dictionary. As a young man, Chrétien was well known for his violence.  As a student at Trois-Rivières, Chrétien later recalled that his best day at that school was his first day when he attacked without provocation another student taller than himself, leading him to proudly remember that:

“I really socked it to him bad. In front of everybody!”

His assault was meant to send the message to the other students: “Don’t mess with Chrétien!”. He later made light of his humble origins, calling himself “le petit gars de Shawinigan“, or the “little guy from Shawinigan”. In his youth, he suffered an attack of Bell’s palsy, permanently leaving the left side of his face partially paralyzed.   He used this in his first Liberal leadership campaign, saying that he was:

“One politician who didn’t talk out of both sides of his mouth.”

He is also deaf in one ear.

Chrétien practised law at the Shawinigan firm of Alexandre Gélinas and Joe Lafond until he was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons as a Liberal from the riding of Saint-Maurice–Laflèche in the 1963 election. He represented this Shawinigan-based riding  for all but eight of the next 41 years.

During the October Crisis, Chrétien told Trudeau to “act now, explain later”, when Trudeau was hesitant to invoke the War Measures Act. 85% of Canadians agreed with the move.

In 1977,  following the resignation of Finance Minister Donald MacDonald, Chrétien succeeded him. He was the first francophone Minister of Finance, and remains one of only three francophones to have held that post. Chrétien’s time at Finance highlighted his “enforcer” status, namely as someone who often helped to execute Trudeau’s policies, but who rarely helped Trudeau to make policy.

He served as Minister of State for Social Development and Minister Responsible for Constitutional Negotiations, playing a significant role in the patriation struggle of 1980–81 which led to the Constitution of Canada in 1982. He was the chief negotiator of what would be called the “Kitchen Accord“, an agreement which led to the agreement of nine provinces to patriation.

That night (November 4, 1981) the Minister of Justice, Jean Chrétien, met with Attorney General of Saskatchewan Roy Romanow and Attorney General of Ontario Roy McMurtry in the kitchen of Ottawa’s Government Conference Centre. The premiers agreed to get rid of the “opt out” clause, while Chrétien reluctantly offered to include the Notwithstanding Clause in the constitution. Hatfield and Davis agreed to the compromise and told Trudeau that he should take the deal. Trudeau accepted what would be called the Kitchen Accord. The men at the table that night became known as the Kitchen Cabinet.

On February 27, 1986, Chrétien whose relations with Turner were very poor, resigned his seat and left public life for a time.  Chrétien, accompanied by his special executive assistant Jean Carle, went to Turner’s office to hand in his resignation.  Turner forced Chrétien to wait a considerable period of time, during which Carle broke down in tears while Chrétien was visibly angry when Turner finally received them, making for a tense and barely civil meeting.   Chrétien’s resignation was largely motivated by his desire to better organise against Turner in the leadership review due in the fall of 1986.   The intense emotions stirred up by the 1986 leadership review were well-illustrated when Chrétien arrived to vote in the review, which led a “chaotic melee” on the convention floor at the Ottawa Convention Centre as pro-Turner and pro-Chrétien Liberals fought one another with their fists, and led to the police being called to end the violence.

The most controversial issue facing Canada in the first half of 1990 was the Meech Lake Accord. The Meech Lake accord of 1987 proposed a set of constitutional amendments that would have seen a significant devolution of federal powers to the provinces and a clause that would have recognized Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada.  Chrétien’s proposed amendments would have meant that the constitution would have recognized Quebec as a “distinct society” while effectively gutting any attempt to use the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” to grant special powers to Quebec.  In private, Chrétien was opposed to Meech, but as the accord was extremely popular in Quebec, to run as an out-and-out opponent of Meech was judged to be too risky politically, hence Chrétien’s conditional opposition to Meech Lake.  Chrétien had tried to avoid talking about Meech as much as possible as it was a minefield issue for him, and instead stuck to generalities about national unity.

As his victory at the convention on June 23, 1990 occurred on the same day that the Meech Lake accord died, Chrétien was heavily criticized in the Quebec media for his opposition to Meech Lake. Photographs of Chrétien embracing Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, a prominent opponent of Meech at the convention attracted much negative comment in Quebec.

Chrétien appeared indecisive in the Oka Crisis, having almost nothing to say about the stand-off at Oka for the first two months of the crisis, which began on 11 July 1990.  When Chrétien finally did call a press conference about the Oka crisis on September 23, 1990, he declared that he could not answer certain questions about First Nations land claims because “I’m not a lawyer”, which prompted widespread ridicule as Chrétien had been a member of the Quebec Bar Association since 1958.

On September 19, 1993, he dropped a bombshell by releasing the entire Liberal platform. The 112-page document, Creating Opportunity, quickly became known as the Red Book because of its bright red cover. It was a very specific and detailed statement of exactly what a Chrétien government would do in office. The Red Book gave the Liberals the reputation as the party with ideas, since none of the other parties had anything comparable.

On October 25, the Liberals were elected to a strong majority government, winning 177 seats – the third-best performance in the Liberals’ history, and their most impressive win since their record of 190 seats in 1949. The Tories were nearly wiped out, winning only two seats in the worst defeat ever suffered by a governing party at the federal level.

Immediately upon taking office, Chrétien cancelled the contract to buy the Sea King helicopters and paid a $157.8 million termination fee to AgustaWestland.   Additionally, Chrétien kept his Red Book promise of spending $6 billion on infrastructure to stimulate the economy out of recession by signing the necessary orders, and to cancel the privatization of Pearson airport.   The consortium that was due to take ownership of Pearson sued for breach of contract, which led the government to settle out of court in April 1997 for $60 million in damages.

On 6 April 1994, the Rwandan genocide began. The government in Ottawa was kept well-informed about what was happening by diplomats and Canadian Forces serving as UN peacekeepers, but the genocide was not considered to be a major problem for Canada with the Chrétien government taking the view that other powers would stop the genocide.  The government first insisted in April 1994 that there was only a civil war in Rwanda, and once it become clear that genocide had began, on May 2, 1994,  the government in the House of Commons promised humanitarian aid and expressed the hope that the Organization for African Unity would do something to stop the genocide.   In 2010, the Canadian government apologized to the people of Rwanda for indifference to the genocide of 1994.

Through Chrétien had supported Martin in his plans for cuts, he did not allow Martin to go as far as he would have liked with cutting various social programs.  Chrétien fiercely objected to what he saw as the “soft federalist” Martin’s attempts to weaken the power of the federal government under the guise of cutting the deficit.  One senior Liberal later recalled about the Chrétien-Martin debate about reforming Old Age Security that:

“Martin had been told “no” by the prime minister three times and still he persisted…his insubordination was unprecedented. It got the point where [Chrétien] had to draw a line in the sand and say “I’m the prime minister and you’re the finance minister and I’m saying no!””.

On November 5, 1995, Chrétien and his wife escaped injury when André Dallaire, armed with a knife, broke in the Prime Minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive.  Aline Chrétien shut and locked the bedroom door until security came, while Chrétien held a stone Inuit carving, ready to bring it down on Dallaire’s head.

Another physical moment was when Chrétien was in Hull, Quebec to commemorate the first National Flag of Canada Day. As Chrétien addressed the assembled crowd, anti-poverty activists heckled the Prime Minister over proposed changes to Canada’s unemployment insurance program.  As he made his way to his limousine after the ceremonies, Chrétien was confronted by protester Bill Clennett.  At that moment, Chrétien grabbed Clennett by the back of the neck and chin, forcing Clenett to the ground and breaking one of his teeth.   Another protester that then blocked Chrétien’s passage had his megaphone knocked away by the Prime Minister, and was promptly pushed to the ground by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers.  Chrétien later defended these actions, stating:

“some people came my way… and I had to go, so if you’re in my way….”

Chrétien demonstrated a casual attitude towards the affair, later joking that he had used the Shawinigan Handshake.

In February 1998, for the first time since 1969, a balanced budget was presented by the government.   Shortly afterwards, the Chrétien government fulfilled its Red Book promise of 1993 by introducing the National Child Benefit program for the children of low-income parents.

President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien address the media before their bilateral meeting on United States of America – Canada Smart Borders in Detroit, Michigan. 9 September 2002

On 21 November 2002, Chrétien’s communications director Françoise Ducros was overheard by Robert Fife saying about President Bush,

“What a moron!”

who reported the remark in the next day’s edition of The National Post.   The next day, Chrétien told the press that Bush was a friend and “He’s not a moron at all”, leading to headlines in the press such as “Chrétien denies Bush is a moron”.  Chrétien was highly reluctant to fire Ducros, who was one of his most loyal supporters.  That Ducros was especially hated by the Martin fraction of the Liberals was another reason why Chrétien did not wish to fire Ducros, despite the media storm she had provoked.  Finally, under strong pressure from the American government, which had quietly made it clear that the continued presence of Ducros would not help Canadian-American relations, Chrétien dismissed Ducros on 26 November 2002.


On a personal note:

Chrétien married Aline Chaîné of Shawinigan on September 10, 1957. They met when they were just 13 years old. They have three children. Their eldest is daughter France Chrétien Desmarais (b. 1958), who is a lawyer, and is married to André Desmarais, the son of Paul Desmarais, Sr., and the President and Co-Chief Executive Officer of his father’s founding company the Power Corporation, based in Montreal, Canada. France and André have four children. Jean and Aline Chrétien also have two sons: Hubert (b. 1965) and Michel Chrétien (b. 1968). Hubert is a scuba diving instructor and a pioneer in teaching scuba diving to people with disabilities.

Chrétien would often make light of his humble, small-town origins, calling himself “le petit gars de Shawinigan”, or the “little guy from Shawinigan”. Upon his first election in 1963, Chrétien did not speak English. While in parliament, he found two mentors who were anglophone: Mitchell Sharp and Lester B. Pearson. He did not learn to speak English until age 30.

His nephew, Raymond Chrétien, was appointed by his uncle as the Ambassador to the United States.

A good book written by Jean Chretien, among others, was My Years as Prime Minister.  On October 1, 2007, Chrétien was playing at the Royal Montreal Golf Club, north of Montreal, at a charity golf event. Playing alongside a cardiologist, he mentioned his discomfort, saying he “had been suffering some symptoms for some time” and the doctor advised he come for a check up. After examination, Chrétien was hospitalized at the Montreal Heart Institute, with unstable angina, a sign a heart attack might be imminent. He underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery as a result on the morning of October 3, 2007. The operation forced Chrétien to delay a promotional tour for his book.

On August 5, 2010, Chrétien complained of experiencing difficulty walking, and was admitted to a hospital.  A brain scan was conducted the next day, and it revealed that a 3 centimeter wide subdural hematoma was pushing 1.5 centimeters into his brain.  Emergency surgery was then performed that afternoon, and the blood was successfully drained.  He was released from hospital on August 9, 2010. Doctors, who were impressed with the speed of his recovery, ordered him to rest for two to four weeks.


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