Aline Chrétien’s life was more than just a political story

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She was the half that made Jean Chrétien whole.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 21, 2020.

OTTAWA—The passing of Aline Chrétien is more than just a political story. It is a love story of epic proportions.

Madame, as everyone affectionately called her, was more than a wise counsel for her husband.

She was the half that made him whole.

It goes without saying that Jean Chrétien would likely never have become prime minister without the advice, support and love of his lifelong partner.

Her passing was only two days after their 63rd wedding anniversary and they had been together for 68 years.

Madame was the partner who shaped a rebellious young man into a future Member of Parliament and prime minister.

While everyone thought of Chrétien as the “Little guy from Shawinigan” it was Aline who put the polish on the pair.

I was lucky enough to attend her funeral in Shawinigan and it was an incredible reflection of her life’s passions.

The service was held in a unique Québécois church that carries a national historic site designation because of the artist who painted incredible murals on the walls. The famed muralist Ozias Leduc was part of a Quebec religious painting mural movement and he spent the last 13 years of his life painting the walls in Notre-Dame-de-la-Presentation church. It was his chef d’oeuvre and a great illustration of the Symbolist movement.

The walls were literally a story of the community, including paintings of Indigenous persons, coureurs de bois, and the choppers of wood, and hewers of water who built Shawinigan.

Aline Chrétien’s private funeral was a blend of hometown roots with the classic touch that so epitomized her.

Even the music was reminiscent of her life as a small-town girl who rose to the highest heights of the land.

Gregory Charles, a famous Quebec musician, played and sang at the ceremony and his mix was truly unique.

The choices ranged from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to Panis Angelicus, a funeral hymn associated with most Catholic funerals.

The final tribute was from Felix Leclerc, his famous folksong, Moi, mes souliers, which could have been written for Aline Chrétien. The opening, “Me, my shoes have travelled far” was an allegory for her life.

Her daughter, France, delivered an allocution that was a perfect tribute to her mother’s private and public accomplishments.

Her love of music and language was present throughout. France said that when her father asked her mother about the value of establishing a Millennium Scholarship Fund, she thought it was a wonderful idea. She told her husband that if such financial help had been available when she was young, she might have gone to university.

Instead, she followed the path of many young women into secretarial school. But one of her proudest accomplishments was the recognition she received with multiple honorary degrees, and her ultimate appointment as chancellor of Laurentian, one of Canada’s few bilingual universities.

France also referenced her mother’s love of family and her fair-minded approach to life. On her deathbed, Aline Chrétien was visiting with grandchildren, and said to each, in French “Oh, how handsome you are.” One of the mischievous ones asked her directly, grandma, tell the truth, who is the most handsome.

She laughed and weakly retorted, oh you are bad. But she would not pick one over the others.

Madame was also a very religious person and the archbishop gave a wonderful homily in recognition of her values. She was a Chretien and a strong Christian.

Attendance at the funeral was limited by COVID distancing rules. Pews were roped off and attendees were also separated by the two-metre distance.

The attendance included close family, childhood friends and political allies through the years. One leadership organizer came all the way from Vancouver. Two current ministers were in attendance, Minister of Veterans Affairs and longtime friend Lawrence MacAulay and Foreign Affairs Minister and local Liberal Member of Parliament François-Philippe Champagne.

The former mayor of Shawinigan was there to pay her respects along with several Liberal political organizers who began and ended their lives in politics at the Chrétien’s side.

Aline Chrétien’s siblings were there as well as the family’s extensive clan on Chrétien’s side.

Jean Chrétien’s nephew participated in readings on the altar.

Because of COVID-19, there was no reception after the mass, but friends gathered on the front steps of the church to pay their respects to the family.

The family is planning a celebration of Aline Chrétien’s life in Ottawa once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Jean Chrétien plans to take time with family and then get right back to work.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.