Those who attended last May’s Liberal policy convention marvelled that Jean Chrétien and his Shawinigan colleague François-Philippe Champagne outshone the dynamic duo of Hillary Clinton and Chrystia Freeland in a fireside chat format where Chrétien stole the spotlight.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 15, 2024.
OTTAWA—Jean Chrétien celebrated the triple crown last week.
He fêted the 30th anniversary of his election as prime minister, the 60th anniversary of his arrival in parliament, and the 90th anniversary of his birth.
And what a celebration.
For the little guy from Shawinigan to reach the apex of political and personal achievements, there was only one person missing.
And that was his beautiful life partner Aline, who had been at his side for most of this incredible journey.
A full house was expected last Thursday evening at the Sir John A. Macdonald Building, just across from his second home in Parliament.
And Chrétien wouldn’t disappoint. While some would fumble for words as they enter their ninth decade of life, Chrétien continues to astonish with his wit and wisdom.
Those who attended the Liberal policy convention last May marvelled at the fact that he and his Shawinigan colleague François-Philippe Champagne outshone the dynamic duo of Hillary Clinton and Chrystia Freeland in a fireside chat format where Chrétien stole the spotlight.
It isn’t just the wisdom of a nonagenarian that shines. It is also his incredible memory and terrific sense of humour.
Even in the midst of a referendum that almost cost the country, Chrétien was able to see the comical elements in the other side.
In a December pre-birthday interview for Canadian Politics and Public Policy by former journalist and retired Senator Jim Munson, Chrétien even found something funny to say about a separatist voter in his former constituency of Shawinigan.
As he recounted to Munson, “I was the object of some hate at some times because some separatists hated my guts in Quebec. But I didn’t pay much attention. I remember one day I was in a restaurant and a guy had had a few drinks and he said, ‘What the hell, Chrétien, you’re here! I never voted for you,’ and I said, ‘You have the right to be wrong, sir.’ And then he said, ‘I’m a separatist. But I want to tell you, you were a very good prime minister for Canada.’”
As Munson put it, “that about sums it up.”
Chrétien’s smile brightens up any room, and the stories he has gathered from a lifetime in public service can regale the toughest crowd.
One of the most difficult was the Bay Street annual fundraiser when Liberals were in government. Most titans of business were rabidly Conservative, and believed the trope that Liberals were the free spenders, including the ever-frugal Chrétien.
They attended the dinner because they had to. That didn’t stop Chrétien from using his “second language” English to his advantage.
When explaining how he got a fractious caucus to work together, Chrétien told the stiff-lipped audience that his command was to get all the “[h]oars rowing in the same direction.” Although today the mispronunciation—deliberate or not—would have been politically incorrect, in those days, the speech got even the tightest of Tories onside.
I had the privilege of joining him last spring at a Japanese embassy conferment ceremony of the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. His Excellency Kanji Yamanouchi hosted the event, and Chrétien was at his absolute finest.
He went so far as to recall the time and date of a dinner hosted by a Japanese ministerial colleague who suggested that Chrétien should run for prime minister.
His Japanese counterpart may have been among the first foreign dignitaries to recognize potential leadership qualities in this rural Quebec politician, but he certainly wasn’t alone.
Mitchell Sharp, former finance minister and external affairs secretary under prime ministers Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, was quick to spot the up-and-comer. He took Chrétien under his wing early on, helping pave his way to the top job in the land.
Sharp remained a close friend and political ally, participating in the vetting process when prime minister-elect Chrétien was about to name his first cabinet, and offering advice on how to balance the social needs of the country with the financial challenges of a heavy national debt load.
Chrétien became the 50/50 man, balancing his approach by promising to apply half of any savings to the debt, and half to social needs.
It was that balance, in politics and in life, that helped him reach the apex to be celebrated in the nation’s capital on Jan. 11.
Few politicians remain popular long after they leave political life.
In this regard, Chrétien is also exceptional.
Even the most hardened separatists understand why this man wears the triple crown.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.