Happy 89th Birthday, Jean Chrétien, from Sheila Copps

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Jean Chrétien needs to write another book. This time he should focus on political lessons for the future. It could be a great road map for a future Canadian prime minister.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 16, 2023.

OTTAWA—Happy 89th Birthday, Jean Chrétien.

You have some wisdom to impart to the youngsters who are currently running or hoping to run the country.

As you celebrated on Jan. 11, you must have been reflecting on the current political climate in Canada and how it might be improved.

Going forward, you could provide some great advice for all political leaders, not just in your Liberal Party of choice.

After all, you managed to navigate a political trajectory that was unlike any other.

A unilingual francophone from Shawinigan, Que., you grew into one of the most popular prime ministers in Canadian history. You combined wisdom, humour and political street smarts in a way that made people get the message without feeling alienated or betrayed.

Your No. 1 asset was always at your side, a wonderful, loving partner in the person of your childhood sweetheart, Aline.

She also gave you her best advice, and her graceful demeanour was a fabulous foil to your Shawinigan handshakes.

Life is much harder without her, but as you enjoy another birthday celebration, please spend a few moments reflecting on how to heal our country.

No. 1 is humour. You were probably the best prime minister at getting out a clear, direct message without alienating the opposition.

Who could forget your comment on the pepper spray used on protesters at the APEC gathering in British Columbia. Quizzically you said, “For me, pepper, I put it on my plate.” That got everyone laughing, taking the temperature down on a tough situation, while still making the point.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre could use a birthday nugget on how to take the temperature down.

He always seems to be so angry at everything and it is hard to elicit empathy, and support from voters when the main message they hear is negative.

Poilievre’s own party has been asking him to be a little more positive, and a class in humour would probably help put a smile on his face.

Just this month, former Senator and prime ministerial adviser Marjorie LeBreton stated publicly that Poilievre’s anger quotient was turning off women voters.

You might not get Poilievre laughing, but at least you could help him understand that a happy face gets more votes.

As for the prime minister, he might take a page from your time management book.

You made it a point to stay in the background on many ministerial announcements. That achieved two purposes: your ministers were happy that they got to bask in the glory of their own departmental work, and you avoided the political problem of overexposure.

By letting your caucus members absorb the spotlight, your own face wasn’t on television every night. That approach allowed you to lead three majority governments without being a victim of political overexposure.

It doesn’t matter how good a job a leader is doing. If he or she dwarfs the rest of the team, people get sick of seeing the leader.

The other advantage you incurred by staying in the background was that when you stepped in to manage a situation, it upped the gravitas of the moment.

You got involved in ministerial files only when there was a huge internal division. The war in Iraq was one example of such a split.

The denial of bank mergers was another. You had to fight the finance minister on that one.

Your embrace of the Kyoto Protocol was a third example of how decisions could be made when there was deep disagreement in cabinet.

Your third winning quality was understanding the street-fighting involved in realpolitik.

In that sense, you might give some advice to New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh.

Don’t play footsie with the Liberals. It might even cost you your job.

At this point, the message may be too late. But you always understood that the job of the Opposition was to oppose.

By co-signing an agreement to work in tandem with the government, the New Democrats may risk being relegated to irrelevance.

As for a piece of advice regarding the co-managed Green Party: be nice to everyone, especially Elizabeth May. She presents no threat to the government and any attempt to attack her could simply cost the attacker more.

Mr. Chrétien, you have ably chronicled the many stories of your life.

But you need to write another book. This time focus on political lessons for the future. It could be a great road map for a future Canadian prime minister.

Happy Birthday, to “the little guy from Shawinigan.”

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