Jean Chrétien’s career shows how much can be accomplished in
Canadian politics by someone who is ambitious, hard-working, and
has good luck — even if they speak English with a very thick
Chrétien did not speak English at all when he was elected to
Parliament in 1963 from rural Quebec. He was only 29 years old,
one of a middle-class family of 19 children. He worked hard,
began to learn English, made many Liberal friends, and by 1967
had become a minister in Lester Pearson’s Liberal government.
Chrétien was an enthusiastic supporter of Pierre Elliott
Trudeau. During the Trudeau years he held every major position
in the Canadian Cabinet and was one of the chief negotiators of
constitutional reform in 1981-82. He earned a reputation as a
tough guy not afraid to make hard decisions.
The Liberal Party had a tradition of alternating between French
and English-speaking leaders, so it was unlikely that Chrétien
could succeed Trudeau in 1984. But after John Turner lost two
elections, it was no surprise that the Liberals turned to
Chrétien in 1990. The problem was that many felt he was a figure
from the past, yesterday’s man.
His streak of good luck occurred when the Progressive
Conservative party fell apart in the early 1990s, and the
Liberals crushed Kim Campbell’s Conservatives in the 1993
election. With the Conservatives divided and quarrelling, Jean
Chrétien had no trouble winning big majorities in the 1997 and
2000 elections. His Liberals seemed to be Canada’s only national
It was more difficult to govern a troubled country. In 1995 a
second referendum in Quebec on separating from Canada almost
passed. If just a few thousand votes had swung from “Non” to
“Oui” Canada would have entered a terrible crisis. Chrétien
would have been forced to resign as a failed prime minister.
But his good luck held. After the referendum his government
fought the separatist movement to a standstill. By the beginning
of the 21st century the idea of independence seemed to be old,
tired and in decline in popularity in Quebec.
The Chrétien government was also forced to tackle the very large
budget deficits Canada had been running since the 1970s. Major
cutbacks in government spending in the mid-1990s proved
surprisingly popular with voters worried that Canada was
drowning in an ocean of debt. By the end of the decade the
government was accumulating large financial surpluses. These
enabled it to start cutting taxes even as it resumed spending.
Many Canadians felt that Chrétien’s minister of finance, Paul
Martin, had done an outstanding job and would soon become the
next prime minister.
Jean Chrétien liked to present himself as the little guy (le
petit gars) from Shawinigan, Quebec. People joked that his
accent was difficult to understand in either English or French.
To average Canadians, including many recent immigrants, the
Chrétien Liberals seemed both friendly and good communicators.
At the end of the 20th Century Canada was a peaceful, prosperous
and proudly multicultural country, a nation that minded its own
business in world affairs, and supported most world
organizations. Chrétien also got favourable publicity for
leading groups of businessmen on Team Canada trade missions to
China and other countries.
On September 11, 2001, airports in eastern Canada welcomed
thousands of travellers diverted from their journeys because of
the terrorist attacks on the United States. Canadians
sympathized with Americans in their war against terrorism, and
on many other issues, and were very concerned that trade and
people should continue to flow easily across the border. When
pressed to join the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 the
Chrétien government refused. Many experts were surprised that
Canada had dared to disagree with the United States on this
issue, but polls showed that the Canadian people strongly
supported Chrétien’s position.
Many Liberals had hoped there would be a smooth transition in
their leadership from Chrétien to Martin early in the new
century but the two Liberal giants did not like one another.
There was a long and bitter struggle in the party that
eventually resulted in Chrétien’s resignation in 2003 with
Martin becoming his successor. Under Paul Martin, the Liberals
were weak and divided and badly hurt by scandals in Quebec. They
lost power in early 2006 to the revived Conservative Party under
Very fit and active in retirement, Chrétien did not accept any
of the blame for his party’s problems. For 40 years he had done
his job, fought to preserve Canada, and enjoyed amazing success.
Few politicians in the history of the country had wielded so
much power in so many high offices for so many years.
Further Reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian
Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, by Michael Bliss; Chrétien,
Volume One: The Will to Win; Volume Two, Iron Man, by Lawrence
Next Instalment: First Nations: European Contact to the Present
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