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The political up-and-comer

It was a hardscrabble climb to the top for Jean Chrétien. "The little guy from Shawinigan" surprised everyone - except himself - by finding his way to the summit of Canadian politics. From the pool hall political debates of his childhood to the opulent offices of Ottawa, CBC Radio and Television capture the long, colourful career of Canada's 20th prime minister.

Even at 33, it seems Jean Chrétien has visions of grandeur. In this CBC Television clip, the youthful Liberal MP jokingly compares himself to another historical figure: "My initials are J.C. like Jesus Christ... my mother's name is Mary. I live on Boulevard Pius XII. At 30 I was at the beginning of my public life. I hope I will not be crucified at 33."

With his rough yet casual manner, the street fighter from Shawinigan may not fit the conventional mould of a politician but that's part of his appeal. Chrétien places himself as the outsider; the one who speaks for the little guy. He purposely peppers his speeches with slang, emotion and jokes making a conscious effort to connect with ordinary Canadians.

When Chrétien first heads for Ottawa as the MP for Saint-Maurice-Laflèche in 1963, he speaks almost no English. But by the time of this 1967 CBC documentary, he has not only learned the language but is being lauded as someone with unlimited potential. Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp, who would become a lifelong mentor, describes Chrétien as "one of the youngest and ablest members of the House." 
• In an effort to learn English, Chrétien read magazines, carried a dictionary and consulted his bilingual wife, Aline. But he said he learned the most by socializing with young anglophone MPs. He once reminisced to his new friends about the time he tried to talk to workers leaving a factory so fast that, rather than shake hands, he could only touch them on their "bras." He meant to say "arms."

• The newly-elected MP told his Parliament Hill anglophone friends that Claude Ryan, then the editor of Le Devoir, was very important but a bit pompous: "When you are in the presence of Mr. Ryan, you feel you are in front of a bishop. You almost have to put your knee on the floor and kiss his bague." He had meant to say "ring." Chrétien recalled how people were laughing so hard that he had to stop speaking. "I didn't know what I had said that was so funny."

• Detractors have said Chrétien is not very fluent in either official language. He has made no apologies, however, for his plain-spoken style. "The language I often use in my speeches has nothing to do with a lack of education or a poor upbringing," he wrote in his memoir. "It stems from my wish to remain close to the working-class people of my riding."

• Quebec columnist Lysiane Gagnon of La Presse once wrote: "Language is the first tool of politicians. Few politicians express themselves as badly as Jean Chrétien." In Le Devoir, Lise Bissonnette wrote that Chrétien travelled English Canada "doing this number of the ill-spoken, vulgar Quebecer, the happy slave who asks his master for more punishment."

• A month after this documentary aired, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson made Chrétien a Minister without Portfolio, attached to Finance. He was, at the time, the second youngest cabinet minister in history. He was appointed along with Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who became the Minister of Justice and John Turner, who became the Registrar General.

• As vice-president of the Student Liberals of Canada, he went to Ottawa for the party convention that chose Lester B. Pearson as Liberal leader in 1958. Pearson, who became Liberal prime minister in the same 1963 election that saw Chrétien first elected to Parliament, challenged the ambitious MP to become the first francophone finance minister in Canadian history. Pearson died five years before Chrétien succeeded.

• Jean Chrétien was an ambitious but unpolished MP when he was chosen in 1966 to be parliamentary secretary -- or assistant -- to Mitchell Sharp, the finance minister. Sharp, a former bureaucrat well versed in the mechanics of government, saw promise in Chrétien and took him under his wing. After retiring from politics, Sharp continued to advise his former assistant for $1 a year. Chretien
Medium: Television
Program: Twenty Million Questions
Broadcast Date: March 30, 1967
Guest(s): Jean Chrétien, Mitchell Sharp
Duration: 14:52

Last updated: April 12, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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