Queen Elizabeth waves with then prime minister Jean Chrétien during Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa on July 1, 1997. ((Reuters/Pool))

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien says he was surprised but happy to learn Queen Elizabeth had awarded him the exclusive Order of Merit, despite his penchant for salty language and willingness to sing badly in front of thousands of people.

The former prime minister, 75, said he learned of the appointment about three weeks ago from the Queen's private secretary.

"I think that it is something that was not expected, but I’m grateful that Her Majesty offered that to me for the work I’ve done in Canada for 40 years," he told CBC News Tuesday from Shawinigan, Que.

Chrétien said he met the Queen on many occasions, including hosting the Royal Family for a week during the centennial celebrations of the Northwest Territories in 1970.

In his role as as Indian and northern affairs minister during the centennial, he stepped up to meet his patriotic "call of duty" during a ceremony in Fort Providence, he said.

The Queen and Prince Philip, along with their two oldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, were in the tiny hamlet to unveil a monument. Chrétien had to step in when the event's master of ceremonies was too shy to sing the national anthem.

"I went to sing and I start to sing O Canada but in those days, I was singing … in French and nobody came along," he said. "I'm a terrible singer. That's why my wife was so embarrassed."

A year later at a meeting with Prince Charles, the heir to the throne told Chrétien his solo rendition of the national anthem has become "part of the royal folklore."

'Big, big laugh' from Queen

Chrétien also drew a big laugh from the Queen when she attended the signing ceremony of the Constitution Act in Ottawa in 1982. Chrétien, who was the justice minister, said former prime minister Pierre Trudeau broke the tip of his fountain pen as he signed the document.

"I picked up the pen and I start to try to sign and it was not working and I said to myself 'merde' and she had a big, big laugh," he said. "Everybody was asking me what the hell you told her that she had such a spontaneous laugh and I refused to say so for years."

The relaxed nature of their relationship was also apparent after a Quebec radio host called the Queen in 1995 pretending to be Chrétien, who later called the monarch to apologize.

Chrétien said the Queen laughed about the call and said she did notice the caller was speaking in a "funny way."

"She told me that she thought that perhaps I had too many drinks at that moment," he said.

Queen Elizabeth also used her meetings with Chrétien as a chance to practise speaking French, he said.

"She speaks very good French and she’ll always use the occasion to speak in French with me," he said.

Ceremony in fall

Considered a personal gift from the Queen, the Order of Merit is restricted to 24 members as well as additional foreign recipients. Former Liberal prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester B. Pearson, as well as brain surgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield, are other Canadians to have received the honour.

Chrétien, who won three successive majority Liberal governments between 1993 and 2003, can add the initials O.M. after his name. The formal investiture and presentation is expected to be made at Buckingham Palace this fall.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff offered Chrétien his congratulations on Monday.

"Mr. Chrétien left an unequalled legacy of distinguished public service," Ignatieff said in a statement. "Jean Chrétien is remembered for slaying the deficit, presiding over a period of sustained economic growth, and strengthening Canada's national unity."

With files from The Canadian Press