Former prime minister Jean Chrétien says he's among the many taken aback by interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae's decision not to seek the permanent leadership of the party as its future hangs in the balance.

"I was surprised," said Chrétien, in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House with host Evan Solomon. 

"I thought he was to run, he has experience, he's a well-qualified person.… He felt that it was not his time. So we have to respect that decision."

When asked by Solomon whether he would endorse anyone in the coming Liberal leadership race, Chrétien noted it's not the tradition for former leaders to formally give their endorsements.

"No, unless I change my mind," said Chrétien, who led the party to three successive majority governments, in response to Solomon's question.

Chrétien said he received encouragement from Pierre Trudeau to run for the leadership, and wouldn't rule out offering the same advice to others considering throwing their hat in the ring.

"You know, it depends if they come to see me," he said. 

Asked about the late prime minister's son, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, Chrétien said the two Trudeaus are "definitely different," but added the younger Trudeau "has proven himself in some way."

"You know, rather than run in a safe seat, he had to run in a difficult seat," Chrétien said. "He won and defeated the Bloc, and he's the only one who increased his majority."

Trudeau, who represents the Montreal riding of Papineau, has repeatedly rejected the idea of running for the Liberal leadership. However, Trudeau also acknowledged this week he is under pressure to reconsider, and vowed any decision "will be made on a personal basis in consultation with my family."

Chrétien said other "good" potential candidates have been mentioned, including other Quebec Liberals such as Denis Coderre and Marc Garneau, as well as former Quebec Liberal MP and cabinet minister Martin Cauchon and New Brunswick Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc.

'Ups and downs' for parties

Asked by the CBC's Solomon whether he's given any advice to Trudeau, Chrétien replied: "No, I know him. I've talked to him."

But Chrétien added there are "a lot of precedents" with MPs with only a few years of experience running successfully for the helms of their parties.

"[Trudeau's] father, was he ready when he became the leader?" he said. "Joe Clark was younger than Trudeau when he became the leader.

"Remember they were calling him 'Joe Who?' So he became prime minister anyway."

Chrétien then added, "Not very long." 

Chrétien is celebrating the grand opening of a museum exhibit in his honour in his home town in Quebec this weekend. The exhibit in Shawinigan titled Canada in the World displays gifts Chrétien received during his time as prime minister. He said the museum exhibit can offer some guidance to Liberals about leadership in the future.

"In the story of political parties, you have ups and downs," he said.

"Over a period of years, things change a lot. And now, we will see. There will be a race, and there will be a good list of candidates and the party will be able to choose from [them]."