A veritable who's who of Canadian politics have gathered for a star-studded tribute to Jean Chrétien, the former prime minister who led the Liberals to three back-to-back majority victories.
"Yes, I served Canada for 50 years. My father did not want me to be an architect. He wanted me to be a politician. But what a satisfaction it is," Chrétien said in a speech at the end of the night.
"It was tough, yes, but I have no regret. Because serving Canada is the best thing you can do in life.… There was not a moment in my life that I did not say, at the end of a speech, 'Vive le Canada.'"
The gala included a video message from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is in the Middle East, thanking Chrétien for his decades of service to the country.
Harper noted that Chrétien, who turned 80 on Jan. 11, shares his birthday with the country's first, Conservative prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. And he said the two share a number of attributes as well.
"Both Jean and Sir John A. devoted their lives to serving Canada, both loved politics and campaigning and, of course, both loved to win and did so," Harper said.
"Jean, you have faithfully served our country and all Canadians for more than 40 years."
'The highest calling'
More than 700 current and former politicians of all party stripes, business leaders and party faithful have bought tickets to the sold-out Toronto event, at $400 a pop.
The tribute has been endorsed by two of Chrétien's bitterest leadership rivals — John Turner and Paul Martin — in what organizers hope is a sign that Liberals are finally putting behind them almost four decades of factional infighting that nearly destroyed the once mighty party.
It's also drawn the support of a host of erstwhile partisan foes, including Harper.
Those lending their names to the committee that's been promoting the tribute include former Conservative prime minister Joe Clark, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and a raft of one-time Conservative, Liberal and NDP premiers: Jean Charest, Mike Harris, Bill Davis, Gary Filmon, Roy Romanow, Brian Tobin and Bernard Lord.
Several other former premiers have shown up for the tribute, including Frank McKenna, Daniel Johnson and Bob Rae, who served as interim Liberal leader before the election of current leader Justin Trudeau.
"Wherever his political success took him … Mr. Chrétien understood that service to Canadians was the highest calling," Trudeau said.
"Politics was the root, public service was the reward."
Organizers hope the cross-partisan tribute to Chrétien will remind Canadians that politics can be a noble profession, not just a ruthless blood sport.
Charest, the master of ceremonies, told the gala that he and Chrétien formed a special bond during the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.
He and Chrétien had numerous differences, said Charest, who was federal Conservative leader at that time before going on to become Quebec premier as a Liberal. But when it comes to their shared belief in Canada, Charest said, "We'll always be shoulder to shoulder."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the province was "humbled" to pay tribute to Chrétien.
"I know I'm not alone in this room as naming Mr. Chrétien as an inspiration, a role model," she said. "We talk a lot about authenticity in this world and few leaders embody that ideal as effectively, I believe, as you do and you did."
Served in every senior cabinet post
Chrétien was first elected to the House of Commons in 1963 and spent the next 40 years there, but for a brief hiatus in the mid-1980s, serving in almost every senior ministerial position before becoming prime minister himself in 1993.
He was Pierre Trudeau's go-to minister during the 1980 referendum on Quebec independence and spearheaded his subsequent effort to patriate Canada's Constitution with a charter of rights.
As prime minister, he presided over a government that finally balanced the federal books, with Martin as his finance minister, and started the legislative ball rolling on legalization of same-sex marriage.
After Quebec came within in a hair of voting to secede in the 1995 referendum, Chrétien sought the Supreme Court's advice on the legal rules for secession and subsequently brought in the Clarity Act, stipulating that Ottawa would only negotiate a divorce if a clear majority of Quebecers voted on a clear question to separate.
Chrétien retired in 2003 amid the sponsorship scandal and rancour over Martin's leadership aspirations.
Since then, he's resumed practising law and continues to give advice, privately, to subsequent Liberal leaders. In 2012, he was appointed by Harper as Canada's representative to the Diamond Jubilee Trust, a Commonwealth initiative to raise money for charities in honour of Queen Elizabeth's 60-year reign.
Proceeds from tonight's tribute are being donated to La Maison de la francophonie de Toronto, an umbrella organization that supports non-profit francophone groups in the country's largest city.