Jean Chrétien

When Jean Chrétien announced in August 2002 that he would keep his job as prime minister another 18 months, some called it arrogance while others said it was a clever bid to outmanoeuvre his leadership rival, Paul Martin.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien became well-known for his unwavering, common-sense approach to problems. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

When Jean Chrétien announced in August 2002 that he would keep his job as prime minister another 18 months, some called it arrogance while others said it was a clever bid to outmanoeuvre his leadership rival, Paul Martin.

But the decision was true to Chrétien 's character — he has always done the unpredictable. He's never been one to avoid a scrap. A perfect example of this occurred in the summer of 2002 when the Liberals seemed in serious disarray over the so-called "feud" between Chrétien and Martin, his former finance minister.

At the age of 64, Martin was the upstart challenger to Chrétien's leadership of the party and it seemed like Martin and his followers were organizing a hostile takeover.

In response, Chrétien delivered a tough speech to his caucus, addressing the Liberal party's upcoming parliamentary agenda and taking stiff, sideways shots at those who wanted him to step down or at least announce his intentions.

"A prime minister has a unique duty to preserve the integrity of the office," he said. "It is not about power. It is about responsibility."

Indeed Chrétien has been known for his ability to stand in front of a tidal wave of opposition. In February 2003, he announced Canada would not send troops to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He said Canada would not act outside of the UN, which, at the time, was asking for more time for weapons inspections.

While the decision earned him political brownie points with France and Germany, it had the opposite effect south of the border. Chrétien's relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush was already under considerable strain from disagreements over the weapons inspections and lingering bad blood over name-calling incidents (a top aide had referred to Bush as a "moron" and an MP labelled some Americans as "bastards"). But Chrétien's stand on Iraq, and Bush's response, seemed to put the fatal chill on an already frosty relationship.

And through it all Chrétien played the part of the elder statesman (by 2003, he was one of the longest-serving leaders in the industrialized world.


Jean Chrétien was born in Shawinigan, Que., on Jan. 11, 1934, the 18th of 19 children, only nine of whom survived. His mother was Marie Boisvert-Chrétien, his father Wellie Chrétien, who worked as a machinist at a paper mill.

CBC Digital Archives

(Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada)

Jean Chrétien: From pool hall to Parliament Hill

From the pool hall political debates of his childhood to the opulent offices of Ottawa, CBC Radio and CBC-TV capture the long, colourful career of Canada's 20th prime minister.

He began campaigning for local Liberal candidates when he was in his teens. While studying law at Laval University, he was elected president of the Liberal Club. He returned to Shawinigan with his law degree in 1958 and opened a law practice.

In 1963, at the age of 29 and with only a smattering of English, Chrétien ran for federal office in the riding of Saint-Maurice-Laflèche, winning the first of what would be 10 federal campaigns. He entered cabinet in 1967 and over the next 17 years held every major portfolio. He was Canada's first French-Canadian finance minister, and as minister responsible for constitutional negotiations, he played an important role in the 1982 patriation of the Constitution.

His hard work and common-sense approach to problems appealed to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who regarded Chrétien as his right-hand man. In the 1980s, the mayor of Quebec City asked Trudeau whom he should see about a problem and Trudeau immediately said, "See Chrétien. He's the one who gets things done around here."


Chrétien failed in his first bid for the leadership of the Liberal party, losing to John Turner in 1984. Two years later, he resigned his seat in the House of Commons. He ran for the leadership again in 1990. This time he won a convincing first-ballot victory.

Three years later, he was prime minister, winning the first of three consecutive majority governments.

Le petit gars de Shawinigan (the little guy from Shawinigan) took his third run at the top job in the federal election of November 2000 even though he could have held off calling an election until 2002 when his government's term would have expired. But with a booming economy, a healthy surplus, and a divided opposition, he decided the time was right for a new mandate.

Twice he played a prominent role on the No side in referendums on Quebec sovereignty. His strongest performance came in the 1980 referendum, when the federalist forces won convincingly. The next referendum, in 1995, resulted in one of Chrétien's low points, when the federalist side squeaked by with a razor-thin win.

Jean Chrétien has always enjoyed a populist, working-class appeal, enjoying the rough and tumble of politics. Sometimes that rough and tumble bubbled to the surface. In 1996, a protestor got a little too close to Chrétien and he responded by applying a choke-hold on the man. Four years later, another protestor got close to him during a visit to Prince Edward Island and threw a pie at his face.

After politics

Less than a month after leaving the prime minister's office, Chrétien joined the Ottawa office of the law firm Heenan Blaikie.

Jean Chrétien, seen here with his wife Aline, published his book My Years as Prime Minister in 2007. The former prime minister detailed his feud with Paul Martin and wrote about the 1995 referendum. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))
On Feb. 8, 2005, Chrétien testified before the Gomery inquiry looking into the federal sponsorship scandal. In an opening statement, he told the inquiry that he would have gone to any length to counter the threat of Quebec separation. He apologized for any wrongs that might have been committed by members of the Quebec wing of the Liberal party in handing out contracts to raise the profile of the federal government in Quebec in the wake of the near loss in the 1995 referendum. He insisted that he did nothing wrong.
Months earlier, Chrétien's lawyers had gone to court to try to remove Mr. Justice John Gomery as head of the inquiry looking into the scandal. The inquiry had been announced by Martin, shortly after he succeeded Chrétien as prime minister. Chrétien's legal team argued that Gomery was biased against the former prime minister.

While Gomery did not directly implicate Chrétien in his report, he did conclude that Chrétien must bear some of the responsibility for the scandal because the sponsorship program was run out of the Prime Minister's Office. He said that people close to Chrétien were involved in an orchestrated plan to illegally finance the Liberal party in Quebec.

He underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery at the Montreal Heart Institute on Oct. 3, 2007. Surgeon Michel Pellerin said the former prime minister's outcome was "excellent" and expected full recovery in three months.

In July 2009, Queen Elizabeth appointed former prime minister Jean Chrétien to the Order of Merit, an award given to "individuals of exceptional distinction in the arts, learning, sciences and other areas such as public service."

Chrétien's legacy

While Chrétien may be forever linked to the scandal, he will also be remembered as the prime minister who presided over a period of sustained economic growth.

When the Liberals took office in 1993, the government was saddled with record deficits. Chrétien appointed Martin as finance minister and within four years, government coffers had gone from deficit to surplus. Much of that was accomplished by cutting social programs and transfer payments to the provinces.

His government came under fire for building huge surpluses in the Employment Insurance fund, which the opposition said helped pad the government books.

By the time Chrétien left office, the government had trimmed $50 billion from a total government debt of more than $550 billion.