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Chrétien says Americans made 'a monumental error' when they elected Donald Trump

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is promoting his new book with his same-old candour. He shares his views on politics today, including whether we're as divided as we may feel, women and leadership, legal marijuana, and the president of the United States.

'People don't take them seriously anymore,' the former prime minister tells CBC News

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien sat down with CBC's Rosemary Barton to talk up his new book with his usual candour. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"When you're in public life,' Jean Chrétien said, "you fill a hole. And you realize that to fill the hole, you have to dig two more."

For many people, that would be reason enough not to get into public life. But listening to the former prime minister —  now 15 years removed from his last day in office — one gets the feeling he might like nothing more than to pick up that shovel again.

Chrétien may protest that he doesn't want to be a Monday morning coach, doesn't want to comment on the issues of the day in which he no longer plays a central part, but nudge him just a bit, and it turns out the 84-year-old has plenty to say.

He's written some of it down, in a book coming out next Thursday called My Stories, My Times.

And in a conversation with The National's Rosemary Barton, he goes further — on everything from marijuana (never touched the stuff) to U.S. President Donald Trump ("fanatical"). 

Legalizing marijuana

One day before Chrétien's book comes out, recreational marijuana use will become legal in Canada. "I never tasted that, I don't have a clue what it is," he says as soon as the topic is raised.

But 20 years ago, Chrétien knew enough about it to conclude that smoking marijuana should not be a crime.

"I was for decriminalization. I was not, at that time, for legalization. I thought for a kid having smoked a joint and to have a criminal record forever, it was unreasonable." 

Chrétien's government introduced a bill in 2003 to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, but the bill died before a final vote. 

Listen to whether Chrétien thinks marijuana legalization will change Canada.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien tells CBC's Rosemary Barton where he stands — and whether legalizing recreational pot will change Canada. 0:51

Is he a feminist?

Chrétien jokes that he once told a fellow leader visiting Rideau Hall that Canada "is run by women," explaining that, "The governor general is [Adrienne] Clarkson, the [Supreme Court] Chief Justice is [Beverley] McLachlin, and my wife!"

But jokes aside, he admits it was important to him that women were elevated to higher positions. 

"Yes. Yes, yes. But first they had to have the competence," he said.

As justice minister in 1982, he announced the appointment of Bertha Wilson as the first female justice to the Supreme Court. He followed that up in 2000 as prime minister, by nominating the first female chief justice, Beverley McLachlin.

"I'm happy that Wilson turned out to be a great judge and the chief justice was extremely respected. So I cannot complain."

But is he a feminist? Listen to his full answer.

Barton asks Chrétien if he considers himself a feminist. 0:51

Political divides

"Good news is not news," Chrétien said. "Bad news is news." The implication being, conflict and tension get the most attention in the media. But he suggests that if you think it's bad out there now, consider the political divides of his day.

"At the time, we thought it was pretty bad. We had people in Montreal who were blown up because of the fanatic separatists of the day," he said, speaking of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), which set off several bombs between 1963 and 1970, including one at the Montreal Stock Exchange, and another at the home of then-Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau. 

And he offers some further perspective in his full answer.

Chrétien puts today’s political tensions into context. 1:03

Notwithstanding all that …

Chrétien was one of the main architects of the deal that would see the notwithstanding clause included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. He says it was an important section then — and remains so today.

The clause allows provincial or federal authorities to override or essentially ignore sections of the charter.

"You have to declare that you are discriminating. How many normal person would say, 'I want to discriminate'?"

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he was ready to invoke the clause in order to cut the number of Toronto city councillors in half even though the election was already underway.

And Quebec's next premier, François Legault, says he'll do it to ban the wearing of religious symbols by provincial public servants.

Chrétien offers his view on that.

Does Chrétien think today’s leaders will really use the notwithstanding clause? 0:34

The world leader he calls 'fanatical'

The day before Chrétien spoke to CBC News, Donald Trump stood in front of a crowd in Southaven, Miss., and mocked the Senate committee testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who says she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh decades before he was nominated to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Come on," Chrétien said, shaking his head. "I would not be proud if my prime minister would have done something like that."

His words are sharper in his book. He calls Trump "fanatical," and says Americans made "a monumental error" when they elected him.

"But," he said, "they have to live with it."

Chrétien describes what international leaders say to him about the U.S. and Trump. It's not good.

What international leaders tell Chrétien about Trump and the U.S. 1:05

Watch Rosemary Barton's full interview with Jean Chrétien:  

The former prime minister weighs in on several news issues - many of which he tackled during his own career - ahead of the release of his book, My Stories, My Times. 10:10