The Current

Trump and the Trans Mountain pipeline: What would Jean Chrétien do?

Nearly 15 years after leaving public office, former prime minister Jean Chrétien has plenty to say about today's Canada — from the Trans Mountain pipeline, to divisions in Quebec. A new documentary on the CBC Documentary Channel offers fresh insights into his life and political career.

It would be silly not to take advantage of our natural resources, former PM tells CBC's The Current

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is pictured in Ottawa in March 2017. The Trans Mountain pipeline debate is not a crisis of national unity, he says. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Originally published May 31, 2018.

Read Story Transcript

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien predicts that NAFTA will survive, despite U.S. President Donald Trump's assertion that it is "the worst trade deal ever made."

"You cannot undo an omelette," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. Chrétien said the U.S. and Canada are too dependent on each other for trade for the deal to be scrapped.

Negotiating old deals is nothing new, he said, but "the Americans are big and slow, and we're small and fast."

The deal will have to be modified, he said, but even if Canada agreed to minor changes, to "change one comma, Mr. Trump would say it is the biggest historic victory that America ever had.

"And we [should] say 'Yes, sir, Monsieur Trump,'" he said.

Negotiations for a new version of the deal stalled after high-level talks broke off earlier this month. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland arrived in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday in hopes of rekindling the discussion.

Chrétien said he would not have voted for Trump, but Americans did, and "that's democracy, you live with that."

"It's an American problem, it's not a Canadian problem."

If Chrétien met the U.S. president now, he knows what he would say.

"Bonjour — and he won't understand."

Ignore the pipeline pundits

Chrétien made the comments in a wide-ranging interview on The Current, while discussing a new documentary, The Man. The Story. Jean Chrétien: In His Own Words, that charts his rise to power and 40-year political career.

Despite leaving office 15 years ago, he had plenty to say about the issues affecting Canada today, including the Trans Mountain pipeline row. Calling the fight a threat to national unity is overblown, he said.

"I don't think it will break the country, come on, don't exaggerate that way," he told Tremonti.

"Here we have two NDP governments — that's my fun to watch it — fighting. They tear off their shirts and so on for this problem."

He said he wasn't interested in the characterization of the debate as a crisis, or the pundits pushing it.

"If I had listened to all the pundits during all my life I would have been a very miserable person. And look how joyful I am still today," he quipped.

A protester holds a photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau covered in oil during a protest against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Vancouver on May 29, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government announced on Tuesday that it would commit $4.5 billion to buying the pipeline from Kinder Morgan. The pipeline's expansion has been opposed by B.C. Premier John Horgan, some Indigenous groups and high-profile environmentalists, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. It has been championed by Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

Chrétien argued that it would be a mistake for Canada not to take advantage of its oil and gas reserves with a pipeline.

"Will we be silly enough, having these resources, not to sell it?" he asked Tremonti.

"They will burn oil elsewhere, that will come from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, and so on. And we will not have the money of that wealth."

If they throw you out, politics is over, and your wife is happy.- Jean  Chrétien

Chrétien, who served as prime minister with the Liberals from 1993 to 2003, noted that there was support for the pipeline in B.C., with a recent poll suggesting more than half of British Columbians support the expansion.

However, "the poor premier has made a deal with the Greens," he said, referring to Horgan, and is afraid of losing their votes.

In political life, he said, it's important to listen, to take action, and to do what you think is right.

"When you're satisfied in your mind, and in your heart, that you're right, you do it and trust the judgment of the people.

"And if they throw you out, politics is over, and your wife is happy."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran with files from CBC News. This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino.