Profile: Jean Chrétien

Heavyweight in a new ring

Ian Anderson May 12 1980
Profile: Jean Chrétien

Heavyweight in a new ring

Ian Anderson May 12 1980

Heavyweight in a new ring

Profile: Jean Chrétien

Ian Anderson

It is a hot spring afternoon in Grand’-Mère and the local committee room of the “non” campaign is windowless, packed and sweltering. Some 300 people have come to see the most famous politician the St. Maurice Valley has produced since Maurice Duplessis. Jean Chrétien has come home to give the Péquistes hell.

There is little in the federal justice minister’s speech that is new. He has conveyed his vision of Canada in much the same terms since Mitchell Sharp in the mid-1960s discovered that Chrétien, a young, unknown Quebec MP, could arouse even a sedate WASP audience in Toronto with his lucid passion for the country beyond the Ottawa River, expressed in broken English. There is one new wrinkle in his message, though. Chrétien has discovered in the 1980 Parti Québécois platform the suggestion that Quebec annex territory in the Arctic islands when it achieves sovereignty-association. There, Chrétien tells his people, his forefinger jabbing the air. That's what a “yes” vote really leads to. That's the sort of deception the Péquistes are engaged in.

Most people find Joseph-Jacques Jean

Chrétien likable. And Chrétien likes just about everyone, Rene Lévesque being a notable exception. He tells the story of how Lévesque, then a Liberal minister in the Jean Lesage government, visited him in 1964 and asked him to resign his federal seat and run for Lesage provincially. Chrétien demurred, saying he liked federal politics. “Jean,” responded Lévesque, “in five years there’ll be no federal government.” Chrétien, startled, asked him to repeat what he had said and, when Lévesque simply shrugged, asked the minister if he were a separatist. “Just forget I said anything,” Lévesque said.

The story is pure Chrétien. There are black and white but few grey areas in his cosmology. He considers Lévesque dishonest, an opinion strengthened by the vagueness of the May 20 referendum question. That is the most important point he is trying to drive home to Quebeckers as he quarterbacks the federal Liberals for Claude Ryan’s “no” committee. For Chrétien, political success is built on a few ideas expressed as simply as possible. It was his talent for this that helped hurry him into power past other Quebec MPs aghast at this “petit gars de Shawinigan” (Shawinigan kid) and his unabashed jouai French. “I know I have a rural image and I cultivate it,” he says with typical candor. “The people I represent are blue-collars. I don’t speak French à la française. If I did, I’d probably be in trouble.” Chrétien was chosen for his present role partly because he is a symbol. Others could have ably done the job of helping Ryan with his strategy, but no one else in the Trudeau cabinet looks and talks like the son of a Quebec machinist, which he is—the 18th of the 19 children produced by Wellie and Marie Chrétien (10 died in infancy). There was no one better suited to reach what the federalists hope is a silent majority of Quebeckers who ‘will vote “non” to the Péquiste option. Since arriving in Ottawa Chrétien has prospered both as a symbol and as a pragmatic and intuitive politician. “His shrewdness impressed me,” says Sharp, the former Liberal minister who had the single greatest influence on Chrétien’s career. “He was very quick on the upstart.” Sharp was among those who helped discourage Chrétien from seeking the leadership of the Quebec Liberals in both 1970 and 1978. “He was more valuable in Ottawa,” Sharp says. “He is a great spokesman for French Canada in English Canada.”

There is little in Chrétien’s background that would logically have led him to embrace federalism. In fact, he grew up something of a Quebec nationalist. Then, as now, he defended his beliefs with a dogged, scrappy, shootfrom-the-lip style, the style of the street fighter he had been in his youth. He often tells the story of his conversion to federalism. The young lawyer was arguing bitterly over lunch with a friend that the dismissal of a federal civil servant stemmed more from the fact he was francophone than that he had been wrongly engaged in politics. His friend shot back that Chrétien was “talking through your hat. You’ve never

seen an anglais in your life.” Says Chrétien: “As I was driving home to Shawin-

igan I thought, my God, he was right.”

He was elected two years later, at age 29. Within 10 years, that same road to Shawinigan was a four-lane highway, courtesy of a federal shared-cost program.

While Chrétien still talks of his ambition to be prime minister, he acknowledges his one big handicap: “I’m a young man, but an old politician.” At 46, he has been a minister for 13 years, the same as Trudeau. So Chrétien does not command the loyalty that might otherwise be expected from some of the

younger, ambitious segments of the Quebec caucus. There are the old concerns for his “pea-souper” act in English Canada, but some also wonder if he is not too rigid a proponent of maintaining the system under which he has thrived. “Every Quebecker, separatist or not, wants change,” says one French Canadian who has worked closely with Chrétien. “But Jean doesn’t. He’s 10 years too late.”

That assessment may be somewhat unfair, but not entirely so. Chrétien,

says one close observer, has done little thinking about modern Quebec, not simply because he is not by nature contemplative, but because for the past 13 years he has been in constant motion. “He hasn’t had time to think,” says a friend. “There are no new ideas getting through.” Some of the younger politicians wonder about his ability to adapt to the changing climate of Quebec, to a time when Lévesque’s “oui” camp can embrace moderates such as Leon Dion, the prominent sociologist, who simply want to push for a “better deal” for Quebec within Canada. Chrétien, meanwhile, compares separatism to gangrene and says it must be lopped off now before it spreads. “There is a status quo,” he argues. “It was created in the last three years by the Parti Québécois who have obstructed everything we have proposed.”

Chrétien’s ideas on constitutional change mirror those of Trudeau. You can redesign such institutions as the Senate and the Supreme Court, he argues, but federal authority must remain strong enough to redistribute wealth among the provinces and to ensure protection of minority groups. “You can’t have a country if you have two standards of living,” he believes. That attitude reflects his ability to forgive and forget. He grew up in an era when the anglais ran the company town and the foremen were bilingual so they could pass on orders to the francophone workers. But that era, as he said in Grand’-Mère recently, is gone. “In other parts of Canada,” he told his audience, “they complain about French power in Ottawa. And, you know, they’re right.” For years he had been telling Quebeckers, “You can’t rewrite history. If I’d been there to wake up Montcalm when Wolfe came in at night it might have been different. But that’s done with. You have to live with your time and your situation.”

Lévesque’s referendum will show whether that message has sunk in. In one sense, the referendum will also judge Chrétien. Quebeckers might see his success either as an aberration or as an example of what every son of a bluecollar Quebecker can aspire to on the national stage. It is a painful process for Chrétien. He has taken good care of his people. Shawinigan got a $15-million taxation processing centre as the civil service decentralized. It got its highways, its DREE grants and a national park. When Chrétien was the country’s first francophone finance minister he intervened to keep up the tariff wall on linerboard to protect a mill in his riding.

Despite it all, when he asked a close friend and local mayor to head the area “no” committee, he was turned down. It is an example of the same Péquiste pressure, he believes, that keeps such well-known mayors as Montreal’s Jean Drapeau on the sidelines of the debate. Unlike Trudeau or other prominent French-Canadian federalists such as Marc Lalonde, Jean-Luc Pepin or Jean Marchand, Chrétien manages to convey his gut feelings for Canada, his sense of how the birthright of his three children includes the lands and riches discovered in the West by Radisson and La Vérendrye. At every major rally Chrétien hammers home his same points. “Yes, it’s true what the PQ says,” he blasts, “that we have only 12 per cent of the railway lines in Canada. But what they don’t say is that we have 36 per cent of the railway jobs and that the head offices of the CNR and the CPR are in Montreal.”

There is no one in the country who can say with more conviction than Chrétien: “I am a Quebecker, but first I am a Canadian.” There is no one who better symbolizes how the two cultures can be bridged with a spirit of tolerance,hard work and devotion to the ideal of peaceful coexistence. The question for Chrétien, and for the nation, is whether that is now enough.