Since June, 1984, when he narrowly lost the fiercely contested campaign for the leadership of the Liberal party to John Turner, Jean Chrétien, the Liberal member from Shawinigan, has kept a low public profile. Now, Chrétien combines his role as opposition critic for external affairs with practising law one day a week in Toronto. This week his
memoirs, Straight From the Heart, were published simultaneously in English and French — a unique event in Canadian publishing. Rec e n t l y , M a c -lean’s Ottawa editor,
Roy MacGregor, interviewed Chrétien in the MP's East Block offices.
Maclean’s: After 22 years of high-profile, high-powered jobs, is it difficult to adjust to opposition?
Chrétien: It was an adjustment. I think the book helped me because I more or less did not give a damn about anything. I thought that my political career was, well, not finished, but I did not see the Liberals coming back into power. I had to play with the idea, ‘Should I run next time or not?’ —the sort of thing that comes into the head of any politician. But a publisher came to me and made me an offer I could not refuse —I mean a monetary offer. I do not know if I will
make a lot of money on the book’s sales but I will make some money. And I will take it with great pleasure. It is the first time in my life that I am enjoying earning some money, what with the book, my law practice and my other businesses here and there.
Maclean’s: As a member of Parliament? Chrétien: As a member of Parliament? I pay to be a member of Parliament!
Maclean’s: Are you satisfied with your book?
Chrétien: The book has given me a lot of
satisfaction because it forced me to look back and reflect. When I was invited to speak to the Canadian Booksellers Association in Toronto, they gave me a badge which said, ‘Jean Chrétien. Straight From the Heart author.’ I gave it to my wife. She was very moved. I never thought I would do it. But I am glad I did. And Gérard Pelletier said that my
views of events described in the book are a valid clarification. Maclean’s: How does being an author compare to the pressure of fighting for the Constitution or serving as a cabinet minister? Chrétien: It is completely different. I have more respect now for people who write. The book is not exactly the same in French as it is in English because I did not want to be a prisoner of the other text. As for the critics, I am nervous, but criticism is something that I have lived with all my life.
Maclean’s: You say
some interesting things about some of your colleagues. Chrétien: You mean my disappointment with André Ouellet and Marc Lalonde: I am not vindicating people like them who did not support me in the leadership convention. I have good reason to be disappointed. These guys felt that John was the sure bet to win the election and they felt
it was not my time.
Maclean’s: Another surprise in your book is your suspicion that you had a heart attack in 1973. Did you change your life after that?
Chrétien: Oh, yes. For years I had thought that I had had a heart attack at 39.1 contemplated resigning. When you are 39 and you have three kids and you are running like crazy on the political track and you do not have a dime—well, you slow down. The doctors said I had to. I changed my diet, walked a lot and so on. But it was only when I got sick a second time in 1980 that they did an angiogram and said, ‘You have the arteries of a kid, and the pump is in perfect condition.’ They confirmed in 1980 that I had never had a heart attack. Maclean’s: You say in your book that when John Turner resigned in 1975, you went to him and to Pierre Trudeau and almost prevented that resignation. Chrétien: Yes, I talked to John both as a friend and as president of the Treasury Board. I said, ‘John, you cannot go, God damn it.’ I also talked to his wife. But he seemed to want to go back to private life. Then Pierre said, ‘Jean, I have accepted the resignation.’ Then I talked to Donald Macdonald, but I felt I was kind of a busybody.
Maclean’s: Some Liberals did not forgive Turner for resigning. How did you feel? Chrétien: I went to have a coffee with John the day after. He told people that we were really on good terms. A few months after he resigned he said in a speech at the Primrose Club that Chrétien was—I remember the words because they were so pleasant—‘probably the best minister in any government anywhere.’ And it was printed in The Toronto Star. You can see the relations were excellent.
Maclean’s: How are they right now? Chrétien: A long time ago we were seen as young comers. We were not competing against each other; he was fluent in French. We always had good relations. You know, in politics you have very little time to sit down with colleagues and have a beer and chitchat. We might have had a couple of dinners together in our whole career. Whether we are good friends or only in the opposition, it is the same thing. If we need to talk business we talk in the corridor; we are always on the run.
Maclean’s: Your book claims that during the leadership race the media jumped on the Turner bandwagon, hurting you. Chrétien: I do not blame my opponent for that. I would have been happier if they had gone in my favor. But they did not. The night I was invited by a TV network to comment on the Trudeau departure, I was sitting on the set and they put on a film about John Turner. Was that a very objective thing to do? The film created the impression that it was time for an anglo.
Maclean’s: Do you regret that you ran for the leadership?
Chrétien: Not at all. I had fun doing it. I knew I was an underdog and I knew the chances of winning were slim at the beginning, but they improved as the campaign went on. A lot of people thought that with a couple more days I would have won. When the last poll came out it was a good poll for me and somebody leaked it to us. I gave it to the press, which was in my best interest.
But that same day someone pulled a dirty trick on me. They issued another press release from Winnipeg that was three or four weeks old. It confused the press. But with 48 hours more, the press would have dug into that and found out that it was one month old.
Maclean’s: We did find that out, but it was too late for you.
Chrétien: It was too late for me. I am not bitter. I can see a lot of things I could have done better, but it was a race and there could only be one winner. Maclean’s: Although you advised the party not to call an election after the leadership convention, Turner did so anyway.
Chrétien: I was in a very small minority of people; I gave that advice to Turner privately. But I remember one leading Liberal arguing against me: ‘Chrétien, you do not know anything about politics.’ I will always remember it. Maclean’s: How did you feel on election night?
Chrétien: It is a rough night when you see all the good members of Parliament being kicked out along with the bad ones. I felt sorry for Turner, finding himself in that position. I talked to him to cheer him up. But it is easy for me to say, ‘If, if, if. .. .’
Maclean’s: Do you see Prime Minister Mulroney undercutting his ministers? Chrétien: All the time.
Maclean’s: Trudeau undercut as well. Chrétien: Oh, I think that Trudeau was very good about it. He did undercut me in some ways, but it was not his habit. Maclean’s: In 1978, when Trudeau came back from the Bonn summit, he suddenly announced $2 billion in cuts without consulting you as finance minister. Did you want to resign?
Chrétien: Yes, but I think the problem was that I went on holiday. We had chatted in Bonn about the problem. Trudeau came back and had to make a speech to the nation. He felt he had to talk about the economy. I was not too happy with the way it was handled. But I think the PM has the right to talk about anything. He is the Prime Minister; he is the only one who has a mandate to talk about everything. So, the problem is the way it came up. I felt that my credibility had been impaired. He talked to me and said T am sorry if there was a lack of communication.’
Maclean’s: He apologized?
Chrétien: Yes, but he is one guy who does not go on his knees in front of you. He called me and I said that I should resign. He said, ‘Oh, come on, Jean!’ He convinced me that I should not resign and I accepted his argument.
Maclean’s: What about the Liberal party's future?
Chrétien: We have our problems. We will solve them eventually. It is better than a year ago.
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