Jean Chrétien sits, the Canadian flag behind his desk for all the convenient snapshots with VIPs and voters who enter his office, in Room 307S, the room occupied by John Diefenbaker and Mike Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and brief interlopers such as Joe Clark, John Turner and Kim Campbell. It is a convenient perch, since with a turn of his head he looks over the vast lawn on Parliament Hill and can check out the daily rent-a-protest group, now circling with their signs in front of the Centennial Flame in hopes a bored TV cameraman might give them their 15 seconds of fame, and then across Wellington Street to the vacancy where the Rideau Club burned down—moving an esteemed TV reporter to confess that night: “At last, a story I can understand.”
Jean Chrétien ain’t done bad and it shows on his face, as it should. When you’re born 18th of 19 children in the backwoods of Shawinigan, only nine of whom survived without the aid of the doctor, and end up prime minister, there is a justifiable look of satisfaction on your face.
He is a political animal, par excellence. His grandfather, François Chrétien, was a Liberal organizer and mayor for 30 years of the village of St-Etienne-des-Grès. During the election of 1896, he handed out alcohol among the voters, buying their favors, as was the Quebec custom at the time.
He loves to tell the story of Maurice Duplessis, who as premier punished his enemies, such as Pierre Trudeau, by denying him teaching positions. His friends’ illegalities were overlooked by the coppers and corruption was so accepted that most Quebec people just came to shrug it and hope for a piece of the action.
“I’m helping my friends,” Duplessis used to say to the crowds—as Chrétien explained it in his biography, Straight From the Heart. ‘What would you do in my place?” And the crowds would reply: “We’d help our friends, Maurice.” It’s a great story, a typical Chrétien story, perhaps semi-true, but capturing the
moment. The Prime Minister is no intellectual, but he can sense a mood. When he told the Toronto black-tie mob last week about the UIC dregs who “sit home drinking beer” he was on television the next morning sort of apologizing before vulturish reporters, but he knew what he had said—perfect for that Rosedale audience. There are beer-drinking UIC louts, as in Ronnie Reagan’s fabled welfare queen who arrived in a Cadillac to pick up her cheque. Chrétien pushed a button that he knew would connect.
He confesses, the rent-a-crowd circling beneath his window, that brother Michel, head of a medical research institute, had predicted decades earlier—behind his young brother’s back—that the present occupant of the PM’s chair was destined for that spot. He was astounded to learn that fact, he himself never thinking there was a chance until he had become the first francophone finance minister.
This scribbler tells him that the only reason he was elected prime minister was The Photograph. It was the shot of him, played in every paper in the land, of him water-skiing— on one ski. Every 59-year-old father would give his left testicle to be able to master oneski water-skiing.
I tell him that won him the election. Two skis—who cares? He agrees. There were all the rumors about his health. Kim Campbell, at that moment, appeared the epitome of new smoked meat. The one ski—and her big mouth—did it. He laughs. He agrees.
The one ski won him the election.
Chrétien made Canadian publishing history after the Liberals were toasted in the 1984 election. Anna Porter of Key Porter Books hired author Ron Graham to ghost the Straight From the Heart biography. It sold more copies than any Canadian political biography and the joke (more true than not) within the publishing world was that by the end of his book tour Chrétien had convinced himself he had written the tome and couldn’t remember Ron Graham’s name.
Well, his memory has recovered, Graham having been resuscitated to flesh out a few new chapters in a revised and updated paperback just out. The one-ski PM, in a denim shirt on the cover, looks like a thirtysomething rock star. He takes off the gloves a bit, stating that Brian Mulroney brought the “greed” society of America’s 1980s to Canada.
I tell him I suspect he has resigned himself to the fact that Daniel Johnson is going to lose the election to the separatists and Jacques o Parizeau, the puzzling fig| ure who owns the ample g waistline and elegant vocab“ ulary of an Oxford don. He denies it, of course, as any careful politician would.
He knows, the boy from Shawinigan, that Canada is in his hands now—even more than it was in Trudeau’s mitts. Across the Commons floor—two sword lengths away as British tradition has dictated—he daily faces the stem visage of Lucien Bouchard, the man who would break the country. He confesses, in his office, that he has never had a conversation with the man.
This would undoubtedly cheer Red Deer, not to mention Brockville. But it defines Canada. Two Quebecers—both from rural roots— diametrically opposed in philosophical directions, who will decide the fate of the nation, and they have never talked to one another.
Jean Chrétien, in his corner office overlooking the vast lawn, appears serene, as he should considering his accomplishments. Now all he has to do is save Canada.
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