Everybody talks about government spending, but Jean Chrétien is doing something about it
Jean Chrétien, president of the Treasury Board, stern keeper of the nation’s purse, permitted himself a chuckle. He had just settled the hash of Richard Malone, publisher of the Toronto Globe and Mail Brigadier General Malone, a conservative and the very pasha of Canadian journalism, had delivered a speech to the Canadian Club, a magnificent tirade against government spending. He said it was time to halt the rot in Ottawa. On February 24 the Globe reprinted the speech under the heading, “A case of tragic mismanagement.” Though his name was not even mentioned, Chrétien ordered his staff to ready a reply: Malone’s volley would not go unanswered. Chrétien’s long, dry, point-by-point defense of Liberal financial policies was sent to the Globe on March 11. Weeks went by and nothing happened, so a copy of the letter was sent to Claude Ryan’s Le Devoir in Montreal. Ryan, no friend of the Globe these days, printed all but a few sentences of it. His headline blared across the full width of a page: “A letter the Globe and Mail delays publishing.” The very next morning the minister’s letter was in the Globe and Mail and Chrétien—the fastest gun in the East—had won another round. It is becoming a habit.
Jean Chrétien came to Ottawa 13 years ago, before French Power was ever heard of, before Pierre Trudeau, before Jean Marchand—and he will probably be there long after they are gone. He is a survivor. He has survived political pestilence: in the early Sixties the Liberal benches were rampant with scandal, and nearly everyone in trouble had a French name. He survived his political mentor (Mitchell Sharp). He survived his looks (think of a tall Willie Pep). He survived his smalltown Quebec background, one that put him in double jeopardy: an outsider to the Outremont-St. Foy Quebec Liberal establishment and, by definition, a figure of folklore, if not sheer fun, to many English Canadians. He survived six years as Minister of Indian Affairs when there had been seven ministers in the seven years before him. Somehow, perhaps alone among francophone ministers, he has survived the bloodlustof the English mandarinate, who are almost embarrassingly fulsome in their
appreciation. Says one of the dozen senior civil servants in the Treasury Board: “He’s open, relaxed, fun, smart and easy to relate to.” He seems to be surviving his current post, as president of the Treasury Board, which is only slightly less perilous than being Solicitor General when the country wants to hang. And he came out whole after the dial-a-judge affair in March. One minister (André Ouellet) looked sneaky, another (Bud Drury) foolish and a third (Marc Lalonde) at the very least overzealous, but Chrétien—he was the man so jealous of his integrity he’d fight like a wolverine to protect it (both Judge Kenneth Mackay and the Globe and Mail retracted allegations that he had acted improperly).
Joseph-Jacques Jean Chrétien was born in January, 1934, in a community on the outskirts of Shawinigan, then called Belgoville (for the Belgian who built both the town and the pulp mill below it). Chrétien was born a Liberal. His father, Wellie, a mill machinist, was a Liberal.His grandfather was a Liberal. Chrétien’s Liberalism is so distinguished it carries the imprimatur of Maurice Duplessis’ scorn. “I was just a kid when I met Duplessis, and he said to me: ‘Aren’t you the grandson of François Chrétien?’ I said I was, and Duplessis said, ‘Well you’re a goddam Liberal (“Christ de rouge”).” Chrétien says he first got thinking about politics when he was 16, though a brother, Guy, now a Shawinigan pharmacist, remembers Jean at 14 locked in loud debate in the town poolroom with Duplessis supporters two and three times his age. As a student at the seminar in Three Rivers he was strong in the sciences and weak in deportment. “I got thrown out four times,” says Chrétien. “My father told me there had to be a black sheep in every family and I was it.” But he remained a good Liberal. When he was 18 he was squiring his 16year-old wife-to-be, Aline Chaîné, to Liberal meetings, and at 22 he was a chief Liberal organizer in the 1956 provincial election. After Laval (president of the Liberal student group, national vice-president of the Liberal university graduates) he and three other lawyers founded a law firm in Shawinigan. Their offices were above the new Steinberg’s store, the grandest building in town, and Chrétien says he did well.
But law was just one more entrée to politics. The only question was, “Shall I go provincial or federal?” The provincial legislature seemed more inviting. Jean Lesage
was building his “Quiet Revolution,” and Chrétien’s townsmen felt much closer to Quebec City than to Ottawa. Besides, he spoke about four words of English (a friend says they were “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Yes,” and one that was to become important in his lexicon, “No”). But federal politics won. “You remember Marcel Chaput? He had been kicked out of the federal civil service for expressing his views. There was a lot of emotion over that,” explains Chrétien, especially in a town like Shawinigan, where at one time every plant manager, indeed anyone with any money, was English. “I didn’t agree with Chaput’s views, but I found myself on his side, and I was mad. But at one point one of my friends who had spent some time in English Canada told me: ‘You talk about the Anglos like that, and you don’t know a thing about them.’ He was saying I was narrow-minded. I thought about it again that afternoon when I was driving back from Trois Rivières in my car, and he was right.” Ottawa it was.
Chrétien got the Liberal nomination in St. Maurice-Laflèche in 1963, and wrestled the seat from the Créditiste who just the year before had won by 9,000 votes. In Ottawa he found himself sitting off in a back comer with some other MPS as young and callow as himself: Gerry Regan (now premier of Nova Scotia), Ron Basford (now Justice Minister) and Rick Cashin of Newfoundland. At his first caucus meeting Chrétien was handed a questionnaire. The Prime Minister was asking all backbenchers what their interests were. Chrétien put down “finance.” He didn’t know a thing about finance, traditionally an English field, just as ministries like Public Works and the Post Office were French. But he was the only one to claim such an interest (“I thought at least I’d learn something”), and Pearson promptly put him on the banking committee.
In 1964 there was a provincial by-election in his riding, and René Levesque, then the Lesage government minister in charge of finding candidates for the Quebec Liberal Party, met with Chrétien. He asked him to give up his Ottawa seat and, according to Chrétien, said there wouldn’t even be a central government in five years. (Levesque, now president of the Parti Québécois, says Chrétien is “screwy” if that is what he remembers.) “For a minister of a federalist Liberal Party to say that was intellectually dishonest,” says Chrétien. Seventeen of his 19 organizers urged him to run provincially, but after meeting with Pearson he decided against it.
Chrétien was. made Pearson’s parliamentary secretary in 1965, and six months later he became parliamentary secretary to then minister of finance Mitchell Sharp. In 1967, the same day a Montreal professor named Pierre Trudeau was named minister of justice, Chrétien entered the cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Eight months later he was minister of national revenue, and then, in 1968, minister of Indian affairs and northern development, where he was handed a ticking bomb. The department’s administrators had been hard at work on a new policy for the Indians, one they called an “end to apartheid.” But the Indians labeled it “cultural genocide” and, until it was finally abandoned, Chrétien was forced to defend it across the country. In 1974 he was named President of the Treasury, the central planning agency that regulates government spending. Minister of finance would have been better, but he wanted the Treasury Board, too. A highly reliable source says that Chrétien was thinking of the job when he asked for the board’s vice-chairmanship in 1970, just days after it had been given to Eric Kierans (the job was taken from Kierans and given to Chrétien).
All this time he scoured the country, making lively attacks on the English for their attitudes toward the French, on the French for their feelings toward the English, and once, in Inuvik, on “the TorontoMontreal professional northerners.” At election time hedid his bit inother ministers’ bailiwicks and tended his own garden. He could count on no less a figure than Créditiste leader Réal Caouette, the best platform speaker in Quebec, to come and try to reclaim the riding, which he nearly did in 1968 with an infectious anti-Liberal chant that went: “Homosexualité, divorce,
avortement—c’est pas Chrétien.” But keeping his deeply conservative constituents happy grew easier for Chrétien as he won more and more power on Parliament Hill. Caouette didn’t even show up in the last election.
The interview with Jean Chrétien goes badly. He seems distracted and somehow suspicious. Every now and then he lifts an eyebrow in the direction of one or two executive assistants sitting in, as if to ask how long it is going to go on. And he would rather speak English than French to the English reporter. He says all that is wrong with his English is that he puts the accent on the wrong syllable (putting the accent on the wrong syllable of “syllable”). It’s true, his English has IMPROVED-NDP House Leader Stanley Knowles calls him “a sharp debater” in the language—but it’s still bad. His French, on the other hand, is rich and colloquial, marked by a trace of that accent peculiar to the Mauricie district—a profusion of breathy Hs and consonants dropping faster than the leaves in autumn. There’s a chocolate rug on the floor of Chrétien’s big first-floor Commons office. At one end sits a desk without a shred of paper on it, at the other a tweedy sofa and two chairs and a case full of Eskimo sculpture under glass. On one wall is a photograph of the side of Prime Minister
IN INDIAN AFFAIRS HE WAS MORE OFTEN THAN NOT A VICTIM OF HIS BUREAUCRATS
Pierre Trudeau’s head, signed “with cordiality” by the PM, and on another a stunning Eskimo tapestry. Some ministers spent $10,000 or $50,000 or even $100,000 on similar offices, but the decorators gave this one no more than a lick and a promise—these furnishings cost the taxpayer only $ 1,959. The only thing to look at, anyway, is Chrétien’s face. It is endlessly interesting. The steep forehead almost overshoots the eyes, throwing them into shadow. The angles and contours of the complicated nose would defy a geometer. There’s a slight lilt to the left side of the mouth—something, said a friend, that once bothered him enough to seek therapy for
it. It is by far the most interesting face in the cabinet. The French would make a movie star of this face: this is not Willie Pep, after all, but Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Two days before, Chrétien had been in Welland, Ont., pushing bilingualism, and the next week he was off to Béziers,France, to speak to the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the France-Canada Association where, according to a dispatch from Agence-France-Presse, he told France to send more immigrants to Canada and gave away some Eskimo art. But now he has a few minutes, and talks first—a little wistfully—about his time in Indian Affairs, “my most productive years.”
“There were all kinds of stories that the Indians of Canada were second-class citizens, that they were victims of legal discrimination. But I said, ‘Okay, you don’t like the Indian Act, then we’ll scrap it.’ My white paper was rejected, of course, but now if they have reserve land it’s because they want it. If they have the Indian Act it’s because they want it. It brought the thing out in the open.” Chrétien calls it “my white paper” and, true enough, he had some hand in putting it together. But the Indians said (as they have about every Indian affairs minister except Robert Andras) that Chrétien was a puppet in the hands of his bureaucrats. “None of this was new with Chrétien,” says Harold Cardinal, president of the Alberta Indian Association and one of the principal spokesmen for the Indians then. “He was a professional politician who did his work well. I don’t think he ever knew what we were talking about. But at least he made life interesting.”
Chrétien badly needed a motherhood issue in Indian Affairs, and he found it in national parks. In his six years as minister he increased the number of federal parks from 18 to 28, including, for the first time, two parks in Quebec, one just a long flip of a coin away from his home town. In the 35 years before Chrétien, Parks Canada had grown by only six parks. But that, too, is returning on Chrétien, who is still lobbying for a third park along Quebec’s Saguenay River, even though he’s long gone from the ministry. The whole notion of federal parks in Quebec offends many younger Quebeckers, who see their history as a succession of colonizations by the English, English Canadians, Americans, and now, if they can believe what they see, by French-Canadian federalists.
“Look,” he says, sniffing conflict in the air. “I believe in national parks. Beautiful places have to be put aside. Never before were there national parks in Quebec. Everyone tried. Alvin Hamilton tried, Jean Lesage tried and Arthur Laing tried. I may have stepped on a few toes, but I think there’s a lot of ‘BS’ in all this. They [the Quebec nationalists] feel it’s hurting them. If the federal government does something good, it’s bad for them. So much the better. I’m a helluva fighter. People want to benefit from all the services of their federal government. And the people of the Saguenay will not be shy to see the Canadian flag fly over the Saguenay River.”
Speaking of the flag, the people of Chrétien’s own riding can barely lift their heads without seeing the Canadian maple leaf flapping away above them. Guy Germain, a Shawinigan lawyer who ran against Chrétien for the Tories in 1968 and again for the Créditistes in 1972, says: “Chrétien has accomplished some very concrete things for this riding. He’s a very good member, I can’t deny it.” There’s La Mauricie Park. There’s going to be a new federal building that will employ at least 100 white-collar workers. There’s the four million dollars the federal government gave for the TransQuébécois superhighway that sweeps north out of Trois Rivières and through Shawinigan. In fact, hasn’t the minister been—well—especially good to his riding? Chrétien replies that he’s tried to look after his people, and says it’s part of his job. “You know, I even phoned a judge.”
One October day in 1971 Chrétien called Quebec Superior Court Justice Harry Aronovitch to ask when a judgment on a bankruptcy case he had heard at the end of September would be ready. A Montreal textile manufacturer named William Sears who had a factory in GrandMère near Shawinigan wanted to lease part of the plant not being used, which to Chrétien meant jobs for his constituency, where unemployment was as high as 20%. Sears told Chrétien he could not lease the Shawinigan factory, however, until a complicated suit involving a Spanish maker of weaving machines in Montreal was settled. The conversation, as the judge was to tell his colleagues, was “very short.” He told Chrétien the judgment would be coming out when he was good and ready. In fact, it was handed down on November 9; Sears rented part of the factory and later (you guessed it) got a DREE grant to help him out.
“It was crazy,” says Chrétien. “All those guys on the other side acting like offended virgins. When I called the judge I said, ‘I’m Jean Chrétien, member for St. Maurice.’ ” Didn’t he think the judge might have heard the name before? It is not unknown for judges who have earned the enmity of cabinet ministers to spend the rest of their days doing divorces, after all. “Well, when I became a minister,” replies Chrétien, “I was not any the less the member for St. Maurice.” As morality, the argument may seem a little tortured, but as style it both disarms and overwhelms. Chrétien gambles that the explanation will either end the matter or end him. Lome Nystrom, the NDP MP from Saskatchewan, himself in parliamentary combat with Chrétien over the salaries of senior civil servants, has been watching Chrétien with growing interest. “On this judges thing he just came out and said, ‘Look, this is what I did.’ ”
Chrétien was in trouble a few years ago over a road contract award for his riding’s national park. A feisty little weekly named Quebec-Presse found out that a Quebec City-area builder had made the lowest bid but that the contract had been given to a
NOBODY HAD TO ASK HIM IF HE’D EVER CALLED A JUDGE. HE HAD AND HE SAID SO
Shawinigan contractor whose bid was $3,000 higher. Chrétien waffled a bit but then told Montreal’s La Presse'. “In all honesty I can say I would prefer that the contract go to a fellow in my own riding.” What do you say after you say you’re not sorry?
But if it’s “yes” and “yes” again to his lucky constituents, it’s “no” for everybody else. As president of the Treasury Board, Chrétien works in tandem with Finance Minister Donald Macdonald, a man whom, according to associates, Chrétien both likes and respects. If Macdonald plans the great sweep of Canada’s eco-
nomic policies, it is Chrétien who plays the heavy, the hired gun. Ottawa must hold the line on federal spending now that it is limiting wages and prices, and it is Chrétien, in charge of spending close to $40 billion a year, who must do it.
But holding back government spending is like Canute holding back the waves. Spending is still up 16% over last year. It is still outracing the rise in the Gross National Product. It has gone up by 388% in 10 years. And, according to a 300-page supplement of the Auditor General’s most recent report, Ottawa is barely in control. The report’s main conclusion is devastating, in a quiet sort of way: the federal government’s financial control systems “are significantly below acceptable standards.” And there is only so much that can be pared. Close to two thirds of spending is untouchable, or what the Treasury Board calls “uncontrolable.” These are things like old age pension, veterans’ pension, unemployment insurance, medicare and other fixed transfer payments to the provinces. In the fiscal year 1974-75 they amounted to $ 18.5 billion of a total budget of $32 billion. The Treasury Board can cut spending only on what’s left: that is, defense spending, foreign aid or—by far the biggest “controlable” item—salaries to civil servants.
The federal civil service is the single largest work force in the country, with more than 300,000 employees (not counting the army or public corporations). It keeps getting bigger, because life gets more complicated, because there are more things for inspectors to inspect out there— because, as Chrétien puts it, “There are more Canadians sending in tax forms.” Chrétien’s power, on paper at least, is awesome. He decides how much money those people make, when they have their lunch or go home to their 300,000 husbands or wives and one million children. He decides everything from how much to pay a civil servant who uses his motorcycle on public business(half the rate forcars, or 8.75cents per mile) to the size of the fuel allowance for a bureaucrat working in the high Arctic ($1,105 if he’s married, $663 if he’s not).
Chrétien defends the civil service at every opportunity and says one of the greater myths in Canadian society is that civil servants do less for more money than other Canadian workers. “My own deputy minister—a man who has to supervise the spending of $42 billion and make sure it’s well-administered—is making less than $60,000. In business he’d be making a bundle.” But the civil service is a state within a state, with a life of its own. (As Harry T ruman once said of the civil service and his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit there and say, ‘Do this,’ and. ‘Do that,’ and nothing will happen. Poor Ike, it won’t be at all like the Army.”) And when the government’s anti-inflation directives pinch the bureaucrats, the showdown will be one to remember. Survivor meets survivor.