Shawinigan jewelry-store worker Thérèse Joncas, 61, remembers the 1960s as a time of excitement—and personal commitment to politics. Inspired as much by local MP Jean Chrétien’s charisma as by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s leadership, Joncas became a volunteer for the Rouges—the Liberals—and followed politics actively throughout the ensuing decade. But her enthusiasm waned in 1984, when John Turner defeated Chrétien for the Liberal leadership. Now, as a winter chill settles over the city of 21,000,185 km northeast of Montreal, Joncas makes time for oil painting—but not for politics. She says that she cannot remember the last time anyone spotted Chrétien in Shawinigan. And she adds that the political situation in Quebec has evolved so much since Chrétien resigned from Parliament in 1986 that Shawinigan’s most famous son might no longer feel at home. “We have changed,” said Joncas. “Quebec has changed. More and more people, especially the young, are thinking about independence.”
For Chrétien and the centralized form of Canadian federalism that he represents, that is becoming a painful reality. Although he no longer lives in Shawinigan, his roots in the region run deep. His grandfather, François Chrétien, was a Liberal organizer and mayor of neighboring St-Etienne-des-Grès. His parents, Wellie Chrétien and Marie Boisvert, are buried overlooking the St. Maurice River, which flows through Shawinigan. And from 1963 to 1986, he represented the riding of St-Maurice, which includes Shawinigan, winning by overwhelming margins in eight federal elections. But after his June Liberal leadership victory, Chrétien turned to New Brunswick’s Beauséjour riding in his search for friendly voters to send him back to Ottawa. And although people in Shawinigan have been talking about the possibility that Chrétien may again run in his old hometown riding in the next federal election, it is clear that, among many, his star has faded. Said Joncas: “I think he would run a big risk running here—a big risk.”
Doubt: Indeed, even those who helped guide Chrétien’s early political career now harbor doubts about the new Liberal leader. Robert Beaulieu, 72, was one of the three men who met in a basement in 1963 to plan Chrétien’s first federal election campaign. Now, Beaulieu says that Chrétien has lost touch with Quebec—and with the people who once stood at his side. Noted Beaulieu: “I think if he comes back here he should meet his old organizers again and find out what is really going on.” But re-
establishing a Chrétien power base would be an uphill battle. Beaulieu, who allowed his own Liberal membership to lapse last year, says that the local riding association is in tatters. And he noted that Chrétien’s firm stand against the Meech Lake constitutional accord harmed the Liberal leader—perhaps irrevocably. Added Beaulieu: “I think he was given some bad advice on that.”
The political scene is not all that has changed in the Shawinigan area. During the early dec-
ades of the century, the region played host to many industries. But changing markets and the concentration of industry in larger urban centres have eroded the area’s economic base. With the current recession, the area’s economic problems have grown. Over the past year, more than 1,000 people have lost their jobs, and the local unemployment rate is now 13 per cent. One of the remaining industries, the B. F. Goodrich tire plant, has already made layoffs and announced more for Jan. 1. Said Serge Lemieux of the Shawinigan Chamber of Com-
merce: “We have taken a beating.”
For some Shawinigan residents, those economic hardships have only increased their resentment of their former MP. Raymond Thibodeau, 44, who had already been forced to look for work elsewhere, lost his job at Canadian Pacific Forest Products Ltd. in Trois-Rivières, 30 km south of Shawinigan, in 1988—and went to work as a cook 750 km away at the site of Quebec’s massive James Bay hydroelectric development. Said Thibodeau, who was in Shawinigan last week on Christmas leave: “I have had to exile myself to James Bay, but it pays better than working for minimum wage as a cook here.” Thibodeau does not hide his bitterness—or the fact that he blames Chrétien for his problems. He declared, “If Chrétien had been a good minister, he would have made sure we were taken care of, that the companies wouldn’t close down.”
Stabbed: Other residents made similar comments. Said lawyer Pierre André Hamel, 36: “Chrétien has made himself a nice political career, but the people in this region have suffered. It’s nothing personal, but the town’s fortunes seem to go down whenever his rise.” Hamel is the president of the local chapter of the nationalistic Société St. Jean Baptiste, which, after being moribund for 10 years, has been revived and now has 500 members. He is also the host of a local open-line radio show. Noted Hamel: “People who call me say Jean Chrétien has no clear political ideas and he has acted like a traitor. He stabbed John Turner in the back and he takes the region for granted.”
Still, some analysts say that Chrétien could still win his old riding if he chooses to run there in the next federal election. Said Alain Giguère, president of the Montreal polling firm CROP: “If he ran in Shawinigan, he would win. He is popular. He is down to earth.” Being down to earth, though, may no longer be enough. Said student René Bouchard, 19: “He’s a good guy, but no more than that. Most of the time, I can’t understand what he’s talking about.” Clearly, Chrétien will have his work cut out if he wants to go home again.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.