Since winning the Liberal leadership last June, Jean Chrétien has presided over a steady erosion in his party’s standing in opinion polls. That decline may in part be due to the fact that the former Trudeau cabinet minister, who resigned from Parliament in 1986 after representing Quebec’s St-Maurice riding for 23 years, lacks a House of Commons seat from which to attack the Conservative government. As a result, Chrétien, 56, has recently concentrated his efforts on an immediate goal: winning the Dec. 10 by election in New Brunswick’s Beauséjour riding. Last week, while campaigning in Beauséjour, he spoke to Maclean’s Halifax Bureau Chief Glen Allen about the prospects for his party— and for the country. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: Why did you not run in Quebec?
Chrétien: The mood in Quebec is not very good for anybody. That is a reality. But I have always been number 1 in Quebec—not as high as I would like, but ahead of the other parties. Some Liberals offered to resign for me and I could have won these seats in Quebec.
But I had decided a long time ago that I wanted to have a different experience. I decided a year ago that an Acadian seat was very attractive for me because I wanted to learn something new—and I’m learning every day. How these people, being far away from Central Canada, manage—and what is their mentality. I want to be prime minister of Canada. So to be representing fishermen, small businesses—these are things that I did not represent when I was in St-Maurice, which basically was an urban riding in rural Quebec. Here it’s rural, and French and English. So it’s a completely new experience, and I have to tell you that I find it fascinating.
Maclean’s: During your campaigning, have people talked about larger issues such as the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the state of the nation?
Chrétien: People are preoccupied with things like free trade. They are afraid that they don’t see the benefits. And some complain about the finances of the country—high interest rates, the deficit and the high dollar. There are also some questions about the Middle East and the possibility of war. And there is the fear that the
country is disintegrating. This is a preoccupation especially among the Acadians, who very strongly believe, as I do, that it is possible to be francophone and yet not a Quebecer. Maclean’s: Some critics have said that you are rusty—‘yesterday’s man. ’ What do you say to this?
Chrétien: The problem is that, because I served a long time, they say I am yesterday’s man. It is a very shallow argument. In eight years, I will be 64, five years younger than when Ronald Reagan became president. I’m still 10 years younger than George Bush. In
France, François Mitterrand was a cabinet minister in 1947—and he became president in 1981. I have remained close to the political scene. I was out only four years, and in those four years I lectured in politics in universities—talking on international affairs, defence, the environment, finance, Indian affairs, foreign affairs.
Maclean’s: You have served as Indian affairs minister. What are your views on this past summer’s crisis with native people? Chrétien: This is the most difficult social problem we have in Canada today and it has to have a higher priority on the agenda of govem-
ment. We’ve never had such bad publicity internationally than with what happened in the past year. And many of these things were based on mismanagement. If the Oka crisis had been taken care of at the right time in March when the Indians erected the first barricades, there would not have been that black eye for the nation. It was pure bad management.
I was discussing this today with a local band. They once had 4,000 acres that was reduced to 356 acres and has now been reduced to 156. And they have squatters on most of the 156. Can you blame them for complaining about the way they have been treated? The government is dragging its feet. Bureaucrats come every two months by the tons, sit down with them—and nothing ever occurs. Maclean’s: Would a Chrétien government alter the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement? Chrétien: The policy of our party is that we will want to renegotiate the bad elements of the deal. The negotiators say that they don’t want to reopen the deal; if they don’t want to renegotiate, we always have the option of abrogation. But it’s too early to judge, because we’ve been into free trade only for two years next month. Maclean’s: What are your feelings about the current federal and Quebec commissions of inquiry g into constitutional questions. Are 2 these of any real use?
Chrétien: Dialogue is always important, so any commission can be I useful. The fundamental problem y occurred when Prime Minister I Mulroney neglected to talk about Canada and Quebec when he made his deal with radical nationalists, some of whom even ended up in his cabinet. All that has blown up in his face. He was supposed to be the great conciliator. But he has divided the country like never before. The mood is ugly. This is one of the reasons I am back in politics.
Maclean’s: What is your view of the country now that you have returned to active politics? Chrétien: It is like coming back to your summer home in the spring and finding that a storm has passed through the place. You see the immensity of the task ahead. But one has to be hopeful. This has been too good a country to let it go without a fight. That is why I am doing what I am doing. □
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