A Very Private Lady

Aline Chretien shuns publicity, but she has long been one of her husband's most trusted advisers

E. KAYE FULTON April 18 1994

A Very Private Lady

Aline Chretien shuns publicity, but she has long been one of her husband's most trusted advisers

E. KAYE FULTON April 18 1994

At midnight, Aline Chrétien steals down the sweeping staircase at 24 Sussex Drive to the darkened living-room where, alone with her mahogany baby grand piano, she plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. In these private moments, she is the great pianist she had dreamed of becoming as a shy young girl in Shawinigan, Que. Back then, in the 1940s, the nuns at Ecole Sacré Coeur offered free music lessons to their top student, Aline Chaine, in exchange for her help correcting homework after school. She had to refuse: the struggling Chaine family of eight could not afford a piano. That, and so much else, has changed in the 36 years since she married Jean Chrétien. After seven years of private music lessons, she practises scales with her 10-year-old grandson, Maxim, and plays traditional Québécois songs at boisterous family reunions. And now, on rare nights like these, she finds a private refuge. “It’s a dream, to play the piano,” she says. “When I’m with people, I play things they know. The beautiful things, I play for release.”

If she had her way, Aline Chrétien would be the most private personality to occupy the high-profile role of prime ministerial partner. Unwilling to step into the political spotlight, she has deliberately limited her domain by closing the Parliament Hill office that her predecessor, Mila Mulroney, opened at taxpayers’ expense. Content with her solitary pursuits, she has drastically curtailed solo public appearances, delayed decisions on any involvements with charities and once more focused her energies on her family. For the first year, at least, she plans to grant no more than two media interviews—one in French, the other in English (to Maclean’s). Most friends know only snapshots of the former secretary’s life; even fewer know details of her first 16 years, before her whimsical encounter with a future prime minister on a Shawinigan bus. “If I hadn’t married Jean, no one would have seen me, ever,” she says. “I like people, but I don’t like to be out in front.”

A kaleidoscope of personalities has occupied the role of prime minister’s wife. As the 16th, Aline is neither as powerful as Zoë Laurier, the legendary dispenser of charitable patronage, nor as fiercely self-sufficient as Maureen McTeer, a lawyer and author. At 58, Aline says she has no ambition to forge a separate public identity. She certainly has no wish to exert the authority of her American counterpart, Hillary Clinton. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” she says. “I am not elected, for one thing.”

In her 1991 best-selling study of prime ministers’ wives, More Than A Rose, author Heather Robertson argued that the increasing success of women in active politics has diminished the PM’s wife to “a rather pathetic vestige of another era.” If Aline resembles any of her predecessors, says Robertson, it is John Diefenbaker’s wife, Olive, who fashioned her marriage around making her husband a better prime minister. “Aline is like Olive, a strong, self-controlled, supportive wife who is a powerhouse behind the scenes,” she says.

Certainly, Aline Chrétien is too quietly influential to be regarded as an outdated model of a docile political spouse—and too self-assured to care if anyone thinks differently. As incisive as she is unobtrusive, she has been a trusted and often critical adviser during her husband’s 26-year climb through the cabinets of three Liberal governments to Parliament’s pinnacle, the Prime Minister’s Office. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true,” says Jean Chrétien. “Without my wife, I wouldn’t be here.” Over the years, the couple has forged a steadfast alliance that has withstood the public weathering of political disappointments and personal pain. Says Aline: “It’s like we’ve been raised together. He knows I am his best friend. And when I say, ‘Jean, you should change this,’ he listens.” Adds longtime Shawinigan friend Berthe Crête: “Jean and Aline are like two fingers on the same hand.”

In fact, the Prime Minister makes few major decisions without his wife. Aline was one of only three friends who the then-rookie MP heeded in 1964 when 17 other close advisers urged him to quit the federal caucus and run for the Quebec Liberals under then-Premier Jean Lésage. When Quebec’s refusal to lower its provincial sales tax in 1978 threw Chretien’s first budget as finance minister into jeopardy, Aline testily told St-Maurice riding supporters: “He will never give in. I won’t let him.” It was Aline who prompted Chrétien to run against John Turner in the 1984 leadership race; it was she who then convinced him to quit politics after Turner’s victory. “Don’t listen to anybody,” she told him. “You owe nothing more.” Finally, it took Aline’s consent, and her shrewd assessment of his chances, before Chrétien launched his 1990 bid to lead the Liberals. “This is our last contract,” she says. “We are going to do it well.”

Behind the polished facade of a successful political team is a studied determination rarely revealed in public. On official visits during Chrétien’s long political career, Aline often retreated to hotel rooms with a book to wait for his return. Monitoring his speeches on television, she would raise an eyebrow later in private and wryly complain: “Jean, you talk too loud.” During the first rocky year of Chrétien’s leadership, nervous handlers persuaded the homespun veteran to use TelePrompTers and scripted speeches, constraints that only magnified his natural awkwardness. She bided her time and then quietly, but bluntly, told him to drop the artifice. Says Aline: “I told everybody, ‘When he can express himself, he will pass along the right message.’ I knew, because Jean is a great communicator.”

Last October’s election campaign solidified Aline’s place in the Liberal echelon—and lured her even further into the public arena. Day after day, perfectly coiffed and elegantly attired, Aline added an element of simple sophistication, even serenity, to an often dreary stream of jostling bus rides and crowded rallies in malls across Canada. Advisers knew that Chrétien valued her opinion, and sought it regularly. “She had an enormous amount of influence on him but never made a big deal out of it,” says Ottawa consultant Michael Robinson, a senior Liberal election strategist. “Her instincts are every bit as solid as Chrétien’s, or anybody else’s in politics.” She spoke only once, briefly in Italian, which she learned from a private tutor in the mid-1980s, at a Liberal rally in Hamilton. More important, say party strategists, her poised presence on any podium softened the Liberal leader’s rough edges and sent a potent unspoken message: this was obviously a devoted, and politically experienced, couple.

Still, no amount of political acumen could adequately prepare for life at 24 Sussex. Both Chrétiens chafe at the constant hover of police protection, the stringent security and the startling loss of independence. While Chrétien was in cabinet during the 1970s, the RCMP insisted that a safe be installed in the family’s Ottawa basement to protect sensitive government documents. Since her husband rarely brought work home, Aline turned the unsightly fixture into a childproof hiding place for soft drinks. Even during their three years at Stornoway, the official Opposition leader’s home in Rockcliffe Park, Aline was free to go where she wanted, when she wanted. Last spring, she spent a week in Italy and wandered with a notebook, by herself, around the Uffizi gallery in Florence and the Vatican in Rome. Now, unrecognized as she is in her beret and sunglasses on her regular early morning walks to the Ottawa market, Aline is followed by an RCMP escort. “They are nice and they have a job to do,” she says. But she adds ruefully: “I can never travel by myself. I’m going to start driving again soon, or I’ll explode.”

Not that she would willingly give up this particularly pleasant chapter of her life. Aline’s friends marvel at her organizational talents and, for the first five months at least, decorating the handsome grey stone mansion on the southern bank of the Ottawa River posed a challenge. To suit the parsimonious mood of the country, she ordered up a sofa and some chairs from the basement and rummaged through embassy storage houses for furniture to add to the basics left behind by the Mulroneys. To give it a Liberal note, she returned Lester Pearson’s desk and chair—sent home from Washington by Chrétien’s nephew, Canadian ambassador Raymond Chrétien—to the downstairs office. To make it theirs, she decorated the walls with an impressive array from the Chrétiens’ personal art collection—among them, an Alex Colville for Chrétien’s office, an Henri Masson landscape in the living-room and her favorite, a dancer by Quebec artist Claude Le Sauteur that Chrétien gave her on their 32nd anniversary in 1989, by the piano.

In between official visits with her husband, she sorted out her duties and organized her staff. The cook came with the Chrétiens from Stornoway; the house manager, who doubles as Aline’s secretary, followed shortly after the Chrétiens’ first government business trip to Seattle a week after the move. By the time she returned from accompanying the Prime Minister to the NATO summit in Brussels in mid-January, she had held a reception for Canadian Nobel Peace Prize winners and hosted several parties for Liberal workers and MPs. By the Chrétiens’ third foreign visit, to Mexico in late March, Aline had thrown a Women’s Day dinner for the Liberals’ 36 female MPs and four female senators.

Lacking from this list is what matters to her most: her family. Obsessed with their privacy, the Chrétiens have made a pact with their three grown children: as little of their personal lives as possible is exposed to public scrutiny, almost none is used to political advantage. In Chrétien’s best-selling 1985 memoir, Straight from the Heart—which Aline edited with a determined pen—only glancing reference is made to their daughter, France, 35, who in 1981 married her childhood sweetheart, André Desmarais, the son of Montreal industrialist Paul Desmarais. The second oldest, Hubert, 28, a bachelor who operates a Honda dealership in Hull, and their adopted son, 25-year-old Michel, are not mentioned at all. Chrétien rarely refers to his family in speeches; although present at most grand occasions, such as their father’s official swearing-in at Rideau Hall last November, they avoid the media.

There are exceptions to that rule. For their official Christmas card last year, the Chrétiens posed on the porch of their cottage on Lac des Piles just outside Shawinigan with their four grandchildren, Olivier, Maximilien, Philippe and Jacqueline-Ariadne, the offspring of France and André Desmarais, an executive with his father’s company, Power Corp. The top of Aline’s piano in the living-room is covered with family photographs, one of the few displays of private moments in the residence. Once comfortable, she sprinkles her conversation with proud family references. Maxim plans to take his Grade 5 piano exams with his grandmother at the end of May—in fact, he scored higher marks than she in their Grade 4s, with an 89 to her 87. While the Chrétiens often take care of their grandchildren for the weekend, Aline makes frequent visits to the Desmarais home in Montreal for sleep-overs with them. “Everyone has their turn,” she says.

Even in their bleakest moments, the Chrétiens guard their own. Their son, Michel, a Gwich’in Indian whom the couple adopted as a toddler in 1972 when Chrétien was minister of Indian and northern affairs, was convicted of sexual assault in 1992 in Montreal and was sentenced to three years in prison. The couple were haunted by their son’s problems. When Michel was in his teens, they came home one night to discover that he had locked himself in the basement. Recalls a close family friend: “He had been drinking beer for 20 hours, staring at the black hole in the darkness.” Typically, Aline accentuates the positive aspects of her son’s experiences. Because of the publicity, Michel found his birth mother, and now lives with her in Yellowknife while awaiting his appeal. He is a talented artist and one of his paintings, a figure of a native dancing out of the dark, hangs by the entrance to the upstairs family room. When Michel returns to Ottawa for occasional visits, Aline cancels her appointments. “I’m just for him at that time, so I have to be free,” she says.

Among the sprawling brood that spans four generations of Chrétiens and Chaînes, Aline is regarded as the centripetal force. “She is the family’s guardian angel, the unifying element,” says her Shawinigan childhood friend Rejean Sanschagrin. Her father, Albert, died last March at 86; a younger sister died in 1984 of cancer. At Christmas, 20 of the Chaînes, including her 82-year-old mother, Yvonne, her brothers, Robert and André, and her sisters, Edith and Pauline, joined the family for Christmas at 24 Sussex. On New Year’s Eve, she baked tortière and swam in the Prime Minister’s swimming pool with 20 of the Chrétiens. It is Aline who orchestrates their get-togethers—but it is also she who ensures that nothing interferes with her husband’s schedule. “I took a lot on myself, with the kids and the family, for him,” she says. “Now the kids aren’t here, I want to be there when he arrives at night, to talk about his day, to do things together.” That was the role she chose, long before the Chrétiens arrived at 24 Sussex.

As she remembers it, the moment that she met Jean Chrétien at the end of that summer in Shawinigan she knew that he was a young man with a good future. He was 18 years old, the six-foot, two-inch, 18th child of Marie and Wellie Chrétien. Everyone in the blue-collar pulp-and-paper town knew the Chrétiens, among them Aline Chaine and her family, who lived only two blocks from the Chrétiens’ large brick house by the St-Maurice River. Nine of the 19 Chrétien children had survived infancy, and those nine—even the rambunctious Jean, who was sent to a boarding school in Trois-Rivières for extra discipline—were the pride of the community. Most people in town, including Wellie, worked at Consolidated-Bathurst or at Alcan, like her own father, who was a laborer there. But the Chrétien kids were different. The older siblings were university-educated professionals, two of them doctors, in large measure the products of the single-minded ambitions of their hardworking parents. Says Aline: “They were very big shots in Shawinigan.”

The Chaine family—or any other, for that matter—paled by comparison to the vibrant Chrétien clan. Aline, the eldest of Yvonne and Albert’s six children, wanted to study languages at university and travel in France. Instead, at 16, she took a secretarial course at the Shawinigan Business College and found a job with a branch of an American-based chemical company to help out at home. The farthest she travelled was to Ottawa at age 11, as the parish delegate to a weekend conference sponsored by a Roman Catholic movement, La Croisse d’Eucharistique. Summers, she helped out on the small farm owned by her mother’s parents, the Bellemares, in St-Boniface, near Shawinigan. As for France, her parish priest set her up with a pen pal in Rouen, who she later discovered had kept all her letters. “The first time I went to France, I visited her. It’s like she knew me very well,” says Aline. “I brought my kids and she had her kids. She’s not a sister, but you know when you are a teenager, you write a lot of things.”

Those letters contain the tale of a blossoming romance—and the lengths the couple was prepared to go to nurture it. “We met in the bus first. I’ve always been very little but I grew up that summer,” says Aline, laughing at the memory of Chrétien’s look of shocked appreciation. “He said, ‘Are you la petite Chaine?’ I said yes, and he invited me to join his friends at a dance he had organized. I was just 16, so my mother said ‘You’re not going to a dance unless I know the person you are going with.’ ” Aline phoned and told him that she could go, but only as his date. To her disappointment, Jean had already made other plans. But he asked her to go to the movies with him instead. A week later, when he left for boarding school in Trois-Rivières, they promised to write to each other. He hitchhiked home once a month. And occasionally, Aline’s work with the Catholic movement took her to meetings in Trois-Rivières, where they would link fingers through the seminary fence during Chrétien’s class breaks.

At work, Aline relished her job as a secretary and a payroll manager at the Shawinigan plant, particularly the opportunities to practise English with the English-speaking management. She noticed that her Montreal cousins, like many other bilingual Quebecers, had latched onto higher-paying jobs. “I knew I wouldn’t live in Shawinigan all my life,” she reasons, “so I wanted to know more.” She took on baby-sitting jobs to earn money for the family, and modelled for local stores at weekend fashion shows. More and more, however, her thoughts drifted back to the young renegade who spoke of becoming a lawyer and a politician. “We really talked a lot. I could see he was ambitious,” recalls Aline. “What struck me was that he wanted to help people, that he was not a selfish person. And I thought, That’s it.’ ”

Much of their courtship was spent watching movies, an enduring thread in the Chrétiens’ relationship. In those early years, they would sneak away to afternoon matinees. Later, when Chrétien was a rookie MP in Ottawa, the couple indulged themselves in American musicals during marathon movie nights. On the Wednesdays that Parliament did not sit, Aline, then the young mother of two, made the 2-1/2-hour drive from Shawinigan to meet her husband, who caught the train from Ottawa, in Montreal. They would spend the night together, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, in triple bills that lasted until 1:30 a.m. In Paris, while others saw the sights, they saw A Man and A Woman and feasted on French movies. Since moving to 24 Sussex, they have escaped to the theatre only once, to see Schindler’s List. Because of security hassles, the Chrétiens now watch videos. “I love Audrey Hepburn,” says Aline.“I have My Fair Lady and when Jean’s not here, I always look at it again.”

Their shared and unabashed sentimentality is rooted in their simple past. They married on Sept. 10, 1957, a Monday, and honeymooned for a mere three days at a motel at the popular resort of Lake George, N.Y., 240 km south of Montreal. Strapped for cash, they fashioned both events around Chrétien’s weekend overtime shift at the Shawinigan paper mill and his first week of classes at Laval University law school in Quebec City. On their 25th anniversary, Chrétien took Aline back to Lake George, where they retraced their long honeymoon walks and the boat rides across the lake. When Chrétien turned 50 in 1984, Aline threw a surprise party in Ottawa, asking her guests to wear costumes from the 1930s. She wore her wedding gown; in celebration, she gave Chrétien a Laval crest made to match the one that he had worn on his blazer when they married. The party, which began at 5 p.m. and ended 12 hours later, featured the reclusive Pierre Trudeau on piano, leading a sing-along of traditional French-Canadian songs.

The Chrétiens have long been magnets for high-spirited gatherings. In the late 1950s, the newlyweds’ Quebec City basement apartment on Rue Geneviève, in the shadow of the Château Frontenac hotel, was the scene of late-night card games between Chrétien and his classmates. Despite the struggle to make ends meet, Aline is particularly nostalgic for those two years, when she was pregnant with her daughter, France, and happily overworked with secretarial assignments from a Quebec City insurance firm. “We had a good life there. In fact, I was crying when we left Quebec City,” she says. “Jean said, ‘Don’t be worried. I’ll be in politics and I’ll come back as a judge later on.’ ” They could turn anything into an adventure. Escaping Ottawa in 1982 after securing a deal to patriate the Constitution, Chrétien, then justice minister, and his wife were stranded at midnight in a broken-down rental car outside Miami. With only one credit card and no American cash, the pair hitchhiked to Boca Raton.

But always, they are pulled back to Shawinigan. In 1990, Chrétien was forced to re-enter the Commons through the safe Liberal riding of Beauséjour in New Brunswick. Even his staunchest aides questioned whether he could win back his old riding of St-Maurice last October against the tide of Bloc Québécois support. Not once during the campaign did Aline publicly waver in her conviction that he could. “Everything will fall in place,” she told him.

Aline knew this place, much better than her husband. She had stayed behind in Shawinigan with the children until Chrétien convinced her, when she was 30, that his political career in Ottawa was secure. After two miscarriages, both at seven months, she stayed in bed resting during much of her pregnancy with Hubert. When the federal government debated a cut in family allowances in 1973, she called Chrétien in Ottawa in a fury. “I said ‘Jean, if you touch that, you’ll be in trouble. This is the only money some women in Shawinigan have got for themselves,’ ” she says. “You can have, as I did, a Madame Tout le Monde (Mrs. Everybody) point of view when you are at home, listening to the radio with your kids.”

Much has changed since then. In 1989, she sat at the back of a Japanese flower-arranging class at a downtown Ottawa community for six months before her instructor, Mitsugi Kikuchi, learned her last name. Says Kikuchi: “Somebody asked me if I had a politician’s wife in my class and I said that I had nobody like that.” Now, Kikuchi brings red roses and wild cherry branches, forced into bloom, to private lessons at 24 Sussex. At one time, Aline could dash into her favorite Shawinigan butcher shop, La Boucherie Lord, without a fuss to pick up the frozen bulk orders she takes back to Ottawa in coolers. “She hasn’t changed since her husband has become Prime Minister,” says owner Michel Lafrenière. “Only now, other customers are impressed by her presence. They talk about her in an awed way. They say, ‘Ah, that was Madame Chrétien, the PM’s wife.’ ”

In Quebec City, with the ice just breaking along the edges of the St. Lawrence River, Aline Chrétien was suddenly reminded of their past. It was early March and they were staying at the Château Frontenac, overlooking their old neighborhood of Rue Geneviève. In 1973, worried about his health and the future of his family, Chrétien asked then-Prime Minister Trudeau to fulfil a promise he had made long ago by appointing him to the Quebec bench. “If I was good enough to be a minister,” he told Trudeau, “I should be good enough to be a judge somewhere.” By the time the election was called in 1974, Chrétien’s health had returned and he changed his mind. Last month, his wife forgave him. “I was looking at my former place, and I was happy,” says Aline. “I said, Well, he’s not a judge, but he made it.’ ”