Homecoming King

The boy from Shawinigan can finally go home

In the dining room of 24 Sussex, Jean Chrétien re-enacts his use of a soapstone loon against a knife-wielding intruder in 1995. Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon.

The two great passions of Jean Chrétien’s life—la belle province and sa belle—intersected for a brief, poignant moment at a recent amateur variety show for senior citizens in Trois-Rivières. Overcoming her innate bashfulness, Chrétien’s wife of forty-six years, Aline, had agreed to put in a surprise appearance at the popular annual event. She was to play three pieces on the piano, an instrument she took up only as an adult.

“She didn’t sleep for three days before,” Chrétien tells me a few days after his wife’s September 14 public debut. For Chrétien, of course, after forty-one years in national politics, the last ten on centre stage, being under public scrutiny is old hat. But, for his wife, who has always shunned the limelight, it was nerve-wracking. As she anxiously waited her turn backstage, a fellow performer began commiserating with her.

“He was very nervous,” Chrétien explained. “My wife was nervous too, obviously, and he was offering cognac to my wife. He was drinking cognac so he was a bit high, and he didn’t know she was my wife. So, after it was all over, he was talking with great familiarity with Aline, and his wife arrives and says, ‘Do you know who this is?’” Informed that he’d been chattering casually to the wife of the prime minister, the man turned and blurted, “Oh, Aline, I’m a separatist, but I love you anyway.”

It was a seemingly banal occurrence but one steeped in significance for a man who, for years, has been demonized by the sovereignist elites in his home province and coldly shunned by ordinary folk, even in a place like Trois-Rivières, only twenty minutes from Shawinigan, where both he and Aline grew up.

“You see the mood,” Chrétien says insistently, leaning toward me for emphasis. “It’s why the level of support at this moment in Quebec is very satisfying for me because there was a time when I was almost below zero in popularity because I was too much of a Canadian at that time. And now, it’s extremely pleasant. People are extremely nice.”

An aide tells me later that one of the numbers Madame Chrétien played that night was “Vive la Canadienne,” a traditional Quebec folk song (from an era when it was not impolitic for a proud Quebecer to also be a proud Canadian)—a fitting choice for the life-mate of a man whose trademark rallying cry is “Vive le Canada!” The crowd of 1,200 seniors clapped, sang along, and spontaneously rose to their feet in applause as she wrapped up her performance.

It’s debatable whether Chrétien himself could garner an equally heart-felt ovation from Canada’s governing-party faithful as he wraps up his thirteen-year stint at the Liberal helm. Even though his archrival Paul Martin’s ascension to the throne is now assured, Martin’s backbench supporters, impatient for their turn at the cabinet table, continue to boo and catcall, still trying to rush Chrétien off the stage well before his planned February, 2004, departure.

It’s not the triumphant exit Chrétien undoubtedly feels he deserves. But it’s evident during the course of our chat that he is drawing consolation from having finally achieved something infinitely more important to him: respect in his own province.

A central figure in all the national unity crises of the past four decades, Chrétien has often joked that there is no room left on his body for more battle scars. But, as the sixty-nine-year-old lounges on the couch in the stately living room of the prime minister’s official residence, casually dressed in navy slacks and an open-necked, blue-striped shirt, it strikes me that he has weathered decades of political combat better than most.

The lines etching his familiar, lobsided features are deeper, his eyes puffier, but somehow his rumpled face—once famously described by Dalton Camp as the visage of “the driver of the getaway car”—suits the little-guy-from-Shawinigan persona he has assiduously nurtured even while hob-nobbing with the world’s cognoscenti. The smiling faces of world leaders are scattered around the room, nestled amid an array of Inuit sculptures (not including the most famous—a soap-stone loon Chrétien once wielded as a club when an intruder broke into 24 Sussex—which now graces the dining-room table).

Photos of his family take pride of place, prominently displayed on the gleaming black surface of the grand piano, which Chrétien bought for Aline with the proceeds from a libel suit against the Globe and Mail.

On the many occasions we’ve sat down for interviews, I’ve found Chrétien blunt, feisty, combative, eager to boast about his record, and dismissive of his detractors—a scrappy street-fighter. Today, he’s much more guarded, although also relaxed and reflective. It’s as if he’s already donned the cloak of elder statesman, unwilling to say anything that might look like unseemly bragging or be construed as overt criticism of, or unsolicited advice to, his successor.

“You want me to say that I feel vindicated. I won’t say that,” he says on the subject of American involvement in Iraq. He allows that his refusal to involve Canadian troops “gave a sense to Canadians of independence when independence was needed.” But he quickly adds, “It’s not for me to pass judgment. I think that it was a very important decision for the Canadian people. A bit like the Clarity bill.”

And then he’s off, talking about the landmark legislation he introduced in late 1999 to lay down strict rules for secession, his response to the country’s near-death experience in the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. Such jarring segues to Quebec occur repeatedly throughout our interview. It’s as if the significance of all else pales when held against his battle with separatists for the hearts and minds of Quebecers. It’s the only subject on which he talks expansively, allowing himself the indulgence of boasting. “I would sweep Quebec next election if I were to have run again,” he asserts brashly. A few years ago, that statement would have been laughable. Some adherents of conventional wisdom might still giggle. Chrétien was so far down Quebec’s popularity charts that his climb out of the cellar has gone largely unnoticed. In fact, he’s been slowly clawing his way up for some time, gradually increasing his party’s Quebec seats with each election.

But it’s only recently that Quebecers have embraced their native son with any real warmth. His decisions on Iraq and other swan-song initiatives, such as legalizing same-sex marriage and ratifying the Kyoto accord on climate change, have gone down particularly well in la belle province, boosting the Liberals into an unheard-of thirty-to-forty-point lead over the dispirited Bloc Québécois in public-opinion polls.

Pollster Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based Ekos Research, tells me that Chrétien, as of mid-September,
was as trusted by Quebecers as newly elected Liberal Premier Jean Charest. He was also far ahead of any provincial politician or federal party leader. Even Chrétien seems stunned by the magnitude of the sea change. “The war decision was extremely popular in Quebec,” he tells me. “…You know, even Pierre Bourgault [founder of the separatist movement] just before he died [in June] was very complimentary. You know, it was unbelievable.” Indeed.

Separatist adversaries have more typically vilified Chrétien as a traitor, a vendu, an Uncle Tom, English Canada’s hatchet man, and even, in Lucien Bouchard’s words, “the raper of the political will of Quebec.” Such opprobrium was the price paid for Chrétien’s key role as Pierre Trudeau’s lieutenant in patriating the constitution in 1982, over the objections of Quebec’s then-separatist government, and his subsequent opposition to the doomed Meech Lake Accord, ostensibly aimed at rectifying Quebec’s constitutional isolation.

Once Chrétien had assumed the prime minister’s chair, even supposed federalist allies got into the act, labelling him an intransigent dinosaur and a liability to national unity for his steadfast refusal to re-open constitutional negotiations to entrench some form of special status for Quebec, a position overwhelmingly favoured by the rest of the country, however derided in Quebec.

By the 1995 referendum, his name was so reviled in Quebec that provincial No-campaign organizers asked him to stay in Ottawa. Chrétien dutifully kept a low profile until the final week when, facing a separatist victory, he rushed into the fray, offering desperate, last-minute concessions relating to Quebec’s distinctiveness and enhanced provincial powers. In the end, Quebecers stepped back from the brink, but only just.

When I ask him now about his worst moments, the 1995 referendum “rollercoaster” is the one thing he identifies. I remind him of other low points, like the relentless pounding he took over “Shawinigate,” for lobbying the head of a federal bank about a loan for a hotel adjacent to a golf course in which he once owned shares for which he had not yet been paid. “No violence, no sex, and I lost money. A great Canadian scandal,” he scoffs.

I suspect the referendum stands out for Chrétien, not only because he almost lost the country but because, out of the ashes of near defeat, came what he obviously considers his greatest achievement: the Clarity Act. “Sometimes,” he reflects, “you can always make of a bad situation an opportunity.” The close call convinced Chrétien the country could never again be held hostage to a process in which separatists set all the rules. Chrétien plucked political scientist Stéphane Dion from academe to spearhead his post-referendum strategy, and the pair set out to systematically deconstruct separatist orthodoxy: that a bare-majority Yes to an ambiguous question on sovereignty would entitle the province to unilaterally declare secession and, inevitably, compel a divorce settlement entirely on Quebec’s terms.

In the fall of 1996, Chrétien took the unprecedented step of asking the Supreme Court of Canada for advice on the matter and, based on that, introduced the Clarity Act. It stipulated that the federal government would negotiate secession of a province only if a clear majority voted Yes on a clear referendum question, and that the negotiations must cover all manner of issues, including territorial borders, with any settlement subject to the approval of other provinces by way of a constitutional amendment.

Separatists and federalist politicos alike howled at the heresy. The former dubbed Chrétien an anti-democratic tyrant, the latter called him reckless and, in one particularly memorable description by an anonymous Quebec mna, “fucking senile.” Both sides darkly forecast reignited separatist passions.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the next national unity crisis: Nothing. Quebecers, it turned out, were as fed up with the relentless national psychodrama as Canadians elsewhere. They resolutely refused to be outraged by the Clarity Act and, in the 2000 federal election, actually rewarded its author with thirty-six of seventy-five seats, Chrétien’s best showing in Quebec.

Affronted by Quebecers’ indifference to Chrétien’s perfidy, Premier Lucien Bouchard, the independence movement’s spell-binding champion, quit a few weeks later, paving the way for the sovereignist Parti Québécois’s eventual defeat last April.

Today, not even Charest—who once said Chrétien’s refusal to contemplate constitutional change made him unfit to govern—talks about re-opening that can of worms. Not even Paul Martin, who was among those initially reluctant to embrace the Clarity Act, talks about repeal.

As Chrétien reminisces about Clarity, I’m struck by his pride in this one act. Forget deficit elimination, debt reduction, tax cuts, the usual achievements for which he is credited. Chrétien seems to define his legacy almost entirely in terms of his role in the unity wars, the little guy who defied the elites in his own province, stared down the separatists, and imposed fairer rules of the game.

Chrétien’s emphasis on the Quebec question may not merely reflect his self-satisfaction at the conclusion of a lifelong battle. He may well be telegraphing his privately held belief (widely circulated by numerous insiders) that Martin doesn’t have the spine to stand up to separatists, that he could, in his zeal to be accommodating, let the unity genie back out of the bottle.

Chrétien’s distrust dates back to the 1990 leadership contest when the two clashed over Meech Lake. Martin backed the accord and, during a particularly ugly all-candidates debate in Montreal, his supporters taunted Chrétien with pointed shouts of “Vendu!” When the accord failed—the same day Chrétien was chosen leader in June of 1993—Martin’s supporters donned black arm bands.

My suspicion that Chrétien has not forgiven that episode grows when he recounts how most of his Quebec caucus urged him not to contemplate a move as risky as the Clarity Act unless and until another referendum was on the horizon. “You know,” he muses, “when you don’t want to debate something, you talk about the timing, you talk about process. When you don’t want to attack the problem, you talk about process, process, process. The question is, is it the right thing to do or not?”

Martin is, of course, the ultimate process junkie, promising relentless consultation on pretty much everything. Just in case Martin should waver and retreat from the Clarity Act, Chrétien issues what I interpret as a veiled warning. “When I quit, I don’t want to be a Monday-morning quarterback. I will be silent.… The only thing I can see where I will be uncomfortable to be silent is if they wanted to repeal the Clarity bill. I might comment on that because I think it’s so fundamental to the future of the nation.”

Unbidden, an image pops to mind of a steely eyed Arnold Schwarzenegger woodenly intoning, “I’ll be back.” It seems preposterous. But on reflection, it occurs to me that the Terminator comparison is not so far-fetched. Chrétien is the last of the titans from Canada’s epic unity wars to exit the national stage. He has outlived or outlasted René Lévesque, Pierre Trudeau, Jacques Parizeau, Brian Mulroney, and Lucien Bouchard. Under his watch, separatist passions hit their zenith and their nadir; as he departs, the separatist threat has, as he puts it, “disappeared from the radar in Quebec.”

New champions on both sides of Canada’s great existential debate may emerge in the future, but the contest will never again revolve around utopian scenarios of a painless divorce and idyllic independence. It will have to be conducted within the parameters of a strict new legal framework, grounded in cold, hard reality. That is Chrétien’s legacy. And if anyone tries to mess with it, he seems to be saying, he’ll be back.

Joan Bryden