Chrétien on The Eve of the 1997 Election | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chrétien on The Eve of the 1997 Election

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 5, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

Memories are made of such things - if any of those patrons could later find anyone who believed them. Other than that, there are several prospective lessons to be drawn from the latest escapade of Jean Chrétien, full-time prime minister and sometime prankster.
Chrétien, Jean 1997
Jean Chrétien on the eve of the 1997, which he and his Liberal Party defended their majority (courtesy Maclean's).

Chrétien on The Eve of the 1997 Election

 For those who have ever wondered what a prime minister does for fun, here is an example. In early April, Jean Chrétien was in British Columbia for several events that included a lunchtime meeting with Liberal candidates in a McDonald's restaurant in Surrey. After lunch (Big Mac, large fries with no ketchup and cola for the Prime Minister), Chrétien decided to visit the restaurant staff behind the counter. He shook hands with several cooks and servers, then spotted a woman working at the drive-through window. "Would you mind?" he asked, stepping past her with a smile. The next three customers pulling up to the window were given, along with their orders, a smile, a proffered handshake and the announcement: "Hi, I'm Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister." The predictable result, one Chrétien aide recalls, was "utter astonishment. One woman looked as though she didn't know whether to giggle or faint."

Memories are made of such things - if any of those patrons could later find anyone who believed them. Other than that, there are several prospective lessons to be drawn from the latest escapade of Jean Chrétien, full-time prime minister and sometime prankster. One, for political friends and allies, is that as he approaches a June 2 election, the 63-year-old Chrétien has lost none of his zest for both his life and his job. "He just loves doing the unexpected," says Eddie Goldenberg, his senior adviser and alter ego of more than 25 years' standing. The other potential outcome, for Chrétien's optimistic opponents, is that he will soon need such practice for a new career if his decision to go to the polls only 43 months into his present mandate proves to be a bad one. "The Canadian people," says Reform Leader Preston Manning, "are just waiting for the opportunity to hold this government and this prime minister accountable."

If that is the case, they will soon have their wish - and no one will have more at stake than Chrétien, whose place in history will be determined, at least in part, by the result. But the man who would lead Canada into a new millennium remains, to many people, no more familiar than he was when he took power in 1993. Is the real Jean Chrétien the glad-handing flag-waver that Canadians have come to know and - outside Quebec at least - often love during the past three decades? Can a man who was first elected 37 years before the end of the century have the vision and gumption to lead the country into another one? And after all this time in public office, in a period when politicians are reviled more than revered, why would he even want to?

As the Liberals begin the campaign, Chrétien is, in the words of Finance Minister Paul Martin, "far and away the party's biggest, most important asset." But some skeptics, even within the party, would argue that the title now belongs to Martin himself. Chrétien, after three years of revelling in the highest popularity ratings of any prime minister in the last half-century, has during the past six months often appeared to have lost his fabled political antennae, stumbling from malapropism to misstep to outright muck-up. From his handling of the Goods and Services Tax, and tussles with Quebec, to a series of recent, and lavish, pre-election promises that tarnished the party's carefully established image of frugality, the Prime Minister's recent behavior has raised the question: is he up to it? "There is," says a senior Ontario Liberal organizer, "a very real fear that our support could melt very quickly."

That feeling is most acute in Ontario, where Liberal fears of Conservative Leader Jean Charest - seen as a younger, more charismatic, similarly middle-of-the-road and equally devout federalist version of the Prime Minister - run the highest. In Toronto, despite the divided state of the present opposition, some Liberals now mutter dark predictions about a minority government, and claim that many voters perceive Chrétien as being out-of-touch and out of ideas. Among the concerns cited: the near-loss in the 1995 Quebec referendum, the government's seeming inability to decide on a strategy for national unity, Chrétien's increasing isolation in office, and his unwillingness to articulate a specific vision of where he wants to take the country.

Perhaps more than anything else, the latter point could be the party's Achilles heel. The last budget, says Martin, "marked the turning of a corner," from a preoccupation with deficit reduction to new priorities. But so far, Chrétien has not made clear what those priorities will be. They could range from tax cuts and continuing reduction in government spending to the creation of new programs such as day care or enhanced funds for health care. But at this point, concedes one Liberal adviser, "no one knows because we haven't told people properly. And perhaps we haven't told people because we don't really know."

Then there is Quebec. In this century, no prime minister from that province, before Chrétien, has failed to win a majority of seats on his home turf. This time, it is virtually certain that the Bloc Québécois, under new leader Gilles Duceppe, will repeat its success of 1993 and again win most of Quebec's 75 ridings. Chrétien faces a stiff re-election fight in St-Maurice from his bitter rival Yves Duhaime, a onetime acolyte who later became a Parti Québécois minister. If Chrétien loses, and even if the Liberals win the election, there will be enormous pressure from both inside and outside the party for him to step down before another Quebec referendum. And if he wins, the question remains: can he handle the issue when it again arises - as it inevitably will?

Despite such concerns, the Liberals' ad campaign and overall strategy will revolve almost entirely around the Prime Minister. In doing so, they are again placing their destiny in the hands of a leader who, as described by close associates, is a bundle of contradictions. Jean Chrétien is portrayed as alternately complex, straightforward, playful, withdrawn, ruthless, forgiving, just-plain-folks, a culture maven, cautious, daring, progressive, firmly anchored in the past, a whiz at deciphering complex policy, easily bored and impatient with many issues, open to new ideas and arguments, and mulish in his stubbornness.

But there are several Chrétien qualities on which everyone agrees. "Jean," says Mitchell Sharp, his $1-a-year personal adviser and 85-year-old mentor, "always knows exactly what he wants and can cut through any amount of double-talk to get to it." And, notes Penny Collenette, an old friend who is director of appointments in the Prime Minister's Office, "He is usually at his most comfortable when he is being underestimated." She adds: "Lots of people say they want to be like that, but not many really like others thinking they are less able than they are. In his case, he is so comfortable with himself that he accepts it, and uses it to his advantage."

The criticisms are, by now, familiar: he is said to be bored by detail, impatient to the point of being impetuous, out of touch with the national unity question, uninterested in anything more ambitious than cleaning his desk of paper by the end of every day. In fact, Chrétien's career in politics has been marked by a string of successfully overcome odds. He arrived in Ottawa as a unilingual francophone in 1963 and, within four years, had become the youngest person ever appointed to cabinet. In 1980, he served as Pierre Trudeau's lieutenant in the Quebec referendum battle, and was widely credited with reversing an early sovereigntist lead and co-ordinating the strategy that led to a 60-per-cent to 40-per-cent No victory.

In 1984, he made an unexpectedly close contest of what was supposed to be a runaway victory for John Turner during the Liberal leadership race. "That," says Goldenberg, "was when he showed the doubters he had real leadership qualities." And in 1993, Chrétien was widely derided as "yesterday's man" - before proving to be his party's strong asset in government.

As to the apparent contradictions in Chrétien's character, there is ample evidence to support the existence of all of those qualities. On a surface level, Chrétien spent much of his political career cultivating the bumpkin image of the "little guy from Shawinigan." In keeping with that role, he is a self-proclaimed pool shark, and takes pride in showing off the fact that he is in better physical shape than many contemporaries two decades younger. At the prime minister's retreat at Harrington Lake, one of the few places where he can find some measure of privacy, Chrétien delights in eluding the RCMP officers on security detail by racing at high speeds in his jet boat, the Red October. A mark of his lack of sophistication in another area is his ineptitude with almost any form of new technology, from videocassette recorders to computers. "The phone," says one friend drily, "is a real problem for him: all those buttons to deal with."

On another level, Chrétien has a healthy dislike of pomp and circumstance that many voters clearly identify with. "He is a person," says Eddie Goldenberg, "who is a lot more interested in the qualities of other people than in their social status." Stories of Chrétien's impatience and disdain for protocol are legion. In November, 1994, during a Team Canada trade mission to Asia, the Prime Minister decided to talk to New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna about his plan to name New Brunswick native Roméo LeBlanc as the new Governor General. "He hauled me out of a reception and took me up to his suite," McKenna recalls, "saying he had to talk to me at once. When we got there, Mrs. Chrétien was in the living-room, sewing. So as not to bother her we went into the bedroom and sat down on the bed, where he laid the news on me."

Chrétien's difficulty with names is legendary, and he often resorts to word association games in order to identify people and places. When in Toronto, he and David Smith, the co-chairman of the Liberals' campaign team, often dined at an expensive French restaurant that closed last year. Chrétien could never remember the name, but always directed Smith to book a table at "the kidney place" (it was one of the few restaurants that featured his favorite meal, lamb kidneys, on the regular menu). He calls Fredericton MP Andy Scott "the disability guy" - because of the extensive work Scott has done in that area. In caucus meetings, he occasionally refers to longtime Newfoundland MP George Baker as boulanger - French for baker.

But there is nothing wrong with Chrétien's memory when his own livelihood is at stake. In the summer of 1993, he took his press secretary, Patrick Parisot, out for a boat ride on Lac des Piles, the Shawinigan-area lake where he owns his cottage. For more than an hour, Chrétien pointed at each of the dozens of cottages along the shore, identifying the owners by name, describing a bit of their family situation, and recounting exactly how each adult was known to vote federally and provincially.

In public, Chrétien seldom shows his anger - but most of those who have seen flashes of it say that is more than enough. "He is always very courteous in caucus," says Windsor MP Shaughnessy Cohen, "but it is always very clear to all of us that it would be a really terrible idea if we displeased him." It is not, associates say, so much what Chrétien says as the way he says it, biting off each syllable while a wintery chill emanates from his blue eyes.

Once, Peter Donolo, the Prime Minister's communications director, was summoned to see Chrétien after making a mistake that caused the leader some embarrassment in public. Donolo told the Prime Minister that he accepted "full responsibility," expecting the apology to close the matter. "Congratulations," hissed a sarcastic Chrétien, adding that such a gesture was of no use in getting him out of the mess. But for the most part, Chrétien's anger passes quickly. During a cabinet meeting, he launched into a blistering denunciation of one minister and, while in full rhetorical flight, got up from the table, poured a coffee and delivered it to the still-squirming minister.

Chrétien says that he has many acquaintances but few friends - and is quite blunt about his opinion that politics and friendship do not usually mix. Once, during a visit to Washington in 1993 while he was still opposition leader, Chrétien began discussing his views while having a coffee with Donolo, aide Jean Carle and a reporter. "You see these two guys here," Chrétien said, pointing at Carle and Donolo. "If you asked them, they would probably tell you they are my friends. But they are not. In politics, there is no room for friendship." His point was that a leader must sometimes make tough decisions that should not be affected by personal feelings, and the two were visibly taken aback. But Chrétien has often proven flexible about that rule - when it suits him. He appointed his close friend, LeBlanc, as Governor General; his longtime friend Robert Nixon, the former head of the Ontario provincial Liberal party, as head of the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Crown corporation; and his nephew, Raymond Chrétien, a career diplomat, as ambassador to Washington.

Like many politicians, Chrétien has a long and unforgiving memory when it comes to slights. Although there is no shortage of holdovers in government today from Chrétien's 1984 leadership campaign, few supporters of John Turner remain. Similarly, although Chrétien has treated Paul Martin with respect and decency after their often-bitter 1990 leadership race, Martin's supporters from that campaign have been all but shut out of key government positions and appointments.

Many of Chrétien's closest advisers are people he has known for at least a quarter of a century. They include Goldenberg, Sharp - for whom Chrétien served as parliamentary secretary in 1967 - chief of staff Jean Pelletier, who attended high school with Chrétien, and the man usually acknowledged as his most important adviser after his wife, Aline: Montreal businessman John Rae. Others include Donolo, Collenette, Carle and policy adviser Chaviva Hosek.

That relatively small circle inspires powerful emotions among other Liberals that range from respect and reverence, to far ruder responses from some backbenchers. On one level, Chrétien goes to great pains to be accessible. Within the PMO, there is a rule that any backbencher asking to see Chrétien should be given a meeting within 48 hours - even if it means cancelling other appointments. At caucus meetings, cabinet ministers are instructed to speak as little as possible, and listen to the views of other MPs. Chrétien also keeps attendance lists of ministers at those meetings - and woe betide any minister absent without an explanation.

As well, with several exceptions, Chrétien has been very tolerant of MPs whose views clash with his own. One of those is Roger Galloway, a gruff Ontario MP from the Sarnia area whose private member's bill banning "negative-option" cable billing ran contrary to the wishes of cabinet - and was only blocked from becoming law at the last minute. That was only one of several occasions when Galloway has bluntly denounced his party's official position. But each time, he says, "The Prime Minister has gone out of his way after meetings to tell everyone that he understands my position and has lots of sympathy for it." And Cohen, another outspoken Ontario MP, praises what she calls "the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for straight talk at all times from all sides."

But in spite of Chrétien's devotion to caucus meetings - which he regularly describes as "the most important part of my week" - his major decisions usually are based on the advice of his inner circle. In a high-stress environment that usually leads to an equally high rate of turnover, the key people within Chrétien's PMO have remained in place for unusually long periods of time. They share several qualities: they are almost all from Central Canada; almost all are fluently bilingual and, with the exception of Hosek and Collenette, all are male. All have more frequent access to the leader than most members of the caucus - and cabinet - and the advantage of being able to speak with Chrétien regularly in small, informal gatherings. As a result, says one adviser, "we can get things done quickly and easily. But we also live in a double bubble: we work tremendously long hours alongside the same people all the time, and our regular friends away from politics lose touch with us."

That can be both a boon and a bane - and Liberals, as well as many others, think the downside of that equation has become more evident in the past six months. "You've got a real bunker mentality in that office," says one Ontario Liberal MP from a rural riding. "If they didn't think of an idea, it doesn't exist. And if they did think of it, there can't possibly be anything wrong with it." Many Liberals concede that two issues have been particularly damaging for the party: the question of Quebec's constitutional future, and Chrétien's mishandling of the GST. On both, many Liberal backbenchers say their views were either ignored - or, even worse, suppressed.

On the issue of Quebec, there is ample evidence to support that belief. Prior to the October, 1995, referendum, Chrétien repeatedly told the caucus that the No side would easily win. But a prerequisite for that victory, he often said, was for MPs from outside Quebec to stay quiet on the issue, and leave the driving of the campaign to him. In the wake of the near-loss, many MPs, faced with a barrage of complaints from constituents, complained that they and other Canadians had been shut out - and the country nearly splintered as a result. But Chrétien, rather than acknowledge any errors, has suggested that it was only because of his efforts in the last week of the campaign that the No side averted defeat.

Chrétien's mishandling of his onetime promise to make the GST "disappear" marked a similar example of his unwillingness to admit error. As opposition leader, he was always wary of efforts by some party members to commit to abolishing the GST before a suitable alternative was found. Nonetheless, he was finally persuaded to make that promise after strong pressure from more left-wing members of the caucus. When the time finally came in early 1996 to acknowledge that the GST would not be abolished, Chrétien advisers say, he could not accept the idea that he was being asked to apologize for a promise that he had never wanted to make in the first place.

The result was an embarrassing series of public appearances in which he used tortuous logic to justify his belief that he had not broken a promise - and which culminated in a CBC town hall appearance last December in which he appeared alternately defensive and abusive towards questioners. Even his most loyal advisers cringe at the memory of the incident; one calls it "the closest thing we've had to an unmitigated disaster."

Others fear that its impact still lingers. And in spite of the Prime Minister's continued high popularity ratings, there are two examples of electoral disaster that have eerie parallels for Chrétien: one involving former U.S. president George Bush, the other the case of a Liberal prime minister from Quebec, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, 86 years ago. In Bush's case, he enjoyed some of the highest popularity ratings in polls in American history less than a year before the election - but went down to humiliating defeat. One reason, all too familiar to Chrétien, was Bush's inability to articulate a vision of where he wanted to take the country during a second term. Ultimately, many Americans came to regard him as a decent man but a flawed politician, one whose best days were behind him.

In Laurier's case, the potential parallels are even more disturbing. The June 2 election, only 43 months into the Liberals' mandate, will mark the earliest that a majority government in Canada has gone to the polls since Laurier did so in 1911. After less than three years in power, Laurier's government, torn by controversies over free trade with the United States and the Naval Services Act that severely damaged Liberal popularity in Quebec, was resoundingly defeated. In an opening speech in that campaign, Laurier said: "I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French and in Ontario as a traitor to the English.... [But] I am a Canadian. Canada has been the inspiration of my life." Parts of the same speech could easily have been given by Chrétien, who regards Laurier as his greatest political hero and inspiration. Despite the high regard historians now accord Laurier, when he died he was widely considered a failure. And that is one similarity that Jean Chrétien, heading into what is likely his final political campaign, cannot bear to even contemplate.

Postwar Polls

When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien issued the call for a June 2 election last weekend, he brought to an end Canada's shortest-lived majority government since the Second World War, elected to office just 43 months before. Since Confederation in 1867, in fact, only Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1911, facing a Parliament and nation riven by the issue of free trade with the United States, went to the polls sooner, less than three years after winning a majority.

Majority Months in Government Office Since Calling Election Election Date Last Election Liberals June 27, 1949 48 Liberals Aug. 10, 1953 49 Liberals June 10, 1957 46 Conservatives June 18, 1962 46 Liberals Oct. 30, 1972 52 Liberals May 22, 1979 58 Liberals Sept. 4, 1984 55 Conservatives Nov. 21, 1988 45 Conservatives Oct. 25, 1993 59 Liberals June 2, 1997 43

In-House Adviser

"My wife and I, we are very private people," Jean Chrétien once observed. And privacy can mean privileges - and some problems. Take the occasion, shortly after the 1993 election, when the Chrétiens ordered all the staff out of 24 Sussex Drive so they could have some weekend time alone. On the Sunday morning, Aline Chrétien rose before her husband and went downstairs to collect the newspapers. Once outside, she did not realize the front door was self-locking until it closed behind her, leaving her stranded. Faced with either waking up her husband by ringing the bell or, in her housecoat, walking up to security personnel at the front gate, she chose, she later recounted, "to do neither." Instead, she stood patiently on the porch, reading the paper in chilly November weather, until her bewildered husband came looking for her 30 minutes later.

That is one of the rare times that Chrétien has been without the person who has played such a crucial role in shaping his life, his image - and many of his career decisions - since they were married almost 40 years ago. "I would not be here without her," Chrétien said of Aline on election night, 1993, and no one among his friends doubts that. "She is the person he listens to more than anyone," says longtime adviser Eddie Goldenberg. Despite Aline Chrétien's deliberately low profile, the Prime Minister acknowledges that he consults her on all important issues. She helped convince him to run against John Turner in 1984, and to leave politics after he lost the leadership race. In the early 1990s, when Chrétien was struggling with a TelePrompTer and scripted speeches, she told him to drop them. When Chrétien boasted in the House of Commons about his high popularity ratings in early 1994, he went home, he confessed later, "and received absolute hell" from Aline.

Chrétien's friends acknowledge that she has helped shape his now-sophisticated tastes in art and classical music. (Their collection includes paintings by Alex Colville and Henri Masson.) But her own learning process, while less noted, has been just as dramatic. When the couple arrived in Ottawa in 1965, their clothes made their small-town roots immediately obvious. She barely spoke English - doing so, she confessed then to one acquaintance, "makes my tongue tired." Today, her sense of style is much remarked upon, and she is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian. But true to her fondness for privacy, the Prime Minister's advisers say, Aline Chrétien may occasionally be seen beside her husband in the campaign - but is unlikely to be heard from.

Maclean's May 5, 1997