The Right Honourable Jean Chretien, P.C., O.M., C.C., Q.C.
During his long career, many of his political opponents from all parties – including his own - took every opportunity to vilify, defame and humiliate him. They made fun of the way he looked and talked, viewed him as an unintelligent proletarian rube, and accused him of having no class. Some even said he was thuggish.
His major opponents in his beloved Liberal Party knew that they spoke more elegantly than he, and took comfort in knowing that they - unlike him - had achieved a level of enriched refinement by having attended some of the nation’s best schools. In fact, his upbringing was strictly working class. Naturally, his competitors thought they were smarter than him. When he seemed to move forward in politics many attributed his success to good luck alone and recklessly convinced themselves that he was too much “Le petit gars”- the little guy - and not enough Plato.
Many in the press spent great slices of their professional careers parroting his political critics about his intellect and character, and worked overtime turning over every grimy moss covered rock they could lay their hands on to get something on him. Lofty elitists like Quebec notables and conservative English speaking Canadians, were embarrassed by his rough-hewn French and heavy accented, malapropism-laced English. For the 40 or so years he spent in Canadian public life, most of these detractors pooh-poohed his many accomplishments, and attributed whatever success he had merely to a fluke of political nature or being in the right place at the right time.
Boy, were they wrong! When the counting was done, the carcasses of his political opponents were strung out across the country from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, and from the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters. He left one of the big ones rotting in a Florida jail, and even demolished the reputation of an egotistical Judge who had the temerity to call some of his activities ‘small town cheap.’ In the end Le Petit Gars proved that not only was he a match for the Platonists - he was better than all of them. He whupped them all. The Right Honourable Jean Chretien – the little guy - prevailed.
Oh, he was a tough customer alright. In 1985 he wrote,
“The art of politics is learning to walk with your back to the wall, your elbows high, and a smile on your face. It’s a survival game played under the glare of lights. If you don’t learn that you’re quickly finished. It’s damn tough and you can’t complain; you just have to take it and give it back. The press wants to get you. The opposition wants to get you. Even some of the bureaucrats want to get you. They all may have an interest in making you look bad and they all have ambitions of their own.”
In politics no truer words were ever written.
It does not take rocket science to figure out the reasons for the success of this great and unique Canadian. All it takes is an open mind. Throughout his public career he was first and foremost, a great communicator. Who cared about the accent, mangled English or bad French, when everyone understood perfectly well what he said in any of his official or unofficial languages? He made every Canadian - big, small, rich, poor, Eastern, Western, Northern, or of any race or culture – know where he stood better than any Canadian leader who ever passed before him or since. And he did it always with wit, simplicity and passion.
He also knew every nook and cranny of the country. No politician in Canada’s history spoke so many times, for so many years, in so many church basements and in so many cities and small towns strewn about the length and breadth of the whole country as Jean Chretien. He knew and understood every wrinkle of the Canadian people, their values and their aspirations. And they knew and understood him.
When he spoke, his central theme was always his love for Canada. It was always delivered with raw emotion and passion and his audiences always knew that it was visceral and real. His “I love Canada” speeches were legendary. The patriotism he expressed was infectious. At the end of his speeches his audiences – many with tears in their eyes - were on their feet, giving him a long and rousing standing ovation which they very often followed with a spontaneous, spirited rendition of ‘O Canada.’ His love of Canada was true and honest and everybody knew it, felt it and shared it with him.
To say that his record in government as a minister or Prime Minister was illustrious and as successful as any other Canadian, is almost to demean his accomplishments. Consider this - from the time of his entry into the House of Commons in 1963, he served as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce, Minister of National Revenue, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, President of the Treasury Board, Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, Minister responsible for Francophone Affairs, Secretary of State for External Affairs, and Minister in charge of Social Development. Oh yes, I almost forgot - he also served for ten happy years, as Canada’s 20th Prime Minister presiding over three consecutive majority governments during unprecedented, prosperous economic times.
As a member of the cabinets of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, Chretien was a major player in all of the initiatives of that era, including Medicare, and the Official Languages Act. He was the first francophone Minister of Finance and the point man for the federal government during the Referendum campaign of 1980. In 1982, while Justice Minister he was responsible for the appointment of Bertha Wilson to the Supreme Court of Canada, the first woman to serve on Canada’s highest court. As minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development during the years between 1968 and 1972, he and his department created 10 new Canadian national parks. This was a stunning achievement, particularly when considering that in the previous forty years only 4 national parks had been created. Chretien’s contribution to our national parks will forever stand as a huge landmark in our nation’s quest to conserve and protect Canada’s environment.
He also had a strong hand in the strategy and negotiations that gave rise to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Patriation of the Constitution of 1982. He was a sturdy and brave opponent of the Mulroney mish-mash called the Meech Lake Accord. As Prime Minister his government slashed the deficit, paid down a lot of debt, and cut taxes by $100 billion. Although the Referendum vote in 1995 was a squeaker, he had the courage to have his government pass the Clarity Act, finally setting some clear rules for any declaration of independence. His four trade missions to China led to a new era of good relations and vastly increased trade between the two countries. His efforts alone kept us out of the Iraq War, but we did gave our help and money in the following reconstruction effort, and at the same time kept our focus and contribution of arms and manpower on the real problem – Bin Laden and his Taliban protectors in Afghanistan.
Oh, he had his detractors. There are plenty of mizzling Canadians who whine about the controversies that he brushed up against, assuming the worst of course, even though no one has proved one iota of wrongdoing on his part. But for every mizzler there were hundreds of Canadians who recognized and appreciated a great Canadian when they saw one and who knew that brushing up against controversies in a long public career was an occupational hazard that few long-serving politicians are immune from.
Among the universities that honoured him with Honorary degrees are:
Wilfrid Laurier University (1981), Laurentian University (1982), York University (1987), University of Alberta (1988), Lakehead University, University of Ottawa (1994), University of Moncton (1994), Meiji University (Tokyo) (1996), Warsaw School of Economics (Poland) (1999), Michigan State University (1999), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2000), Memorial University of Newfoundland (2000), Queen’s University (Kingston) (2004), McMaster University (2005), University of Western Ontario (2008), University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres (2008).
He is also an Honorary Member of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and a Companion of the Order of Canada. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Chr%C3%A9tien
On June 29, 2009 the Queen recognized this great Canadian with his appointment to the very exclusive and prestigious Order of Merit. He is one of only twenty four other living persons who hold the honour, among whom presently are Baroness Margaret Thatcher, The Prince of Wales, and the Duke of Edinburgh. Some of the 150 or so recipients of the Order who have passed on are Sir Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and Florence Nightingale, Bertrand Russell, Lester Pearson, Mackenzie King, and Wilder Penfield. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Merit
This was a worthy honour awarded to a great Canadian. His contribution to the well-being of our country is unequalled. All Canadians should be rightfully proud of his achievement.