If you are middle-aged, Jean Chretien seemed to be there forever. Whether it was workaday coffee complaints, or victories over Quebec separatism, Chretien was the protracted focus of most conversations during his 1993—2003 reign as PM.
His new breezy, humorous, kind, and candid reflections of a life — both political and personal — titled “Jean Chretien, My Times, My Stories” is a series of short chapters, understated and insightful on a number of subjects and historical events; written from his own desk, in longhand, in his own words. No ghostwriters; with that spectral quality of the passing of a life lived full and still living, caught with all its brightness at the end while we can still see it.
He takes no big swings, (his answer to my questions about our current PM is perhaps the biggest surprise of the interview), but his book takes small jabs only at himself. A “Proof is a Proof”, he once famously said. In one chapter he tells us the Queen spoke with him only in French. “She said she liked the practice, but I feel she preferred French over my English”. A proof is a proof.
His biggest shots are taken on the world stage, but they are over ideas more than personages. Chretien says in his book that not bringing Russia into the EU or NATO was an opportunity missed; that Putin’s success and rise can be explained by regaining pride after the dissolution of the Soviet empire; that Putin can now get his bankroll from China whenever he wants it, thereby isolating the West further.
As the only surviving member of Lester Pearson’s cabinet in 1967, Chretien reveals the premeditation behind General Charles de Gaulle’s famous “Vive Quebec Libre” speech in Montreal in the summer of 1967; that it was not born of the immediate emotions of the crowd before him.
Tough men like Chretien and Pierre Eliot Trudeau (where Chretien served as his even tougher right hand on many files) defeated separatism, whose embers today are like farts compared to the fires that raged then.
In my interview, Chretien tells us what it was like to be there. The FLQ crisis in October of 1970 saw domestic terrorism at its worst in Canada: bombs in mailboxes blowing up on the streets; Labour Minister Pierre Laporte kidnapped and murdered by the FLQ. British diplomat James Cross also kidnapped by the FLQ (he survived; aged 97 now, Bless him).
The steadfastness and steely determination of Trudeau and Chretien’s federalist vision was not to be denied. The protest generation of the 60’s that inspired Quebec’s violence, and whose spirit Pierre Trudeau channeled into electoral success, mutated into arch villainy and murder then for a nationalist cause. Trudeau spoke both languages better than either the English or the French. He sold out to no one, for he was both. So, in the same way, was Chretien. A true Quebecer with the accent to prove it, but no Canuck doubted his heart, whatever the Province.
Ephemeral and eternal, Jean Chretien is a bear that loves Canada deeply – every part of it. But it is a bear that can still, after decades and headwinds and history, after loss and triumph and the end of things, bite.
PM Chretien recalls his decision not to bring Canada into the 2003 Iraq War.
PM Chretien recalls the time when PM Pierre Trudeau enacted the War Measures act in 1970.
Hear Andrew Krystal’s interview with Jean Chretien on Canada Talks:
Thursday, November 2nd at 7 pm ET
Saturday, November 3rd at 10 am ET
Sunday, November 4th at 7 am, 11 am, and 6 pm ET