Chrétien, Jean (Canada)

Reference work entry


Jean Chrétien served as prime minister from Nov. 1993 to Dec. 2003.

‘Jean Chrétien in youth is small, skinny, deaf in one ear, deformed at the mouth, slightly dyslexic, poor of pocket and intellectually unadorned,’ wrote biographer Lawrence Martin in the Globe and Mail before the 1997 Canadian election. However, from this inauspicious beginning, Jean Chrétien earned a reputation as an incisive and shrewd administrator and a man of the people, often receiving more public support than from his own party. He stepped down to allow his closest rival and one-time finance minister Paul Martin succeed him.

Early Life

Born on 11 Jan. 1934, the eighteenth of nineteen children in a working class family in Shawinigan, Quebec, Joseph-Jacques-Jean Chrétien inherited a passion for Liberal politics from his activist father and by the age of 15 was distributing pamphlets and attending rallies for the party. After attending the classical college in Trois-Rivières, Chrétien studied law at Laval University and, having married Aline Chaîné with whom he had three children, he was called to the bar in 1958.

By 1960 he was principal organizer for Jean Lesage, leader of the provincial Liberal party, standing for his first term in the House of Commons in 1963, representing the constituency of Saint-Maurice-Laflèche. He held several jobs in successive administrations including parliamentary secretary to the prime minister Lester Pearson in 1965, minister of state in 1967 and minister of national revenue in 1968.

After becoming minister of Indian affairs and northern development in 1968, one of his first tasks was to draft a policy paper on native issues. In 1972 he set up the Berger Commission to make recommendations on a proposed pipeline in the Mackenzie River Valley and later was the leading force behind the creation of ten new national parks. In 1977 he became the first French Canadian to become minister of finance, overseeing the removal of the wage and price controls that had been in effect since 1975.

As minister of justice and attorney general of Canada and minister for state for social development in 1980, he was responsible for supporting the ‘no’ campaign in the Quebec referendum on sovereignty. Despite popular support, in 1984 Chrétien narrowly lost to John Turner in a contest to succeed Pierre Trudeau as leader of the Liberal Party. Instead he became deputy prime minister and secretary of state for external affairs, before resigning his Commons seat in 1986.

After 4 years as a counsel with law firm Lang Michener Lawrence and Shaw, Chrétien returned to Parliament in 1990, defeating Paul Martin for the leadership of the party. He set about rebuilding the divided and demoralized Liberals and in Oct. 1993, with an electorate disillusioned by the Kim Campbell’s governing Progressive Conservative Party, led the Liberals to a landslide victory.

Career Peak

His popularity remained high despite narrowly avoiding defeat in the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence. As the champion of maintaining Canada’s integrity he was criticized for not defeating the secessionists with a larger majority—50.1% rejected independence for Quebec. To secure further federal unity, Chrétien ensured the passage of the Clarity Act, that demands a ‘clear majority’ (considerably more than 50%) in support for Quebecois independence before the recognition from the federal government.

His credentials as a supporter of the welfare state were challenged after unpopular cuts in health and education transfer payments to the provinces. Winning a slim majority (with 155 out of 295 seats) in his second election in 1997 on the back of a booming economy, Chrétien oversaw the near total annihilation of the traditional Conservative opposition as a credible force. His government’s ability to balance the budget gave Chrétien and his finance minister, Paul Martin, long-lasting fiscal credibility. Early elections were held in 2000, giving the Liberals an increased majority (a total of 170 seats), after pledges to increase spending after a series of austerity budgets.

Chrétien established a reputation in the international arena by renewing Canada’s commitment to humanitarian intervention and the UN peacekeeping forces. His government made commitments to support development in Africa through humanitarian assistance, economic programmes and conflict management. In the aftermath of the 11 Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the government explored new methods of intelligence sharing with the US authorities and agreed to cooperate on border control and immigration policies. Nevertheless, in Sept. 2002 Chrétien objected to unilateral US attacks on Iraq and urged cooperation with the UN Security Council. His refusal to support US President George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq soured relations with the Bush administration. Despite popular support in Canada for his anti-war stance, Chrétien was criticized by the opposition for putting Canada’s relationship with the USA in jeopardy.

Chrétien’s position within the Liberal Party was less secure than in the country. His background and opinions were markedly different to the increasingly liberal and affluent party membership. His chief rival, Paul Martin, was popular as a successful businessman and for his record as finance minister. When Martin was dismissed from the government for launching an unsuccessful leadership challenge in June 2002, dissent within the party was halted but only temporarily. In Aug. 2002 Chrétien announced that he would not remain for another election, effectively paving the way for Martin to succeed him as prime minister. Martin was elected with 94% of the party vote in Nov. 2003 and became prime minister on the 12 Dec. 2003.

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