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Alone at the Top
The Path to Power
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Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien banner
Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien.


1934 -    

"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." -- Jean Chrétien, 1985

Jean Chrétien's greatest asset as Canada's twentieth prime minister is his long years of experience in Parliament and Cabinet. In government or in opposition, he has served with six prime ministers, held twelve ministerial positions and sat in Parliament for a total of twenty-seven years. When it comes to the game of politics, no one knows better the players and the strategies.

The eighteenth child of a paper mill machinist, Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien was born in Shawinigan, Quebec in 1934, sharing with Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the same birthday of January 11. Although his academic achievements were modest, Chrétien's parents were determined to give him a good education and he was sent to the classical college in Trois-Rivières. After graduating, he attended Laval University, where he studied law. He was called to the Bar in 1958 and set up his law practice in the working-class district of Shawinigan North.

Chrétien had demonstrated an interest in politics from a young age. His father was a Liberal organizer and by the age of fifteen, Chrétien was helping to distribute pamphlets and attending political rallies. At Laval he joined the campus Liberal Club. Quebec Liberals were an endangered species in the 1950s; the Union Nationale had dominated Quebec politics for more than a decade, and in 1957, the Conservatives won federally. Nevertheless, Chrétien persevered, campaigning for Liberal candidates in both provincial and federal elections. By 1960, he was principal organizer for Jean Lesage, leader of the provincial Liberal party, in the election that made him Quebec Premier that year. In 1963, Chrétien was asked to run as the Liberal candidate for St-Maurice-Laflèche in the federal election. The incumbent was a Créditiste who had won the previous election with a margin of 10,000 votes, nine months earlier. In a hard-fought campaign, Chrétien won by 2,000 votes.

Chrétien spent his first two years in Ottawa as a backbencher, improving his English. By 1965, his enthusiasm and capacity for hard work had come to the attention of Prime Minister Lester Pearson; Chrétien was made a parliamentary secretary and worked under Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp.

After the 1968 election, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made Chrétien Minister of National Revenue. He served briefly in this portfolio before becoming Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. One of his first tasks was to draft a policy paper on Native issues in 1969. Chrétien set up the Berger Commission in 1972 to make recommendations on a proposed pipeline in the Mackenzie River Valley, and established an office for the settling of Native land claims. He also created ten new national parks during his six years as Minister.

In 1974, Chrétien served as President of the Treasury Board, then moved to Industry, Trade and Commerce in 1976 where he financed the development of the Challenger aircraft. In 1977, he became Minister of Finance, overseeing the removal of the wage and price controls that had been in effect since 1975. In 1980, Chrétien became Minister of Justice where he was responsible for supporting the "no" forces in the Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty. As Minister for Constitutional Negotiations, he drafted and organized the passage of the 1982 Charter of Rights and the repatriation of the constitution.

When Trudeau resigned as prime minister in 1984, Chrétien ran for leadership of the Liberal party. The contest was a close one between him and John Turner. Although Chrétien had enormous popular support, he was defeated by his association with Trudeau and by the Liberal tradition of alternating anglophone and francophone leaders. He served as Deputy Prime Minister for two months and then resigned from politics in 1986, returning to the practice of law.

When Turner left politics in 1990 after losing two elections, Chrétien announced his candidacy for leader and won the convention on the first ballot. The Liberal party had been divided and demoralized since Trudeau's departure, so Chrétien set about rebuilding and preparing for the next election. Disillusioned by the Tories, voters in 1993 sought to protest by voting for the new parties of Reform and Bloc Québécois. The Liberals ran a strong campaign and won a majority of 176 seats. Although their traditional opponents, the Conservatives, were all but annihilated, they now confront an avowedly separatist opposition party with the staunchly right-wing Reform party as a close third.

On November 4, 1993, Jean Chrétien was sworn in as prime minister and shouldered the enormous burden borne by the nineteen other Canadians who have tried to govern this country. In November 2000, he went on to win a third straight majority government. In December 2003 Jean Chrétien retired as prime minister and was succeeded by his former finance minister Paul Martin.

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

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