CANADA HISTORY - Prime Ministers

Jean Chretien


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The little guy from Shawinigan, as Jean Chretien liked to style himself, has been perhaps the most successful politician on the federal scene in Canada in the last 60 years. He has been intimately involved with all of the Liberal administrations since Pearson and was instrumental in bringing the constitution back to Canada. He was also elected to an unprecedented, for modern times, 3 majority terms. Chrétien was born to Marie Boisvert and Wellie Chrétien, a paper mill machinist, on January 11th, 1934. He was the 18th of 19 children at a time with high child mortality rates, 10 of his siblings died in infancy.

He became interested in politics at an early age and living in Quebec, that meant the Liberal Party. He joined the party in his teens and worked hard for local candidates and members of Parliament. He was accepted to Laval University and as a young Liberal became the president of the Liberal Club. He graduated with a Law degree in 1958 and set up practice in Shawinigan. He decide to run for Parliament in 1963 in the riding of Saint-Maurice Laflèche and with almost no English in a mainly French constituency, was elected and entered Parliament expecting to fight for French Canadian rights against the English majority. He quickly realized that Canada was a big, diverse country and that as a member of Parliament he would need to consider all parts of the country and all people.

His hard working, and practical approach to politics helped him gain recognition in the party and in 1965 he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Lester Pearson. He then served under Sharp in Finance giving him important exposure to the budgetary side of government. When Pierre Trudeau was chosen as Liberal leader and Prime Minister in 1968 he appointed Chrétien as Minister of National Revenue.

The Four Prime Ministers

Trudeau called an election for June 1968 and after winning a majority appointed Chrétien to the Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. He quickly realized that the native peoples were faced with immense problems and challenges and in a 1969 white paper, which Chrétien wrote the preface for, the abolition of the Indian Act was recommended and a whole new approach in dealing with the issues suggested. The entrenched interested of the existing status quo resisted the recommendations of the White Paper and it's suggestions were eventually abandoned, but the process introduced Chrétien to bureaucratic and interest group inertia and how to deal with it in the future, which would prove to be invaluable during the repatriation of the constitution negotiations.

Chrétien became a trusted advisor to Trudeau during the 1970 October Crisis when he encouraged the invocation of the War Measures Act and the use of Federal power to protect the stability of the country. He quickly moved up the ladder when he was appointed the treasury Board in 1974, was appointed Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce in 1976 and then became the first French Canadian Prime Minister in 1977.

After the brief Conservative interlude of 1979/80 he was appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney General, which placed him in he middle of two of the most important events of the Trudeau years, the Quebec referendum and the patriation of the constitution. In 1982 he moved to the Ministry of Energy Mines and Resources and was ready to challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party once Trudeau stepped down which was widely expected.

Trudeau stepped down in 1984 and the Chrétien's main opponent for the leadership of the party was John Turner who was heavily favoured by the Liberal establishment for several reasons including the tradition of alternating between French and English leaders. Chrétien lost the race to Turner and although Chrétien was given many prominent assignments in cabinet, the tensions between the two finally convinced Chrétien to leave politics and enter the private sector. From 1986 to 1989 he worked in the corporate world, wrote his memoirs and planned his comeback. When Turner stepped down in 1989, Chrétien ran again for the leadership and in a tight race with Paul Martin, emerged as the new leader of the Liberal Party. His opposition to the Meech Lake agreement which was in accord with his and Trudeau's political stance on Quebec's role in Confederation, was responsible for his loss of some support in Quebec.

Chrétien was elected in 1990 in a by-election from the riding of Beauséjour, New Brunswick and took his seat in the House of Commons once again. He began to rebuild the party and with the introduction of the unpopular Goods and Services Tax by the Mulroney government, the departure of many of the French Canadian nationalist from the Conservatives and the failure of both the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Agreement, it looked like the Liberals would stand a good chance at regaining power in the next election.

In February of 1993 Mulroney announced his retirement and in June the Conservatives took a gamble by electing Kim Campbell as the first women leader of the Conservatives and as the New Prime Minister. By August Campbell was leading in most polls and called and election for the fall. On September 19 the Liberals released their now famous Red Book which laid out everything they would do if elected. It promised a better way of charging the GST, a new look at NAFTA, reform of the unemployment system and fiscal responsibility which return Canada to a balanced budget each year. The impact of the move was immense and the Liberal climb up the poll numbers began to accelerate.

As the Conservative lead evaporate the Conservatives decided to launch some attack ads against Chretien personally who lagged behind Campbell in approval ratings. One of the ads mocked his facial paralysis which caused an immediate storm of controversy and outrage. Any chance the at the Conservatives might win the election were now gone and the best they could hope for was a minority Liberal government.

On the night of October 25th, 1993 the polls closed and the results began to come in from across the country. As the results began to come in on election night, the vote for the Liberals became a landslide. The final results were Liberals - 177 seats, Bloc = 54 seats, Reform Party 52 seats, NDP 9 seats, Progressive Conservatives 2 seats and others - 1. The old Progressive Conservative Party had been destroyed and would not re-emerge to fight again until a merger of right wing forces finally resulted in a new party 3 elections later.

On November 4th 1993 Chretien was sworn in as Canada's 20th Prime Minister. He appointed his strongest opponent in the leadership race, Paul Martin, as the Minister of Finance and like the Clinton administration in the U.S. made deficit reduction job one. Transfer payments to the provinces were greatly reduced, social programs cut back, taxes maximized and additional revenue sources maximized. The deficit in 1993 was $42 billion dollars which within 5 years was eliminated and $36 billion of the debt was also paid down. Many of government services initially cut were restored once the deficit was under control and taxes were cut by over $100 billion. Another referendum was held in Quebec about separation and the federalist side won by the slimmest of margins. After that vote Chretien introduced and passed the Clarity Act which mandated that any future voters would have to vote as a clear majority on a clear question about any issues of separation or sovereignty. This act was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Chretien decided to call an election in the spring of 1997 hoping to take advantage of a good lead in the polls, but a rejuvenate right wing in the form of the Conservatives and the reform Party gained momentum during the campaign and the NDP picked up support in the Maritimes, an area that was not traditional a strength for them. The Liberals won the election with the barest majority and were forced to government lightly over the next few years. Chretien focused on reform of the justice system and continuing to improve the Canadian economy with budget surpluses, reduced taxes and increased business abroad.

The Queen awarded Chretien The Order of Merit

By 2000, the newly elected leader, Stockwell Day, of the new right wing party, the Canadian Alliance, demanded that Chretien go to the electorate and face him an election. Chretien, realizing that the right was still fractured among two parties and that the NDP and the Bloc were low in the polls, accommodated this request, and won a third majority government with almost as strong a majority as his first.

His last term was a period of unsettled events and after 9/11 he refused to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq unless it was done under a UN mandate. He was beginning to feel pressure to step down and let a new leader take over and as the Sponsorship Scandal grew in size he decided to retire from politics and announce that he would leave the Prime Ministers office on December 12th 2003. His former Finance Minister and rival Paul Martin replaced him on that date after winning the Liberal leadership convention.

Chretien says no to Iraq Chretien went back to work as a lawyer but had to endure the inquiry into the Sponsorship Scandal which did not find him guilty of any wrongdoing. He continues to be involved in politics today as the senior Liberal statesman and leads an active live.


Cite Article : Reference: www.canadahistory.com/sections/documents/documents.html

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