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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

My Stories, My Times

by (author) Jean Chrétien

translated by Sheila Fischman & Donald Winkler

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2018
Personal Memoirs, Political, General
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    Publish Date
    Oct 2018
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One of the most popular Canadian prime ministers in recent history, Jean Chrétien has some stories to tell. Recounted with warmth, insight and humour, these brief and candid essays feature many behind-the-scenes stories from a long, distinguished and colourful career. Includes two sixteen-page colour photo inserts.

October 2018 marks twenty-five years since Jean Chrétien took the helm as prime minister. In this collection of short essays, he has picked up his pen to reminisce about his long years in the public eye, and the many luminaries he met and worked with.
Readers will learn why his commonsense judgment continues to influence our lives to this day, in ways both profound and subtle: from forging long-lasting relationships with foreign countries to making it easy to identify our national airline when we travel. Of course, many familiar names figure in these stories, including George W. Bush, Boris Yeltsin, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Pierre Trudeau, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. As always, he reserves his greatest admiration for his wife of more than sixty years, Aline, his "Rock of Gibraltar."
These stories offer his unique perspective: we are at the Prime Minister's side on 9/11 when he is asked to give authorization to shoot down a passenger airliner that has not responded to identification requests. We learn how he attempted to correct the record as explained in his grandson's history book on the so-called "Night of the Long Knives." There are even glimpses of the young Jean, as a teen canvassing with his father, and as a young man who dared complain personally to Premier Maurice Duplessis about the food at his seminary.
Survival in politics requires stamina, creativity and toughness, as well as the ability to share a laugh now and again: qualities that the self-described "little guy from Shawinigan" never lost. In these days of "alternative facts" and politics-by-Tweet, these stories are a necessary antidote, told by a leader who always held fast to his vision of what Canada was and what it could be.

About the authors

In 1963, at the age of twenty nine, The Rt. Hon. JEAN CHRETIEN was first elected to Parliament. Four years later he was given his first Cabinet post and, over the next thirty years, he headed nine key ministries. Jean Chretien served as Canada's twentieth prime minister from 1993 to 2003.

Jean Chrétien's profile page

Sheila Fischman's profile page

Donald Winkler was born in Winnipeg, graduated from the University of Manitoba, and did graduate study at the Yale School of Drama. From 1967 to 1995 he was a film director and writer at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal, and since the 1980s, a translator of Quebec literature. In 1994, 2011, and 2013 he won the Governor General Award for French to English translation, and has been a finalist for the prize on three other occasions. His translation of Samuel Archibald's short story collection, "Arvida," was a finalist for the 2015 Giller Prize. He lives in Montreal, Quebec.

Donald Winkler's profile page

Excerpt: My Stories, My Times (by (author) Jean Chrétien; translated by Sheila Fischman & Donald Winkler)

Chapter 11


When I was visiting England with Aline and our daughter, France, our high commissioner in London informed us that the next day at Buckingham Palace the Queen would be receiving a group of two hundred First World War veterans who would be happy if a Canadian minister was also in attendance. Aline and France said that it was a golden opportunity to see the famous royal residence up close, so I agreed with pleasure to join the veterans for the occasion.

The next morning, there we were at Buckingham Palace. Protocol demands that the Queen first meet “a member of her Privy Council” before seeing the veterans, and so we were ushered into another room—the high commissioner, Aline, France, and myself. The Queen had been informed that she was to meet a minister, but my name had not been mentioned. Over the last eighteen months, Aline and I had had the opportunity to meet members of the royal family five times, which was a lot for French Canadians!

Suddenly a wide door opened and the Queen appeared, accompanied by Prince Philip. Seeing me, she exclaimed, “You again!” I instantly replied, “I am the monarchist from Quebec.” Coming from a province of 7 million inhabitants, to suggest that I was the only monarchist in Quebec was perhaps not very polite. But with all the grace for which she is known, Her Majesty simply smiled.

As we were on vacation, we left London for Scotland, taking the central Highland route north through majestic scenery. Then, surprise! We arrived at Balmoral, where the Queen has her summer residence. At the castle gate there were many tourists, and the royal flag was flying over the tower, indicating that the sovereign was in residence. France said, “Papa, announce yourself! Perhaps we can visit this castle too?” But I didn’t want to, and we continued on our way. A few kilometres outside the castle, we stopped in a village for gas. I was on the sidewalk when someone called to me from the other side of the street. “Aren’t you Chrétien from Canada?” To which I replied, “And aren’t you Sir Martin Charteris, Her Majesty’s private secretary?” Sir Martin then asked me, “Why don’t you come and take tea with the Queen at the castle?” I said, “No, thank you, Sir Martin, we’re expected elsewhere.” Few of us have refused to take tea with the Queen, but I feared I would in the end be perceived as a “Royal Nut.”

Prince Charles had said that I was part of royal folklore, and the Queen recounted two anecdotes from this same folklore, told to her by her parents, King George VI and the Queen Mother, about another francophone Canadian.

When they visited Montreal in 1939, the Queen Mother was seated next to the very colourful Mayor Camillien Houde at a grand banquet, and she remarked that he was not wearing the chain of office that mayors usually wear under certain circumstances. His reply: “Your Majesty, I only wear it on special occasions!”

On an earlier occasion, Camillien Houde was proceeding along Sherbrooke Street with a royal visitor, the future King Edward VIII, and the crowd was enormous. The Queen told me that the mayor informed the Prince that some of the spectators had actually come for him, the Prince of Wales. The royal family found that our colourful mayor Camillien was decidedly very funny. Didn’t Montreal’s ex-mayor Denis Coderre have a bit of Camillien Houde in him?

After these few anecdotes, I hope you can see that the royal family is made up of people who like to enjoy themselves, just like the rest of us!

Chapter 12


When I first entered Canada’s Parliament in 1963, the matter of commercial relations with the United States was a very hot topic in the debates. That is still true today, and it’s not surprising. Even early in the last century, in 1911, Sir Wilfrid Laurier lost an election because of his position on commercial reciprocity with our southern neighbours.

Automobiles produced in Canada were expensive because of the small size of our domestic market, and those we imported were even more costly because of very high import tariffs. In 1965, after months of negotiations, the Auto Pact with the United States was finally signed. This pact was a sectoral free trade agreement in an area that was very important for both countries.

It was important for Canada to ensure that our share of jobs in this sector was proportional to our overall population. Maintaining our level of employment was the aspect of the deal that would be most scrutinized in Parliament and the press. In general, the agreement slightly favoured Canada, but the two countries both benefited, and both were satisfied. The price of cars fell slightly and consumer choice increased; the revenue the government received from excise taxes also unavoidably decreased.

Every time there were protectionist impulses on either side, the ministers of trade in each country had to find an ad hoc solution.

The debate on the possibilities of free trade with the United States had been at the heart of political battles ever since Laurier, as much for the Liberals as the Conservatives. Under Pearson, I had been in the internationalist camp of Mitchell Sharp, who at the 1966 Liberal Party conference declared himself opposed to the economic nationalism of the former finance minister, Walter Gordon.

On their side, the Progressive Conservatives held a leadership convention in 1983, following the resignation of Joe Clark. His post was up for grabs because in a vote at the biennial party convention, he had enjoyed the support of only 66.9 percent of the delegates, and he had himself set a high bar, pledging that he would not continue as leader unless he achieved 70 percent (not 50 percent plus 1). And the issue that was most hotly debated was free trade with the United States. John Crosbie, the former minister of finance, was in favour, and the one who fought most fiercely against it was, strangely enough, Brian Mulroney.

As we all know, Brian experienced his road-to-Damascus moment and became a champion of free trade with the United States, a conversion that led to the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement in 1990. The 1988 election was dominated by the debate on free trade. Public opinion was divided about half and half; the Progressive Conservatives were for free trade, while the opposition Liberals and New Democrats were against. Brian Mulroney had succeeded in making free trade the linchpin of the election, and in that context the Liberals lost both the historic debate and the election that hinged on it. Luckily for me, I had left politics in 1986 and was not a candidate in 1988, or I would have been in trouble. In fact, after having been one of the advocates of free trade along with Mitchell Sharp, I would have found it difficult to join the forces opposing it—all the more so in that the interests of my voters in Mauricie were aligned with the signing of such an agreement. The region included seven paper mills, the Alcan aluminum smelter, and softwood lumber operations, all of which required better access to major markets.

The issue of free trade quickly caught up with me in 1993. I was elected prime minister of Canada on October 25, 1993, and the night of my election I was informed that Bill Clinton would be phoning me early the next morning. I was at my cottage at Lac des Piles, near Shawinigan, with my family. I told my grandchildren, come to my room because I’m going to talk for the first time as prime-minister-elect to the president of the United States.

After the usual courtesies, he said he needed me because the free trade project involving Canada, Mexico, and the United States was in great difficulty in Congress. He was convinced that it would not pass unless he could count on immediate support from Canada. I told him that I needed a certain number of amendments before we could proceed. A few hours later, James Blanchard, the American ambassador in Ottawa, contacted Eddie Goldenberg, one of my most trusted colleagues, to see what we could do. Eddie put together a committee with experts from the International Trade ministry, and began discussions with Blanchard and his associates. All that, forty-eight hours after my election, and six days before my taking the oath.

Shortly afterwards, to my great surprise, I received a telephone call from Ross Perot, who had been an independent candidate in the American presidential election in 1992. He had won 21 percent of the vote and had probably caused the defeat of another Texan, George H. W. Bush. He had campaigned against free trade, and he told me that he was sure that I was the only one who could block it, and that if I did he would erect a large monument in my honour in Texas. I replied that I was not very interested in having a monument in Texas, because no Texan could vote for me in the next election.

Presidents Clinton of the United States and Salinas of Mexico had made concessions to us on water, excluding it from the agreement, and on subsidies, dumping, the environment, and working conditions. Thus, after our conversation on October 26, 1993, President Clinton was able to pass through Congress the bill on the North American Free Trade Agreement with the support of all the Republicans, half of his Democratic allies . . . and me.

I’m very curious to see what President Trump will do, given his protectionist ideas and the Republican majorities in Congress and the Senate. It will also be interesting to see what the pro–free trade Republicans of 1994 will do with President Trump’s protectionism. When the Trudeau government consulted me, I told them it seems obvious that since the Auto Pact has existed since 1965 and NAFTA has been functioning quite well since 1994, I think Trump will find that it’s not so simple to unmake an omelette.

Chapter 13


In February 2017, after he was sworn in, President Trump complained that the press was not telling the truth when they reported that the crowds for his inauguration were much smaller than they had been for President Obama in 2009. Kellyanne Conway, a close adviser to the new president, came up with the expression “alternative facts” to define their view of the situation. In a sense she was right, because if you claim something ad nauseam, even if it is not true, the “alternative facts” will impose themselves over time as accepted truth, even for many historians. Such myths become almost impossible to correct; too many people have incorporated them into their own stories as undisputed factual elements.

One night I received a phone call from my grandson Olivier, who told me how embarrassed he had been by a story that was served up to him at school about an agreement between the federal government and the provinces (minus Quebec and Manitoba), in the matter of the Charter of Rights and the patriation of the Constitution—and about my presumed role in the process. Apparently he was told that I’d spent the night in the corridors of the Château Laurier, betraying Quebec. Poor Olivier had felt humiliated.

I explained to him that after six o’clock that evening I met with no one from the provincial delegations; I spoke at 11 p.m. with Garde Gardom, the minister responsible for British Columbia, and at six o’clock the following morning with Roy Romanow of Saskatchewan. I had Olivier confirm with Aline that I was home before 11 p.m. As he had to do an assignment on the subject, he wrote the version I gave him, and his learned history teacher gave him the glorious grade of zero. Alternative facts, endlessly repeated since the dramatized packaging of the “night of the long knives,” are what all young people are taught in Quebec schools today. However, a documentary film called Canada by Night was produced in 1999 by Luc Cyr and Carl Leblanc; it exists, and it brings together the testimonies of the major players during those hours. It totally discredits the myth about that famous night. Despite the painstaking research and fact checking in the film, its limited distribution in a climate that is blind to the truth cannot compete with “alternative facts” repeated ad nauseam both before and after.

All this took place more than thirty-six years ago, and I’ve been saying the same thing ever since, as have all my colleagues. But no matter, the truth cannot prevail.

After that day’s meeting was adjourned, Romanow, Roy McMurtry (from Ontario) and I conferred and developed a compromise plan. I thought that the federal government ought to accept the overriding clause—the controversial “notwithstanding” clause—and I told them to go out and convince the provinces. But my job was even harder: I had to convince my boss, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. After dinner I went to 24 Sussex, and attempted without success to make the case to the prime minister and the five other ministers present. Around ten o’clock, Trudeau took a phone call, and when he returned his mood had changed. He asked me a few more questions before adjourning the meeting.

The other participants left, but he kept me back and told me that he could accept my plan if we obtained the support of seven provinces, representing 50 percent of the population; in other words, the amending formula proposed by the provinces and accepted by Quebec. Trudeau, however, had always wanted Quebec and Ontario to have a right to veto. What had happened to make him suddenly accept the notwithstanding clause that in the past he had always rejected?

The phone call that he’d received was from Premier Bill Davis of Ontario, his unconditional ally from the beginning. Davis had said that he accepted the compromise I had proposed at the end of the afternoon, and that he “would abandon ship if Mr. Trudeau did not agree to it.”

In fact, it was Bill Davis who broke the deadlock, but he did not get the credit, which was a pity. What broke up the group of eight provinces that had tried to derail the whole project was René Lévesque’s acceptance of an idea proposed by Trudeau that very morning in an attempt to undo the stalemate: the prime minister had suggested that Quebec might hold a referendum on the patriation of the Constitution and on the inclusion of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The proposition would allow René Lévesque to retake the initiative against Trudeau with this referendum, and none of the other provincial politicians wanted to oppose either a charter of rights or patriation, except Manitoba premier Sterling Lyon.

Fifteen years later another referendum was held in Quebec, amid an atmosphere of the end justifying the means, and Lucien Bouchard and the other bards of separation created out of whole cloth the supposed “night of the long knives” to incite resentment. Six days after the defeat of the Yes side, the intruder who gained access to 24 Sussex by night in order to assassinate me had apparently decided to do the job with a knife. Fortunately Aline was there to save my life. Hallelujah!

Meanwhile, and sadly, the alternative facts at the origin of many unwise moves are as deeply rooted as ever. Myths really do die hard.

Editorial Reviews

“[A] delightful book.” —Arthur Milnes, The Ottawa Citizen

“The book’s charms lie in its authentic voice: it is Jean Chrétien telling stories, not a ghostwritten memoir. . . . Through it all, there’s a mostly positive assessment of progress, democracy and Canada, from a PM who didn’t seem to lose sleep over problems and ended his speeches with an upbeat, ‘Vive le Canada.’ His stories are history—a kind of written-down oral history. . . . [T]he often surprising personally penned tales of a long-running actor on the Canadian stage.” —The Globe and Mail
“Chrétien’s memoir highlights his hard days in politics but also reveals his unrelenting sense of humour and mischievousness. . . . Reading his stories, audiences can find a sense of hope for the future.” —Brittany Giliforte, The Queen’s Journal (Queen’s University)

“A fascinating read.” —Laura Casella, Global News Morning Montreal (interview)

“Straight-talking and direct: words often used to describe Canada’s former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and that hasn’t changed with the release of his new book My Stories, My Times.” —Joanne Vrakas, CityNews Montreal (interview)

“Among his indisputable qualities, Jean Chrétien is a natural storyteller.” —Joe Clark

“Chrétien knew as much about government as anybody I have ever seen . . . we had a grand relationship.” —Bill Clinton

“Chrétien is a very shrewd guy and used his experience well. . . . When he intervenes in a meeting he’s short and to the point, and he sometimes says the things that others think should be said but haven’t had quite the courage to say.” —Tony Blair

“To say that your career has been extraordinary is an understatement: your forty years of public life, three successive mandates as prime minister. . . . What you have accomplished in the service of your country, and the message it has sent out into the world, is inspiring.” —Jacques Chirac

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