Following on the heels of his bestselling collection of political reminiscences, former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien still has a few more stories to tell. With anecdotes and reflections both serious and light-hearted, My Stories, My Times, Volume 2 is a unique window on our country from one of its greatest statesmen and patriots.
With a career that spanned decades and an active retirement after that, it should come as no surprise that Jean Chrétien’s illuminating, perceptive and often humorous stories could not be contained in just one book.
This collection of essays features his trademark candour and ever-sharp political acumen, with plenty of wit to accompany the wisdom. With a delightful randomness, he remembers events and personalities that shaped our nation in a multitude of ways, and offers his views on international current events, including Canada-China relations, Brexit, and interprovincial dealings. Jean Chrétien’s stories serve to remind us that there is more to unite than divide us as a country, and that we have institutions we can take enormous pride in and values we must strive to maintain and keep building upon. Above all, these stories illustrate Jean Chrétien’s firm belief that we must never cease searching for common ground despite our differences.
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.
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.
Excerpt: My Stories, My Times, Volume 2 (by (author) Jean Chretien; translated by Sheila Fischman & Donald Winkler)
1. EVEN IN RETIREMENT
At the urging of many readers who seem to have appreciated these varied and brief accounts, I am once again recounting some tales that offer a backstage view of political life. As I’m in pretty good shape despite my venerable eighty-five years, I’m having another go at it, though with no guarantee that another book will result. I’m advised that sequels are rarely as successful as an initial book. Could be, but I tell myself that if this opportunity to write ends up producing a book that’s less popular than the first, so be it! I’ll still have had the pleasure of spending long, peaceful hours at my work table, reliving episodes from my forty years of public life.
September 2019. Even though I’m retired, it’s impossible for me to say no when I’m asked to make a contribution to public life—but sometimes I go a bit too far, as was the case last week, for example.
A month ago, our ambassador to the United Nations, Marc-André Blanchard, asked me to help prepare for the opening of the General Assembly, on September 23. I agreed to grant him three days out of the five he had asked for, because I already had professional commitments in British Columbia for the Thursday and Friday of that week. And so on September 23, I got up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the first plane out of Ottawa to New York. The ambassador had prepared a rather heavy schedule for me, and over three days, I had to participate in bilateral meetings with heads of state and government, with ministers and ambassadors. During those few days, I tallied no fewer than twenty-five different meetings to promote Canada’s candidature for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The stakes were very high for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, since for the first time in our history, the Harper government had lost the vote in 2010, which was seen as a diplomatic humiliation for Canada and its Conservative prime minister. At the time of this defeat, I’d met in New York a former American president and a former prime minister of Portugal, who had expressed surprise at seeing their countries outstrip Canada in that race. I told them that things would have been different had my party been in power.
In fact, in 1998 my government had won that seat in the first round, with a substantial majority. We have to assume that the Harper government’s aggressive attitude toward China, Russia, and the Palestinians, and our withdrawal from the African continent contrasted with our successful initiatives, including the Ottawa Convention on the banning of anti-personnel mines, the establishment of the International Court of Justice, the request on the part of my G8 colleagues that we assume responsibility on their behalf for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and so on. I must say that I was impressed by the quality of the work done by Ambassador Blanchard and his team, but it was clear that we had not completely recovered from our decline on the international stage, which had occurred between 2006 and 2015. I feared, unfortunately, that our results would be very problematical once the votes were counted, in June of 2020. (And so it turned out, as Canada failed to win back a seat on the Security Council.)
After I’d finished my work at the United Nations, I took a plane on Wednesday evening for Vancouver. I participated in three political meetings to support the Liberal MPs and candidates in the run-up to the election of October 21, 2019. I must say that I did not find the mood as electric as during Justin Trudeau’s first campaign in 2015. Following my exchanges with the candidates, supporters, and journalists, I concluded that the Liberals would lose seats in British Columbia. How many? It was hard to say, three weeks before the end of the campaign.
The next day, I travelled to Kelowna in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, where for eighty minutes I answered questions posed by veteran journalist Kent Molgat before an audience of 1,200 businesspeople. Molgat was very well prepared, and his questions were to the point, which enabled me to do a good job. The crowd reacted enthusiastically, and I was happy to see that, at the age of eighty-five, I could still keep out of trouble quite easily.
I readily agreed to lend a hand to Liberal candidates, one of whom was already an MP. I believe that the member Stephen Fuhr of Kelowna was the first Liberal elected in this riding for fifty years. I was impressed by his energy and his ease, and also by the many supporters on his campaign committee. There was a winning atmosphere surrounding the young member. It’s not easy for a Liberal to win a seat in the British Columbia interior. But in this riding, I thought it was possible.
My political duties fulfilled, I went for a drink with Senator Ross Fitzpatrick, a friend I’d met in Ottawa in 1965, when he was assistant to the then labour minister John Robert Nicholson. What a surprise to meet there two old cronies: Herb Dhaliwal, who was an excellent minister in my cabinet, and the first Indo-Canadian to be in that position; and lawyer Louis Salley, an Alberta francophone who had made a brilliant career in Vancouver. Also present at the gathering was Gordon, Senator Fitzpatrick’s son, who had worked for me when I was the minister of energy, mines, and resources from 1982 to 1984. After this most agreeable social interlude, dominated by intense exchanges concerning the upcoming federal elections, I returned to my hotel to spend a short night before flying from Kelowna to Calgary, then to Ottawa, where I arrived on Saturday night. The next day, I made my way to Montreal to take off for Paris in order to attend the funeral of Jacques Chirac, the former French president, and my colleague on the international scene from 1995 to 2003.
Arriving in Paris the next day at six in the morning, after a shower and breakfast I headed for the French Senate, where the dignitaries gathered before boarding a bus bound for the Saint-Sulpice church. As we waited, I was able to greet several acquaintances from my political life. Canada was represented by Governor General Julie Payette and myself, and Quebec by two former premiers, Lucien Bouchard and Jean Charest. They were two former political adversaries: Bouchard as leader of the Bloc Québécois in 1993, and Jean Charest as leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1997. On the other hand, Charest and I had worked well together during the 1995 referendum, and we had made Bouchard bite the dust following that famous confrontation in Quebec. And yet, there we were, the three of us in Paris, and despite our differences and the tough battles of the past, we had a very civilized conversation—I would say even pleaseant. When I found myself in the church along with Julie Payette, we were seated near two people that I knew well: Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin. I introduced our Governor General to President Putin, with whom she chatted in Russian to his delighted surprise. Bill Clinton was even more surprised. And as a Canadian, I was very proud. Madame Payette had learned the language during her career as an astronaut, when she worked alongside Russian astronauts.
As the historic Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral was not available due to the famous fire that partly ravaged it in April of 2019, the religious ceremony took place in the very beautiful and ancient Saint-Sulpice church near Les Invalides. I’m always very moved to find myself in a place so majestic and charged with history as is that famous church. What a labour of sweat, sacrifice, and determination, decade after decade, it must have taken for the hundreds of workers to erect such a splendid monument. When they left this earth for a better world, they did not think we would remember them centuries later. They did not build such masterpieces for an immediate reward, but to serve and to help their faith in God to endure. We remain grateful to them today.
In this church that was full to bursting, and with thousands of French people outside, come to pay homage to a great public figure who served his country for more than a half-century, what struck me most was the simplicity of the Catholic service, punctuated by an excellent sermon on faith, the family, and public service. No tributes from family, friends, or comrades in arms, or from French authorities. Just a beautiful sermon, not too long. But there was music—and what music! With a wonderful choir. And Schubert, played on the piano by the great virtuoso Daniel Barenboim. On the church’s front bench, Jacques Chirac’s devoted daughter Claude and those dear to her took their places. Everything was simple, beautiful, and worthy of the man who had just left us.
After the ceremony, President Emmanuel Macron offered a lunch at the Élysée for a number of heads of state and former leaders such as myself. I must confess that it was most agreeable to find myself on the French president’s home ground, a pleasure I had had over a period of ten years under the presidencies of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
I was most grateful to have been present for the farewell to my friend Jacques Chirac, whose career in public life remains exceptional. After serving in the French army, he was successively a député, minister, prime minister under two French presidents, mayor of Paris, and president of the French Republic for twelve years. During this long odyssey, he showed himself to be a great strategist, a hard fighter, a tough adversary, a politician always very close to his constituents, and a learned citizen who was excellent company. Our exchanges in the beginning were rather contentious, but the twenty last years saw the growth of a cordial friendship, steadfast and respectful. He was certainly the European I knew best and for whom I always had great respect.
Back in the hotel, I made an unusual acquaintance. Our Governor General received a visit from another astronaut, who had also been a minister in Jacques Chirac’s cabinet. Madame Claudie Haigneré was accompanied by her husband, Jean-Pierre, also an astronaut, and I had the privilege of chatting with these distinguished scientists for an hour. It was fascinating.
Afterwards, I went to a restaurant with the former U.S. president Bill Clinton. For the occasion, he had invited a former French minister of health and foreign affairs, Philippe Douste-Blazy. Monsieur Douste-Blazy now works with foundations, including that of the Clintons, which deal with health issues in poor countries. Clinton was surprised to learn that this former minister in the French government had spent two years at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, and that his mentor was my younger brother, Michel, then director of this renowned research centre.
After a pleasant dinner during which we discussed medical research, health in developing countries, and obviously Donald Trump and American politics, I retired to my hotel. The next day, I boarded a plane once more to return to Canada. When I got home, Aline told me that I seemed very tired. No surprise: I had travelled to New York, Vancouver, Kelowna, Montreal, Paris, and Ottawa in only nine days and worked from morning to night. As they say in Mauricie, not too bad for a guy who’s eighty-five.