Joseph-Jacques-Jean Chrétien, politician (b at Shawinigan, Qué 11 Jan 1934). Lawyer and long-time parliamentarian Jean Chrétien was Canada's 20th prime minister, and one of the longest-serving leaders in Canada's history.

Early Political Career

Educated at Laval University, Jean Chrétien practised law 1958-63 and won election to the House of Commons as a Liberal in 1963. He served in Prime Minister Lester Pearson's Cabinet as minister of state and then minister of national revenue; in 1968 he supported Mitchell Sharp for the party leadership. Under Prime Minister Piere Trudeau, he occupied the portfolios of Indian affairs; treasury board; industry, trade and commerce; finance (the first French Canadian to do so); justice; and energy, mines and resources. A strong and emotional speaker, Chrétien enjoyed considerable popularity both inside and outside Québec. As minister of justice 1980-82, he directed the federalist forces in the Québec referendum of May 1980 and then helped devise and implement the federal government's strategy for the patriation of the Constitution and the enactment of a charter of rights and freedoms.

Using a folksy style in English and French, he was able to create an identification with his audiences. His forceful and engaging speaking style, strong identification with his audiences and skills as a political organizer were amply demonstrated when he ran second to John Turner in the Liberal leadership campaign in 1984. Chrétien retained his seat in the subsequent election, but grew restive in opposition. With Turner's leadership confirmed at a party convention in 1986, Chrétien resigned his seat in the House of Commons and took up the private practice of law.

Liberal Leader

John Turner resigned the leadership in 1990 after a second defeat by the Conservatives. This time Chrétien succeeded in winning the Liberal leadership, defeating Paul Martin, and he returned to the House of Commons, representing the New Brunswick riding of Beauséjour in 1990.

Chrétien inherited a party that was disorganized and almost bankrupt. His support of the Conservatives' Charlottetown Constitutional Accord (see Charlottetown Accord: Document) cost him support in his home province among nationalists, but his party was well prepared for the election of October 1993. Chrétien ran an almost flawless campaign, targeting the issue of job creation and releasing a detailed platform book that effectively answered criticisms that he would mark a return to the spending extravagances of previous Liberal governments. Chrétien recaptured his old riding of St-Maurice and managed to win 20 seats in Québec in the face of the onslaught of the Bloc Québécois.

Elsewhere in Canada, the campaign was a triumph, as the Liberals won 178 seats (pending some recounts) and a clear majority. After a brief transition following the October 25 election, Chrétien was sworn in as Canada's 20th prime minister. With the complete disintegration of the Conservative Party, which fell from 154 seats to 2, and the collapse of the NDP, Chrétien's Liberal Party was the sole national party left in the House of Commons to face the regional blocks represented by the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois. His autobiography Straight from the Heart (1985) became a bestseller.

Chrétien as Prime Minister, First Term

The Chrétien government inherited a difficult legacy; at the same time, it was fortunate in the period in which it governed. Canada in 1993 had high taxes, a high national debt and an alarming annual deficit. Chrétien made the difficult choice to cut or limit federal programs, including subsidies to the provinces, and to eliminate the deficit as the major priorities of his government. Fortunately, economic conditions were good, and revenues rose, permitting in 1998 the first Canadian surplus in 25 years. This policy, and Chrétien's finance minister, Paul Martin, who had to bear the brunt of its implementation, enjoyed high public approval. The Liberals retained the unpopular Goods and Services Tax, which Chrétien had once promised to abolish.

Chrétien was somewhat less fortunate when it came to the perennial issue of Québec separatism. In the Québec referendum of October 1995, the federalist forces scraped by with the barest victory, and Chrétien's role in the campaign was severely criticized. It was clear that Chrétien's popularity in his home province remained limited, though not non-existent. Chrétien tried to remedy the situation through an ill-conceived and largely secret "sponsorship" program designed to bring "Canada" before the Quebec public. The sponsorship program mainly enriched Liberal-supporting ad agencies in Montréal, but did nothing to create support for Canadian federalism. It may indeed have damaged the Canadian cause, when the full cost of the sponsorship programs was revealed by an investigating commission in 2005.

In foreign policy, the Liberals at first stressed economic diplomacy above all, and Chrétien led a series of highly publicized "Team Canada" missions to various countries and regions. In terms of photo opportunities and favourable media, these were undoubted triumphs. Their longer-term benefits were perhaps more elusive. In Canadian-American relations, Chrétien established a low-profile but evidently cordial relationship with the American president, Bill Clinton.

Chrétien as Prime Minister, Second Term

In 1997 Chrétien called a federal election for June 2. The opposition parties were fragmented and unimpressive, and regional rather than national in their appeal. Chrétien as a result won the election with a small but serviceable majority of 155 seats out of 301. In its second term, the Chrétien government continued to benefit from prosperity, despite economic troubles in Asia and a sluggish economy in Europe. With a new minister, Lloyd Axworthy, its foreign policy appeared to switch emphasis towards human rights issues. As a logical consequence, Canada was a participant in NATO's Kosovo War in 1999.

With the economy ticking along, and his finance minister, Paul Martin, generally admired, there appeared to be no major administrative or policy problems by the end of 1999. Chrétien turned his attention to internal politics. The most obvious threat to the Liberals came from the right, where the Reform Party was attempting to recast itself so as to absorb the remnants of the Conservatives. A "unite-the-right" movement took shape, in the form of the Canadian Alliance Party, in the spring of 2000. The Alliance promptly gave the Liberals an unparalleled opportunity by electing a new and untried leader (at least on the federal level), Stockwell Day. Chrétien saw an opportunity and seized it, forcing a general election on an unenthusiastic Liberal party.

But if rank-and-file Liberals were hesitant, the Alliance Party and its leader, Day, were dismally unprepared. On 27 November, Chrétien secured a third straight majority with 172 seats and 42% of the vote. Best of all, from Chrétien's point of view, the Liberals outpaced the Bloc Quebecois in Québec for the first time.

Chrétien as Prime Minister, Third Term

The main problem during Chrétien's third term was relations with the United States. Canada was overwhelmingly dependent on an American market for its exports, a fact that during the peaceful 1990s posed no great problem. When, in September 2001, the United States came under attack from Arab terrorists, the security of American borders became a serious issue for the first time since the World War II. Canadians generally, and Chrétien in particular, supported the Americans, but decades of neglect and underfunding left Canada with a weak armed forces and limited resources with which to respond to the crisis. Canada sent what troops it could to the American war in Afghanistan in early 2002, but Chrétien refused to participate in the subsequent Iraq war (March 2003), explaining that the American government had not exhausted all possible alternatives. He did not add that there was no reason to accept the official American excuse for the war, namely, that Iraq was working on "weapons of mass destruction."

Chrétien's stand on Iraq proved immensely popular in Canada and especially in Quebéc, but it could not save him from rising discontent in his own party, where supporters of the finance minister, Paul Martin, had succeeded in undercutting Chrétien's own followers. Chrétien finally announced that he would step down as Liberal leader. His last official act was to give a bravura speech at the Liberal convention in Toronto in November 2003; he resigned as prime minister the following month. The Liberal Party's new leader, Paul Martin, subsequently replaced Chrétien as prime minister on 12 December 2003.


Since retiring from political life Chrétien has served as Counsel for the Montreal law firm Heenan Blaikie. In 2008 he and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent worked to form a coalition agreement between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party to oust the existing Conservative government led by Stephen Harper. Harper managed to prorogue parliament, however, and halt the coalition's efforts in putting forth a motion of non-confidence.