Jean Chrétien: The great survivor of Canadian politics

From the archives: Mark Steyn on the liddle guy from Shawinigan

This Mark Steyn feature first appeared in Maclean’s on Oct. 29, 2007, revived today on Jean Chrétien is celebrated in Toronto for 50 years of public service:

Back in the early eighties, during the back-and-forth over patriating the Constitution, Jean Chrétien is said to have walked into Buckingham Palace and been greeted by the Queen with a cheery “You again!”

Him again! Who’d have thought we’d miss him? You can thank Paul Martin for that. It took Mister Competent, the genius budget-balancer, the supposed real brains of the operation, smoothly urbanely fluent in at least two more official languages than his predecessor, to reveal da liddle guy as a towering colossus. Mr. Martin, so ruthless and efficient in plotting and manoeuvring to seize the crown, never gave a thought to what he would do with it once it was on his head. In the final chapter of his new book, M. Chrétien reveals that, with Sheila Fraser’s report on the sponsorship scandal looming, he offered to stay on a few weeks and take the hit for it on his watch. But Martin was in a hurry, and wanted the old man gone. And so he came roaring in, and all the stuff that never stuck to the wily Shawinigan ward-heeler stuck to King Paul like dog mess on his coronation robes – Adscam, Flagscam, Earnscam, Crownscam, Alphonso Scammiano, the Royal Scamadian Mounted Police – until the new broom swept himself into a corner and wound up running against the legacy he’d spent the previous decade claiming credit for.

What would Chrétien have done? He’d have said, “Waal, da scam is da scam and, when you got da good scam, dat da scam. Me, I like da scam-and-eggs wid da home fries at da Auberge Grand-Mère every Sunday morning. And Aline, she always spray da pepper on it. Like Popeye say, I scam what I scam. Don’ make me give you da ol’ Shawiniscam handshake …” Etc., etc., until it all dribbled away into a fog of artfully constructed incoherence, and the heads of the last two journalists following the story exploded, and he won his fourth term. If you follow the headlines, Chrétien’s memoir supposedly “blames” Martin and “rips” Martin and “blasts” Martin. But, of course, ripping and blasting isn’t the Chrétien style, and this amiable book could use a bit more of it. Telling the tale from election night in 1993 in his A-frame on Lac des Piles to his final walk from the Governor General’s office through the grounds of Rideau Hall and into private life, My Years As Prime Minister is a rewarding read if you’re prepared to do a bit of decoding. Thus, throughout the text, his preferred designation for his successor is “my successor” (“Unfortunately, when my successor took too long to make up his mind …”, etc.). In Britain, Edward Heath used to refer to Margaret Thatcher as such, because her very name used to stick in his craw. So the formulation, intended as condescension, sounded merely pathetic: Mrs. T. was the consequential figure and Sir Ted was merely the flop warm-up act. By contrast, Chrétien pulls the condescension off brilliantly. It’s a cool sneer – and, for a successor distinguished only by his conspicuous lack of success, wholly deserved: say what you like about Kim Campbell, but she didn’t spend her entire adult life scheming for the role of designated fall guy.

On the back of the book, there are two blurbs, one from Bill Clinton, one from Tony Blair. Clinton says of Chrétien: “He had enormous impact, not only because people like him but because he is a genuinely good man. I doubt most Canadians know just how admired Canada is as a result in the rest of the world.” By contrast, Blair observes: “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 quite had the courage to say.”

The Slick Willie endorsement need not detain us long: that’s just standard sentimentalized Clintoblathering schmoozeroo. No one knows Chrétien (although, impressively, his name recognition in the United States doubled in the course of a decade in office, rocketing up from one per cent to two), and to the rest of the world Canada has pretty much slid off the map. “Nostalgic observers like to lament that Canada had more influence in world affairs in 1945 than it has today. That may be true,” writes M. Chrétien, in what’s quite a concession for Trudeaupian Liberals. However, he puts it down to globalization, decolonization, a lot more countries around than there used to be, and so forth. Yet China and India don’t in themselves explain the Dominion’s inability to fulfill its postwar potential: Spain, for example, which was a dusty Mediterranean backwater 30 years ago, now has a bigger economy than ours. “I think back,” says Chrétien, “to the Canada that existed when I entered Parliament in 1963 and compare it with the Canada that existed when I left office in 2004. It’s not the same country at all, and a great deal of its transformation came through political action … There is nothing that hasn’t been touched and shaped by politics.” Indeed. The Canada of 1945 was not outpaced abroad but systematically dismantled at home. Whether that was a smart move will be for posterity to decide. But the Red Ensign crowd aren’t the only “nostalgics,” as Chrétien’s lame bromides to “peacekeeping” and other “Canadian values” more honoured in the breach make wearily plain.

So forget Clinton and go back to the Blair quote. That gets closer to the truth. “I deliberately chose,” Chrétien says, “to undersell and outperform rather than outsell and underperform” – unlike certain leadership rivals one can mention. But behind the scenes Chrétien is a shrewd guy, with perhaps the most finely calibrated political antennae in the land. He judged brilliantly what post-Mulroney Canada would wear and what it wouldn’t. And almost a decade later he grasped, within a few hours of the events of Sept. 11, that, while (most) Canadians regretted the large mound of corpses, they did not regard it as Canada’s fight. At the time, the offhandedness of Chrétien’s statements – the perfunctory invocation of “our humanity and our common goodness” – seemed glibly offensive compared to John Howard’s robust declaration Down Under that this was “no time to be an 80 per cent ally.” Up north, M. Chrétien ran the numbers and concluded Canadians were willing to be maybe a 23 per cent ally, and that’s how he played it.

Political savvy unmoored from any fully formed world view is limiting. Sometimes a leader has to lead: he has to stake his ground, and call the people to it. But that’s not Ti-Jean’s style.

The most “controversial” passage in the book occurs when M. Chrétien blames “my successor” for Canadian troops’ present predicament in southern Afghanistan. “Mr. Dithers” (as The Economist dubbed Paul Martin: I believe he’s the first Canadian prime minister the British press have ever bothered to invent a dismissive nickname for) took so long twittering over whether our troops should retain command over ISAF (the International Force in Kabul) that ISAF looked elsewhere and the Canucks found themselves, in Chrétien’s words, “sent south again to battle the Taliban in the killing fields around Kandahar.” It’s worth inspecting this a little. In 2002, Canada took the unusual step of negotiating its way into a war – in this case, Afghanistan. With Iraq looming, the prime minister felt a need for a pre-emptive sidestep in case he needed to say, “What’s that? Iraq? Oh, I’m afraid our boys are all over in the Hindu Kush. Won’t be back for months.” It was a combat mission, hunting down Taliban diehards, and there was much braggadocio round Ottawa about how, oh, sure, the Brits had accepted some nancy-boy peacekeeping gig around Kabul but Canada had been there, done that, and was looking for something a little livelier this time round. When it proved a little too lively, M. Chrétien was happy to ship the boys to Kabul, where “their assignment was closer to traditional peacekeeping.” They’re now back in the hellhole of Kandahar thanks to Martin’s indecisiveness: Canada has the highest per capita casualties of any military in Afghanistan, and Chrétien comes close to saying they’re dying not for Queen and country but for Dithers and his dithering.

But the larger point is that every calculation made by either man was purely political. The notion of a national interest, or strategic goals, or even (for Pearsonian nostalgics) a moral foreign policy, all are absent. That brave Canadian warriors (to use a word M. Chrétien never would) are performing heroically in Afghanistan is an entirely accidental by-product of the Liberals’ shrivelled political calculus. For all his talk about “values,” the great survivor of Canadian politics is closer to Oscar Wilde’s man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. On, say, gay marriage, what does M. Chrétien actually believe? He might be for it, but reckoned the Canadian public weren’t ready to be sold it. He might be against it, but figures he’s got no choice but to string along with the court decision. He might have no view either way, but discerned an opportunity to tar the opposition as intolerant and bigoted.

Who knows? And, given (as he says) “how few gay couples actually bothered to tie the knot,” who cares? “While homosexuality, multiple divorces, and babies born before the honeymoon may be upsetting for many traditional people, they are the modern realities we have to recognize.” And M. Chrétien’s great skill is in recognizing modern realities without being encumbered by principle.

Reading this book you detect an undercurrent of hostility toward “Bay Street” and “Wall Street,” but no great sense of what Chrétien’s for – other than “tolerance” and the other hollow cobwebbed buzzwords that boil down to little more than a passionate belief in not believing passionately in anything. The Iraq chapter is headlined “No To War,” as if M. Chrétien is an elderly student on the march with Naomi Klein and Maude Barlow. In fact, under the cover of various “liaison” programs, Canada had more men in Iraq than many full-throated paid-up members of the “coalition of the willing.” It was happy to be a unilateral coalition of the unwilling as long as it didn’t have to march in the victory parade. But the author strains credibility when he claims to have told Bush, six months before the invasion, “I’ve been reading all my briefings about the weapons of mass destruction, and I’m not convinced. I think the evidence is very shaky.” My Beltway pals scoffed when I relayed this snippet to them, and I’m inclined to agree. Even Chrétien’s chum Chirac, who opposed the war, never disputed the fact that Saddam had WMDs, if only because he had a big bunch of the relevant receipts.

At one point, M. Chrétien takes Tony Blair aside, and one trusts that in the CBC dramatization he’ll be wearing the same mobster-like shades he wore to throttle that protester. “Okay, Tony,” says Jean. “We’re both members of the Commonwealth – you’re the No. 1, I’m the No. 2 – so why don’t we go in and take out Mugabe in Zimbabwe? He’s part of the family, so to speak, so why shouldn’t we settle the problem?”

I was whooping and cheering, “You go, girlfriend!” for the brief nanosecond before I realized he is, of course, only yanking Tone’s chain. The case for pre-emptive war, pronounces Chrétien, would not have convinced “a judge of the municipal court in Shawinigan.” This is the logical reductio of Trudeaupian foreign policy: a second-rank power that has attitudes rather than policies.

And, while Jean Chrétien may not have cut an impressive figure on the world stage, no doubt he still commands respect at that Shawinigan courthouse. “Even after I began to do quite well,” he muses, “I preferred to build a house near my blue-collar friends in an area that became known as La Place Rouge, rather than in a bourgeois part of Shawinigan” – never mind Westmount, or (as he snipes of “Mr. Black” during the Conrad peerage episode) Palm Beach, New York and London. As that tinnily paternalistic flourish of “my blue-collar friends” suggests, M. Chrétien was content to be the big shark in a small pond, working the room, dispensing favours, calling them in. It’s hardly worth rerunning Shawinigate one more time except to note that, when I stayed at the Auberge Grand-Mère, Chrétien’s blue-collar buddy Yvon Duhaime was an amiable mein host but his new publicly funded ensuite bathrooms didn’t appear to be built to code: anyone over five-foot-three who sat on the toilet would have had to poke his or her knees out the door into the bedroom. Can’t see what the Canadian taxpayer got out of that. But it accords with the Chrétien way of doing business: in a “diverse” nation, the state is the best arbiter of who deserves what slice of the cake.

There’s an anecdote that M. Chrétien doesn’t include, revealed by Jim Travers in the Toronto Star a decade back. The Prime Minister’s in an elevator at the National Gallery of Canada with President Clinton, U.S. ambassador Jim Blanchard, and André Desmarais, husband of Chrétien’s daughter France and heir to Quebec’s Power Corp. (the largest shareholder in TotalFinaElf, Saddam’s favourite oil company).

“France certainly married well,” says Blanchard.
“André married well,” says Chrétien.

Well, I’m sure those crazy kids are goo-goo for each other, but there’s something faintly creepy about this exchange – as if you’ve dropped in on a BBC costume drama in which a bunch of crowned heads are standing around the palace congratulating themselves on the adroitness of their arranged marriages. M. Chrétien also, as he says, “did well.” He was in “public service” for 40 years, except for 20 minutes in the mid-eighties when he went into private life and amazingly became a multi-gazillionaire overnight. Mulroney’s smooth when-Irish-pores-are-oozing gladhanding was aesthetically revolting to his fellow Canadians. Chrétien’s liddle-guy shtick was both less oleaginous and far more lethally effective.

Is he a nice guy? I like to think not. I’m a nasty piece of work myself, and I always had a sneaking affection for the rare public glimpse of Chrétienite viciousness – the moment when he seized that Toronto Star reporter by the wrist and snarled “Get outta da way!” (I believe, after two months waiting for wrist surgery, the journalist was eventually treated in Buffalo, and, after a federal retraining course, now works happily as a tour guide at the Museum of Canadian Literature in Shawinigan.) But that’s the p’tit gars: he got everyone outta da way – Martin, Mulroney, Campbell, Manning, Day, Clark, Charest, Bouchard, Parizeau … No one will remember NEPAD or any of the other acronymic global-summit-fillers he claims credit for, but he kept the Liberal show on the road, which, as “my successor” discovered, is a lot harder than it looks. In his own autobiography, Paul Martin would be ill-advised to try to respond in kind.

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