In­ter­view In a new memoir, Jean Chré­tien re­counts his po­lit­i­cal life

Jean Chré­tien’s new book re­counts his long po­lit­i­cal life in a se­ries of hu­mor­ous and pro­found anec­dotes

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Peter Mug­geridge

tHIS PAST OC­TO­BER marked the 25 years since Jean Chré­tien was first elected as prime min­is­ter. In his new book, Jean Chré­tien: My Sto­ries, My Times, he re­flects on his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that spanned five decades, re­count­ing with his trade­mark hu­mour in­trigu­ing and en­ter­tain­ing be­hindthe-scenes anec­dotes from his youth, his time at 24 Sus­sex and his post-po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. Amaz­ingly, Chré­tien, 84, ac­tu­ally hand-wrote the chron­i­cles, which lends them an authen­tic­ity you don’t of­ten find in po­lit­i­cal chron­i­cles. You al­most get the sense you’re re­lax­ing af­ter din­ner while le p’tit gars de Shaw­ini­gan, glass of wine in hand, re­gales you with his favourite mem­o­ries.

Zoomer spoke with the for­mer prime min­is­ter by phone from his Montreal law of­fice where he still works every day.

Peter Mug­geridge What prompted you to write this book? Jean Chré­tien I have so many stor- ies from my po­lit­i­cal life, and my grand­son said, “Why don’t you write them down?” One night, I de­cided to do that, and even­tu­ally I wrote 49 chron­i­cles. It was pleas­ant be­cause when I was fed up with the non­sense of lis­ten­ing to [Don­ald] Trump, I went to my ta­ble and re­gained my seren­ity with my pen and mem­o­ries.

PM Was it dif­fi­cult to choose which anec­dotes made it in? JC No, I was just re­ly­ing on my mem­ory. I would sit at the ta­ble and say: “What the hell am I writ­ing about this week?” There was no plan­ning to the book. It’s just my chron­i­cles.

PM I don’t want to spoil the best sto­ries but I must ask you about the time you filled in and sang the na­tional an­them for the Queen in Yel­lowknife. JC It was kind of em­bar­rass­ing for me to sing it in front of 3,000 peo­ple – and in French, which no­body spoke up there. My wife, Aline, was em­bar­rassed, and I was sweat­ing, and the rest of the crowd were laugh­ing. But I en­joyed it and I said to the Queen: “Very few of us have been soloists for the Royal Fam­ily, Your Majesty.” It was not the most har­mo­nious [ren­di­tion].

PM You wrote in the book: “We know when we go into pol­i­tics that we have to live with our de­ci­sions for a long time.” What are some of the ac­com­plish­ments you’re most proud of? JC Ev­ery­one asks me which one was the best. That de­pends on the mood you’re in that day. I was in­volved in so many dif­fer­ent things – say­ing no to the war in Iraq – but I had more en­joy­ment cre­at­ing [10 new] na­tional parks, things like that, that no­body knows about. But it’s very dif­fi­cult to de­cide which ac­com­plish­ment was the best. I don’t like to choose. You read it and pick the one you pre­fer.

PM Is there any de­ci­sion you made that you’d like to do over? JC Of course, but there’s noth­ing I can do about it. I don’t spend time think­ing about things I should not have done. When you’re in pub­lic life, there’s a lot of things that hap­pen, and you think: “Per­haps I should have taken a dif­fer­ent course.” But you can­not lose time on that. Es­pe­cially in pol­i­tics where you’re al­ways on the go. You wake up in the morn­ing, and there are al­ways new prob­lems. You have the feel­ing that when you fill a hole, there are two other new ones to fill. Pol­i­tics is like skat­ing on thin ice; you never know when you will be gob­bled up and dis­ap­pear. I sur­vived more than 13,333 days liv­ing that life.

PM You have a chap­ter called “My Rock of Gi­bral­tar” that refers to your wife, Aline. Can you ex­plain what she’s meant to you over the years, not only when you were serv­ing but also in re­tire­ment? JC We cel­e­brated [in Septem­ber] 61 years of mar­riage. And you know, we’re still in love, so what more can I say? We’re happy, and I hope that will last as long as pos­si­ble.

PM How’s your health? Do you think you could still run up the steps to your of­fice in Par­lia­ment? JC I don’t run up the steps any­more. I use the el­e­va­tor. My health is very good. I’m 84 this year so I’m not a kid any­more. But I still play golf and I still swim and I still walk. I think I’ve stopped ski­ing, but I’m not sure yet.

PM Be­sides writ­ing the book, how have you oc­cu­pied your­self since you re­tired from pol­i­tics in 2003? JC I am a se­nior ad­viser in the big­gest law firm in the world – Den­tons. They call me when they want to use my ex­pe­ri­ence and my con­nec­tions. I was a min­is­ter in eight dif­fer­ent port­fo­lios and I know a lot about pub­lic gov­er­nance. I ar­rive in the of­fice at 9 a.m. – if I ar­rive later than that, I feel ter­ri­ble. When I go home at the end of the day, I en­joy life. Read­ing and, last year, a lot of time writ­ing.

PM You once said: “I will al­ways be a politi­cian.” It’s now been 15 years since you left of­fice – do you still get a buzz out of pol­i­tics? JC Of course, I’m watch­ing pol­i­tics and when peo­ple call me to ask me my views, I’m happy to dis­cuss. But I’m not pre­oc­cu­pied with pol­i­tics – it’s not my job any­more. And I don’t want to be a Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back or the mother-in-law.

PM Your sup­port of free trade helped U.S. Pres­i­dent Clin­ton pass NAFTA through congress. Watch­ing the frus­trat­ing free trade ne­go­ti­a­tions go­ing on to­day, do you have to fight the urge to get in­volved? JC It’s not my busi­ness. As I wrote in the book, if they change one comma in the deal, Trump will say: “It’s the best change to oc­cur since the foun­da­tion of Amer­ica.” It is frus­trat­ing, but he will sign some­thing. As I say, you can­not undo an omelette; you can­not put the egg back in the shell. The auto pact was signed in 1965, long be­fore NAFTA. And it has worked very well for both coun­tries. PM How would you have han­dled a leader like Trump? JC Oh, I don’t know. I don’t want to spend time think­ing about that.

PM You write about us­ing hu­mour as a po­lit­i­cal weapon. Do you think that’s a trait lack­ing in the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal de­bate? JC The cold truth is dif­fi­cult to swal­low at times. But if you put sugar on it, us­ing hu­mour for ex­am­ple, it makes it eas­ier to swal­low. You’re deal­ing with hu­man be­ings, not com­put­ers. PM You de­vote a chap­ter to Pierre Trudeau. What kind of boss was he? JC He was a good boss with me. It was a very good re­la­tion­ship – I just did my job and didn’t bother him. He thought I was do­ing good work be­cause he kept mov­ing me from one job to an­other. We never shouted at each other, ever. He never threat­ened to kick me out, and I never threat­ened to re­sign.

PM Do you and Justin ever talk pol­i­tics? JC Once in a while. But I tell him: “It’s your show. You run it.” He has mynum­berand­hecan­callme­when­ever he wants.

PM But I imag­ine he would want to draw on your ex­pe­ri­ence. JC: I don’t know. You ask him.

PM What do you think of Doug Ford’s threat­ened use of the not­with­stand­ing clause in his bat­tle to down­size Toronto city coun­cil? JC It is very un­usual. When you fool around with the Char­ter of Rights, you will even­tu­ally pay a big price. But, again, I’m not a Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back.

PM Ex­plain why you feel that demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions seem to be un­der as­sault around the world. JC When I was there 15 years ago, there were new democ­ra­cies com­ing out every year. We saw the evo­lu­tion of gov­ern­ments in Europe that were all mov­ing in the right direc­tion: Hun­gary, Poland, Czech Repub­lic and so on. Sud­denly, you see a shift back­ward. The Euro­pean Union is more or less sus­pend­ing Hun­gary from par­tic­i­pat­ing in de­bate be­cause of the way they han­dle their democ­racy. It’s not good news for a demo­crat like me.

PM Do you think democ­racy is sal­vage­able? JC Al­ways. You know, in pol­i­tics ev­ery­thing al­ways looks ter­ri­ble until you look at it 20 years later. Many morn­ings, as prime min­is­ter, when I got up, the news wasn’t that good. I would tell my staff: “If you have good news, give me two. If you have bad news, give me noth­ing.”

PM Why did you choose Joe Clark, an old po­lit­i­cal foe, to write the fore­word to your book? JC We were op­po­nents but not en­e­mies. We had some scrapes but we al­ways re­spected each other. At times, I was not happy with him, and other times he was not happy with me. But it’s like play­ing hockey: if a guy boards you, you re­mem­ber and you board him the next time. And af­ter that, you go have a beer with him.

Chré­tien, 1990

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