Legacy of Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien

Feature by Greg Farries || Jun 1, 2006

On December 12, 2003, Jean Chrétien officially stepped down as Prime Minister of Canada, after 10 years in the office and more than 40 years of public service. This article provides an overview of Jean Chrétien's lengthy political career: it describes his personal life, his political career under previous Prime Ministers, as well as highlights of his prime ministership.

Jean Chrétien: Personal Background

Chrétien's life before Parliament

Chrétien under Prime Ministers Pearson and Trudeau

Chrétien's record under former Liberal prime ministers

Chrétien as Prime Minister: Highlights of his Governments

Canadian unity, tackling the deficit, and the Sponsorship Scandal

Sources and Links to More Information

Lists of article sources and links for more on this topic


Jean Chrétien: Personal Background

Chrétien's life before Parliament

Family Life

On January 11, 1934, Jacques Jean Chrétien was born in Shawinigan, Quebec. Chrétien, the eighteenth of nineteen children, was born to working class parents of modest income. His father worked as a machinist in a paper mill. The Chrétiens were staunch supporters of the Liberal Party, and actively opposed Maurice Duplessis' Union Nationale government. In 1957, he married Aline Châiné. The couple has three children, including an adopted Aboriginal child.

Education and Work Life

Chrétien attended university, earning a BA from St. Joseph's Seminary in Trois Rivières in 1955. Chrétien continued his studies; in 1958, he received his law degree from Laval university. During his time at Laval, he was President of Laval's Young Liberals club. In 1958, Chrétien was called to the Quebec bar and subsequently opened the law firm of Chrétien, Landry, Deschênes, Trudel, and Normand in Shawinagin.

Entrance into Politics

Chrétien began participating in politics early in his life, due in large part to his parents' political activism. In 1960, he became the principle organizer for Jean Lesage, leader of the provincial Liberal Party of Quebec (Lesage became Premier of Quebec later that year). In 1963, Chrétien successfully ran as a Liberal candidate for the district of Saint-Maurice-Laflèche in the federal election. In that election, the federal Liberals ousted John Diefenbaker's Conservative government. That election marked the beginning of long and distinguished political career for Chrétien, spanning more than 30 years of service in the Canadian Parliament.


Chrétien under Prime Ministers Pearson and Trudeau

Chrétien's record under former Liberal prime ministers

Renaming Canada’s Major Airline Carrier

Jean Chrétien entered Parliament as a Liberal MP in 1963 under the minority government of Prime Minister Lester Pearson. One of Chrétien’s earliest successes came shortly after his arrival in Ottawa, when he spearheaded the campaign to change the name of Canada’s major airline from Trans-Canada Airlines to Air Canada. There were two compelling reasons behind the proposed name change. First, “Trans-Canada” was confusing, since the airline had several international routes, and no longer flew solely within Canada. Second, the name didn’t translate easily into French, causing resentment among Quebeckers. While the first reason is probably why the name change passed, in his autobiography Chrétien clearly places greater weight on the second.

In 1964, Chrétien submitted a private member’s bill proposing the name change. When that failed to pass, he gathered support from several MPs in other parties and reintroduced the bill in the next session. The bill passed, and it brought Chrétien to Pearson’s attention.

Chrétien in the Pearson Cabinet

Pearson soon rewarded Chrétien’s efforts:

  • In 1965, he made Chrétien parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister.
  • In 1965, he made Chrétien parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Finance.
  • In 1967, he appointed Chrétien Minister of State for the Department of Finance.
  • In January 1968, he appointed Chrétien Minister of National Revenue.

At the time, the position of parliamentary secretary was the first step to a ministerial post. While the position of parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister was largely ceremonial, parliamentary secretaries attached to cabinet ministers (such as the Minister of Finance), performed many duties, including making speeches, attending committee meetings, and explaining department policy.

In his autobiography, Chrétien admits he was disappointed when Pearson made him parliamentary secretary to the Finance Minister, as he had hoped for a ministerial post. However, Pearson pointed out that Chrétien would receive more notice in the Finance Department than he would as a junior Cabinet Minister. “If I had taken you into the Cabinet today, in the traditional French-Canadian portfolio of Postmaster-General that I have given to Côté, it might not lead you to greater things,” Pearson stated (excerpt from Straight from the Heart). Chrétien notes Pearson’s speech helped fuel his ambition to become Canada’s first francophone Minister of Finance.

Chrétien in the Trudeau Cabinet

Following Pearson’s resignation, Chrétien continued his rapid rise through the political ranks under Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau. In 1968, Trudeau made Chrétien Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. Chrétien remained in the post until 1974, during which time he undertook several initiatives:

  • He created 10 new national parks, including British Columbia’s Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This was a major accomplishment, as only four national parks had been created in the previous 40 years.
  • He presented a major policy paper on First Nations Rights that would have abolished the Indian Act and the system of native reserves, giving natives individual rights as opposed to group rights. The paper was based on previous discussions between Chrétien and Trudeau on the issue. Due to opposition from the native community, some of whom argued that this amounted to cultural genocide, the Trudeau government withdrew the paper.
  • He appointed Justice Thomas Berger to oversee an inquiry into a proposed American pipeline through native lands in the Mackenzie River Valley. Chrétien, who supported the pipeline, expected Berger to bargain hard to obtain as many concessions for the natives as possible. Instead, Berger published a negative report that effectively quashed the deal.

In 1977, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Chrétien as Minister of Finance. As Finance Minister, Chrétien delivered two budgets:

  • In 1977, he released a budget designed to stimulate economic growth, following pre-budget consultations with the provinces about lowering their sales taxes with full financial compensation. Following the budget’s release, nine of the 10 provinces lowered their sales taxes, but Quebec’s PQ government did not. While Quebec eventually backed down, the Finance department received a great deal of negative publicity.
  • In November 1978, Chrétien released a more conservative budget. Despite being a pre-election budget, it did not contain any major spending promises. Some critics believe the non-political budget cost the Liberals the 1979 election. However, in his autobiography, Chrétien argues that the public simply wanted a change after fifteen years of Liberal government.

In February 1980, Trudeau appointed Chrétien Minister of Justice and Attorney General. Trudeau also made Chrétien responsible for leading the federal forces in the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum campaign. Chrétien spent weeks traveling throughout Quebec, trying to persuade ordinary Quebeckers to reject the sovereignty option. In his autobiography Straight from the Heart, Chrétien notes that it was a close call, with the No side winning only 60 percent of the vote: “Many Canadians still don’t realize how close or how significant the referendum result was.”

Reforming the Constitution

In the debates preceding the Quebec sovereignty referendum, Trudeau promised to patriate the BNA Act, introduce a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and give Quebeckers a greater role within Confederation. After Quebeckers voted down sovereignty association, the federal government moved ahead with its plans for constitutional reform. The process unfolded over a two-year period:

  • In the summer of 1980, the federal government held a series of ministerial constitutional conferences with the provinces.
  • Based on these meetings, the federal government scheduled a formal First Ministers' Conference (FMC) for September 1980.
  • Prior to the FMC, a federal civil servant and separatist sympathizer leaked a document indicating Ottawa was prepared to act unilaterally if it couldn’t reach an agreement with the provinces. The leaked memo poisoned the atmosphere at the FMC. Talks between the provinces and the Prime Minister broke down almost immediately.
  • After the failed FMC, the federal government sent a reference case to the Supreme Court asking whether it could patriate the Constitution with only Ontario and New Brunswick's support.
  • In September 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that while it was legally permissible for the federal government to act alone, it defied constitutional convention.
  • Based on the Court’s rather ambiguous ruling, the federal government held a second series of federal-provincial constitutional debates.
  • In November 1981, a majority of provinces agreed to sign the constitutional agreement after the federal government made several concessions. Manitoba signed after a provincial election replaced the outgoing PCs with the NDP. In the end, Quebec was the only province not to sign.
  • On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth participated in an official signing ceremony on Parliament Hill proclaiming the Constitution — officially called the Canada Act, 1982 — into law.

Chrétien played a significant part in implementing Trudeau’s constitutional vision. Following the referendum victory, Chrétien set off on a cross-country series of meetings with provincial premiers to discuss constitutional reform. During the summer, he participated in a series of federal-provincial constitutional debates to see if an agreement was possible.

However, his major role came during the second set of constitutional conferences. While the reference case was still before the Supreme Court, a group of provincial premiers formed a unified opposition to Trudeau’s constitutional proposals. The so-called “Gang of Eight” refused to support patriation unless the Charter was dropped and the amending formula changed to allow any province to opt out of any constitutional amendment with full financial compensation. The Gang of Eight included Quebec, who dropped its demand for an absolute veto over any constitutional amendment to join with the other seven provinces.

Trudeau succeeded in breaking the Gang of Eight's unity by striking a separate deal with Quebec Premier Levesque. Trudeau promised Levesque he would hold separate nationwide referendums on amending the Constitution and on including the Charter. To pass, the referendums would have to gain a majority in the West, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces, thus giving Quebec a veto.

When Trudeau publicly announced the deal, the other seven provinces felt betrayed by Quebec and were ready to negotiate with the federal government. In a historic meeting in the kitchen of Ottawa’s National Conference Center, Chrétien worked out a compromise with Roy Romanow and Roy McMurtry (the attorneys general of Saskatchewan and Ontario, respectively). The provinces would accept Trudeau’s constitutional agreement if the Charter included a notwithstanding clause, and the provinces were able to opt out of constitutional amendments, without receiving any financial compensation. The agreement left Quebec — which viewed the Charter as a threat to Quebec’s distinct status — out in the cold. Many Quebeckers felt betrayed and refer to this incident as the “night of the long knives.”

As Attorney General, Chrétien participated in the official signing ceremony proclaiming the Constitution into law, along with Prime Minister Trudeau and Register General André Ouellet.


Chrétien as Prime Minister: Highlights of his Governments

Canadian unity, tackling the deficit, and the Sponsorship Scandal

Chrétien first ran for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1984, but was defeated by John Turner. Chrétien subsequently left politics in 1986, returning to private law practice. Following Turner's resignation as leader of the Liberals in 1990, Chrétien returned to federal politics and successfully ran for the leadership of the Party. In the 1993 general election, the Liberals won a majority government and Chrétien became the 20th Prime Minister of Canada. He held that post for 10 years, until his resignation in 2003.

The following discusses just a few highlights of Prime Minister Chrétien's governments.

Liberal Electoral Success

One of the most striking characteristics of Chrétien's term as Prime Minister was his electoral success. Under Chrétien, the Liberals won three consecutive majority governments. This was due to a number of reasons. On the one hand, Chrétien showed great political experience in terms of pursuing popular public policies, as well as running strong election campaigns. For example, in 2000, he surprised his Liberal caucus by calling a snap election, only three-and-a-half years into his second mandate (governments can go as long as five years before they are required to call an election). The election caught the Canadian Alliance — the Liberals’ only real competition — off guard, and gave Chrétien his largest majority ever.

On the other hand, part of Chrétien's success stemmed from the general political climate and state of party politics in Canada. Following the general election of 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada was reduced from a majority government with 151 seats in the House of Commons to only two seats. Moreover, previous supporters of the Progressive Conservatives looked to new political parties. In the West, conservative voters turned to the upstart Reform Party of Canada (which was later renamed the Canadian Alliance Party). The Progressive Conservatives also lost their base of support in Quebec, with many voters turning to the pro-sovereignty Bloq Québécois. Both the Reform Party and the Bloc, however, were highly regionalized political parties, with little support outside of the West and Quebec, respectively. Chrétien's Liberals were able to capitalize on this highly fragmented party system by dominating elections in Ontario (which holds the largest number of seats in the House of Commons) and by gaining moderate support in other regions of the country.

Eliminating the Federal Deficit

Beginning in the early 1970s, the federal government began incurring ever-increasing deficits (the annual amount by which government spending exceeds revenues). By 1995, the annual deficit had reached extreme levels, totaling $37.5 billion. Moreover, as a result of this persistent deficit financing, the federal government's total debt (the total of all past deficits and surpluses since Confederation) grew from $20 billion in 1971 to $588 billion in 1996. In 1994-95, the cost of maintaining this debt load was $42 billion, accounting for approximately 26 percent of the annual federal budget (Source: Statistics Canada, Federal Finances).

One of the key policy highlights of the Chrétien governments was the elimination of the deficit and the lowering of the federal debt. Beginning in 1994, the Chrétien government undertook a broad program to reverse federal finances, which included massive spending cuts to federal programs and transfer payments to the provinces and territories (the federal government contributes billions annually to the provinces/territories in support of their social programs, such as public health care). By 1997-98, the federal government recorded its first annual surplus in 28 years, and (as of 2007) has continued to post large surpluses every year. Moreover, the Chrétien government used these annual surpluses to lower the national debt. By 2002-03, the year Chrétien resigned as Prime Minister, the debt had been reduced to $526 billion (Source: Statistics Canada, Federal Finances).

The elimination of the deficit, however, has been somewhat controversial. In order to achieve annual surpluses, Chrétien governments slashed federal contributions to national, provincial, and territorial social programs. Supporters of Canada's social-welfare state have argued that this has caused a deterioration of the standard of living for many Canadians. Moreover, some provincial and territorial governments have argued that the federal cuts to provincial/territorial transfers have placed an extraordinary financial burden upon them. They argue that the federal government, in effect, solved its financial difficulties by simply "downloading" spending obligations to other levels of government. It should be noted that Chrétien attempted to address some of these concerns towards the end of his tenure, increasing federal contributions to several key social programs, in particular, public health care.

1995 Quebec Sovereignty Referendum

A critical moment during Chrétien's tenure as Prime Minister was the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. The pro-sovereigntist Parti Québécois, which was governing Quebec at the time, instituted the province-wide referendum. The referendum asked Quebeckers the following: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?" (Source: Gall, Quebec Referendum (1995)). While its wording was somewhat confusing, it was commonly acknowledged that if a majority of Quebeckers responded "Yes" to the referendum question, then the governing Parti Québécois would have a mandate to pursue some form of national sovereignty for the province. The final results of the referendum were very close, with the "No" side winning a narrow victory of 50.58 percent of the vote, compared to 49.42 percent for the "Yes" side.

The stakes of the referendum were extremely high; if the "Yes" side had won, there was a strong chance that Quebec would seek some form of political independence and that Canada would be dissolved into at least two political entities. Many cirticized Prime Minister Chrétien for not doing enough to support Canadian unity and the "No" side during the referendum campaign.

Following the Quebec referendum, however, Chrétien did take several steps to counter further Quebec sovereignty movements. He introduced and passed a motion in the House of Commons recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society" (i.e., a society characterized by the French language, its unique culture and civil law system). Moreover, Chrétien adjusted federal-provincial relations, by granting the provinces greater control over constitutional change and labour training and education. Finally, Chrétien introduced the Clarity Bill, which was meant to frame future referendums on Quebec sovereignty. The Bill stated that a province could only secede after its population had a chance to vote on separation in a "clear" referendum question. Under the Bill, the federal House of Commons would decide whether or not the question is clearly stated.

Sponsorship Scandal

When Chrétien left office in 2003, he left under the shadow of the Sponsorship Scandal, which involved allegations of fraud and conflict of interest in the Liberal government's handling of millions of dollars in government sponsorship funds. The Scandal eventually led to several persons pleading guilty to fraud related charges, including two advertising agency representatives and a civil servant. The Scandal eventually led the Liberal government of Paul Martin to call a formal public inquiry (the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Program), which was given the mandate to review the government's handling of sponsorships. While Chrétien was the Prime Minster when the sponsorships under review were awarded, and was required to testify at the public inquiry, he was never linked to any acts of wrongdoing. The Scandal, however, did negatively impact the Liberal Party, which dropped from a majority government to a minority in the 2004 election, and then out of government in the 2006 election.

For more information on the Sponsorship Scandal & the Commission of Inquiry:


Sources and Links to More Information

Lists of article sources and links for more on this topic

Sources Used for this Article

  • The State: Federal Finances. Statistics Canada. 08 January 2005. 05 June 2007. <http://www43.statcan.ca/04/04a/04a_008_e.htm>
  • Gall, G. Quebec Referendum (1995). The Canadian Encyclopedia. 05 June 2007. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0010730>

Links to More Information

Syndicate content