Joseph-Jacques-Jean Chrétien (born 1934) had one of the remarkable careers in modern Canadian politics. He was elected ten times as a Liberal to the House of Commons, held almost every major cabinet office, served as the country's first French Canadian finance minister, and in October 1993 was elected as his nation's 20th prime minister.
Jean Chrétien was born on January 11, 1934, in Shawinigan, Quebec, the 18th of 19 children of paper mill machinist Wellie Chrétien and his wife, Marie Boisvert-Chrétien. His father was a grassroots Liberal Party organizer, and Chrétien described his family as "Liberal in the free-thinking, anti-clerical, anti-establishment tradition of the nineteenth century." As a teenager he found himself defending Liberal policy in a local poolroom during the national election of 1949. A good student, he won a scholarship to Laval University law school in Quebec City, supplementing his income with summer work at the Shawinigan paper mill. He was called to the Quebec bar in 1958, a year after marrying Aline Chaîne.
In 1963 Chrétien became the federal member of Parliament for his home area of St. Maurice-Laflèche. He went to Ottawa speaking scarcely a word of English, but his energy and likability brought him quickly to the attention of Prime Minister L.B. Pearson and his powerful colleague Mitchell Sharp. Named Pearson's parliamentary assistant in July 1965, he was given the same position under Sharp, then the finance minister, in January 1966. Sharp liked his quick mind, solid political instincts, and straightforward manner, as well as his ability to convey to audiences his genuine Canadian patriotism and commitment to a strong national government, this at a time when some of his fellow Quebecers were calling for policies that would make their province master of its own destiny within or perhaps outside Canada. Chrétien was given cabinet rank under Sharp as minister of state for finance in April 1967, and he became minister of national revenue in January 1968.
Pearson was replaced as Liberal leader and prime minister by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the spring of 1968, and Chrétien was appointed his minister of Indian affairs and northern development in the summer. Early on in his six-year tenure, his department suggested a package of reforms to Canada's native peoples, including an end to their separate legal status, that was received with outrage. Chrétien retreated but rebounded quickly, making it clear in actions and words that he hated paternalism and had no desire to act as "the great white father."
Chrétien was then given a series of senior economic portfolios. "Let the philosophers philosophize elsewhere," he said. He enjoyed being where the cash was. He was president of the Treasury Board, 1974 to 1976; minister of industry, trade, and commerce, 1976 to 1977; and then the first francophone minister of finance, 1977 to 1979. The symbolism was important. A government had been elected in Quebec bent on independence for the province. The federal government wanted to make the point that Quebecers had real power in Ottawa and that their grievances could be solved in a national context. A difficult moment came in August 1978, when Trudeau announced major spending cuts without clearing them with his finance minister. Rather than resign, Chrétien swallowed his pride, knowing that the departure of a senior francophone minister would give comfort to the separatists in Quebec.
The Trudeau Liberals were briefly out of office in 1979, but they swept back into power in February 1980. Chrétien was minister of justice with special responsibility to lead the federal forces in a referendum campaign that had been called by the Quebec government to determine whether the province ought to secede from Canada. The referendum (which rejected the plan) was won by the Chrétien side in dramatic and convincing fashion, and he next tackled the national constitution. After a bruising 18-month battle, all of the provinces were satisfied with the federal proposals, including a charter of rights and freedoms, except Quebec. Chrétien and his colleagues decided to proceed without his home province, reinforcing the impression in some quarters of Quebec that he had other priorities than its welfare.
Chrétien served as minister of energy, mines, and resources from 1982 to 1984. When Trudeau announced his retirement, Chrétien ran to become chief of the Liberal Party, finishing second in June 1984 to John Turner, who took over as prime minister. The relationship with Turner was strained, but Chrétien was appointed deputy prime minister and secretary of state for external affairs. He won his seat in the September 1984 election, but the party lost badly to Brian Mulroney's Conservatives. Chrétien returned to the private practice of law in 1986.
After Turner's resignation in 1990, Chrétien again contested the leadership of the Liberal Party, this time winning easily. Preferring to be constructive, he hated his new role as leader of the opposition. Media critics were everywhere—he was labeled "yesterday's man"—and a long illness in 1991 sapped his strength over many months. In the national election of October 1993, however, experience showed, and all the former decisiveness and roughhewn confidence returned. Chrétien ran a brilliant campaign, taking 178 of 295 seats. The only blot was Quebec, where many of the old suspicions lingered and the separatist Bloc Quebeçois won 54 seats.
Chrétien assumed control as prime minister on November 4, 1993. The first months were marked by an emphasis on integrity in government, policy review, and budget-cutting. Polls taken at the time showed his party to be immensely more popular than it had been even at election time.
Chrétien successfully championed his federalist cause in 1995 with the Quebec Referendum. The Referendum was yet another attempt to make Quebec a separate entity from Canada. He has often been described as a major political player against Quebec separatists.
Further Reading on Joseph-Jacques-Jean Chrétien
The only in-depth study of Chrétien is his own autobiography, Straight from the Heart (Toronto, 1985; revised edition, 1994).