, 10.29.2018 08:07 AM

Petit gars et petit Justin

“Petit Justin!”

He got a laugh every time he said it, so the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien naturally used the line more than once. Everyone laughed. Petit Justin, standing off to the side, laughed a bit too.

They weren’t onstage together very long – a few seconds, tops, for a hug and a few words – but that was the photo everyone wanted: the two elected-majority Liberal Prime Ministers, together for a moment or two.

Trudeau was there to introduce the most-successful Liberal leader since his Dad. Chretien was there to tell a few jokes, brag about a (long) list of accomplishments, and – mainly – to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his landslide victory.

October 25th, 1993: our election-night party was at the World Exchange Plaza. We all stood there, knowing that we’d win, but not expecting the magnitude of our victory. His victory.

Because, really, it was Jean Chretien who secured that great big Parliamentary majority. Not us. It was Chretien who reduced the once-invincible Conservatives to two seats. It was him.

Under the watchful eye of the late, great, Romeo LeBlanc, I ran his 1993 war room, the first. We were assisted in our victory by Kim Campbell, for sure, and by a Conservative campaign team that had decided it would be a good idea to mock Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis.

But, mostly and always, it was Chretien who won it for us in 1993. And in 1997. And in 2000.

I met him in 1990 when I was a litigation lawyer at 99 Bank Street. He was on the other side, at 50 O’Connor, acting as legal counsel at another firm.

I used to see him lined up at lunchtime to get a sandwich at Van Houte’s. He’s then sit at a table, reading the sports pages. I’d watch him from afar, loving that he did that.

Around the same time – when Brian Mulroney and some legacy-seeking Premiers decided to stick an interpretative clause in the Constitution, without interpreting it first – I went looking for a politician to speak for me. The guy eating the sandwich and reading the sports pages was the only one.

I left the law and got hired as his speechwriter, which was kind of the political equivalent of the Maytag Man. As in, not needed. Who needs a speechwriter for the best speech-maker in Canada?

So, he gave me another job. At first, he was skeptical about this “war room” stuff the Democrats were doing. But I assured him that James Carville and other Democrats were saying it was what we needed to do: oppo, quick response, all that.

We did it, and we did okay.

A lot of that old gang were there for the 25th: campaign boss John Rae, giving a stirring introduction of both Trudeau and Chretien. Bruce Hartley, a 1993 war room alumnus, and Chretien’s EA since his retirement in 2003. Mrs. Chretien – Madame, as all of us who worked for Chretien called her – looking pretty spectacular for someone in her eighties.

The best political photographer ever, Jean-Marc Carisse. Denis Coderre, former mayor, former cabinet minister – former young Liberal with me, back when neither of us could imagine reaching our forties, let alone our fifties.

Dalton McGuinty, whose war rooms I also ran, was there, too – his team having been dominated by Chretien folks. Prem Vinning, the BC political legend who helped Chretien win the Liberal leadership in 1990. Bob Plamondon, the former Tory candidate who wrote one of the best books about Chretien.

Senator David Smith, who helped deliver every seat in Ontario. Penny Collenette, the human rights lawyer who ran Chretien’s appointments. Deb Davis and Isabelle Metcalfe, longtime Chretien organizers.

Paul Sparkes, the Newfoundlander who kept the wheels running on the road.oh, and Lisa Kinsella (who I can tell you loves Chretien for the chance he gave her to work on the Hill, and for the policies he crafted that helped her when she was single mom).

The journalists there were laughing at Chretien’s jokes, too, even though they’d heard them many (many) times: the Star’s Susan Delacourt, Global’s David Akin. Lots of cameras.

At one point, Chretien missed a punchline, and everyone laughed anyway. He then re-did the joke, and everyone laughed even harder.

“I’m getting old, you know,” he said.

No one cared. We’re all older, too, but not on that night at the Chateau Laurier. Not even 25 years later.

He made us feel younger again. He made us laugh at the lines we’d all heard before. He made us remember why he – more than any other – remains the most-loved Prime Minister. Still.

There is a joy in politics, but it can be fleeting. The lows are deep. The losses, keenly felt.

For those of us who had the privilege to work for him, Jean Chretien lifted us up. He suffused politics with pure joy. And fun, and camaraderie, and achievement.

Want to be Prime Minister for a long time, Petit Justin? Then pay close attention to what Jean Chretien did. Watch his moves. Learn.

He was the great one.

Still is.


  1. Mitch Brisebois says:

    “racial paralysis” – I realize it’s a typo. It’s an interesting phrase nevertheless.

  2. Matt says:

    ” Jean Chretien’s racial paralysis.”

    I assume that should be facial paralysis?

  3. Greg says:

    Just noted what I suspect is a typo:

    “…had decided it would be a good idea to mock Jean Chretien’s racial paralysis.”

    I assume you meant “facial”.

    Otherwise, thanks for the summary of your memories of what was clearly a defining point in your life!

  4. Michael Robert Bussiere says:

    Was John Tory in any way involved in the Campbell campaign that ran those shameful ads?

  5. whyshouldIsellyourwheat says:

    Isn’t it ironic that John Tory was Kim Campbell’s campaign manager who approved the infamous Chretien ad?

    Now that John Tory is safely re-elected, what is his and your actual opinion of the reduction in Toronto council size?

    The Star had a famous editorial recommending it several years ago.

    • Matt says:

      Not to speak for them, but WK is on record he is in favour of the reduction, but not the way it was done.

      And if I recall Tory said reducing the size was a debate worth having, but again was angered by the timing of it. He felt there needed to be proper consultations with Toronto residents.

  6. BMarcille says:

    Wow. Rose-coloured glasses much?
    You have consistently said that governments defeat themselves. Mulroney’s did. To claim that Jean emerged from the phone booth and won that campaign is to deny the story of hundreds of people and millions of variables. He basically wandered the wilderness for a decade.
    By your recollection, our current under-whelming premier was a mastermind for giving Wynne-McGuinty 15 years to prepare the province for Ford Nation (ugh) and decimating the Liberals (yay!)

    Chretien won because of Brian Mulroney voter fatigue, Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard – the perfect storm.

    The Liberals could have run Eugene Whelan and still won.

    • The Doctor says:

      I agree there were huge assists from Manning and Bouchard to split the vote. And yes, I clearly remember, because I worked on the campaign, the degree of anti-Mulroney animus in some circles was off the charts. Beyond reason in many cases. It’s like Mulroney became this target of blame for everything that people perceived as missing in their lives or wrong with the world. The fact that Mulroney had resigned and wasn’t actually running in the election was almost irrelevant to these people, they still wanted to flog him, so they vicariously did so by punishing Kim Campbell.

      • doconnor says:

        Very similar to what just happened to Kathleen Wynne.

        • Fred from BC says:

          Similar, except that Wynne wasn’t smart enough to resign.

          • doconnor says:

            Maybe she was smart enough not to make someone else take the fall and force two leadership campaigns.

          • Fred from BC says:

            “Maybe she was smart enough not to make someone else take the fall and force two leadership campaigns.”

            Nope. Just not smart enough to realize how badly she was loathed, and save herself the embarrassment of a crushing defeat by resigning while she could still save a little dignity.

    • James Smith says:

      Drop your shameful negativity on Mr Whelan! Like M. Chretien he was an effective, popular and committed pol. who we could use a lot more of at the moment. Here was a fella like M. C who gave his life to the service of the country & almost always put his constituents first, unlike “FOLKS” like Mr Ford. Frankly your use of Mr W as a punchline is offensive.

      • BMarcille says:

        “Canada has two official languages and I don’t speak none of them.” Eugene Whelan.

        In the leadership race in 1984, he came in last.

        Chretien; Whelan; Labra-Doodle in a red sweater – If it had a pulse and wasn’t a Tory, it would have won that election. (Cat-people generally vote NDP.)

    • Pedant says:

      Indeed, particularly in 1997 when the Liberals won 38.5% of the vote but still managed a majority due to the vote split.

  7. Daryl Gordon says:

    Just to stir the pot a little more, don’t forget the lingering stench of the Auberge Grande-Mere sale via BDC financing to Yvon Duhaime. Duhaime had been rejected by BDC, then after calls by Chretien, financing granted.

    BDC president resigns after suggesting the loan be recalled and has his severance package repealed. President Beaudin sues and wins back pension and severance.

    A key document alleging a previous loan from Chretien to Duhaime goes missing, former senior aid to Chretien now vp at BDC Jean Carle testifies, judge in Quebec Superior Court is critical of the testimony.

    But poof it all goes away.

  8. Pedant says:

    Impossible for someone born 2 centimetres from home plate like Justin Trudeau to even attempt to emulate a guy like Chretien who grew up relatively poor. Heck, he can’t even emulate Harper, who grew up middle class.

    I think Justin is just smart enough (barely) to realize how ridiculous it would look trying to be a “man of the people”.

    • The Doctor says:

      Yes, better for JT to resign himself to being Selfie Boy and Virtue-Signaller In Chief. That’s his comfort zone.

  9. Ned Ludd says:

    If my memory serves me, I recall you mentioning that M. Chretien always said: “Over-perform and undersell”?
    For the longest time, I thought our current PM had it reversed.
    He seems to be getting it right lately….at least the number of selfies has diminished.

  10. Gord says:

    They say a statesman is a dead politician, and most pols look a lot better in the rear-view mirror, once they are a few years removed from office. I can think of more than a few that fit that bill – Harry Truman, Clement Attlee, Lester Pearson spring to mind.

    And in my own case, Jean Chretien. I have to admit that in 2002 I was one of those who was anxious for him to make way for a new leader – he looked to be smack in the middle of the sponsorship scam, his government seemed tired and out of gas, and as a 22-year-old who didn’t know any better I was disillusioned with his retail politics and what I perceived as “small-time thinking”.

    Of course, Chretien was immediately followed by Mr. Big Ideas himself, he of hell or high water, he of the fifty-seven very, very important priorities and “let me make this perfectly clear”; and his absolute trainwreck of a government that started the process of pissing away all the hard work that the Chretien government had done to get the country’s finances in order. The man who liked to claim credit for slaying the deficit suddenly couldn’t spend money fast enough, and there was no cause he wouldn’t throw more taxpayer dollars at.

    Anyways, Joni Mitchell got it right in Big Yellow Taxi. Fortunately the Little Guy isn’t gone just yet.

  11. Montréalaise says:

    RDI had a very interesting documentary on Jean Chrétien last night, following his political career as a cabinet minister under PET until the loss of the leadership campaign to John Turner in 1984 (which was the best thing which could have happened to him, because if he had won, he would undoubtedly have suffered the same fate as Turner). Part 2 is on tonight at 8. Seeing footage of him and PET together, I couldn’t help but wonder what he really thinks of JT (not that he would ever let us know, but it would certainly be interesting to be the proverbial fly on the wall).

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