, 07.02.2020 11:33 AM

My latest: the greatest Prime Minister

Free political advice: always look both ways.

It’s a sunny, warm June day in 1990 in Calgary.  Along with Eleanor McMahon – one of Jean Chretien’s press assistants, and a future Ontario cabinet minister – I’m on the sidewalk outside the Delta Hotel on Fourth Avenue.  Eleanor and I are on our way somewhere, to prep for another successful Chretien leadership campaign event.  Eleanor behind me, I step off the sidewalk.

And I step into the path of a yellow Calgary cab, moving fast.  

Tires screeched.  Horns blared.  Eleanor screamed.

Later on, in a room at the Calgary General Hospital, Eleanor told me that I had flipped through the air “like a rag doll,” and landed, hard, on the pavement in front of the Delta.  “I thought you were going to die,” she said.

Later on, while recuperating at my parents’ Calgary home, Jean Chretien phoned.  “So, young man,” he said, “was Paul Martin driving that taxi?”

It hurt to laugh, but I laughed anyway.  The leadership vote was a day or so away, and we were going to win it, big time.  Some days before, before my appointment with the bumper of a taxi cab, I had asked Chretien advisor Eddie Goldenberg about “our second ballot strategy.”

Goldenberg laughed.  “We don’t have one,” he said.  “We’re going to win on the first ballot.”

And we did, we did.  Sitting in the Chretien campaign box in Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome with my Dad – surrounded by Chretien loyalists like Keith Davey, Sheila Finestone, Sergio Marchi, Beryl Gaffney, Lawrence MacAulay, Shirley Maheu, Dennis Mills and many, many others – we got the results of the first ballot on June 23, 1990.

Chretien had won the Liberal Party leadership with almost 60 per cent of the delegated vote.  His nearest rival, Paul Martin, took only 25 per cent.  The also-rans – Shela Copps, Tom Wappel and John Nunziata – secured only 15 per cent of the vote put together.

I struggled to my feet using my crutches, overjoyed.  I had been volunteering for Chretien for many months, writing speeches, overseeing his campaign correspondence, assisting in low-level strategy.  Now that the leadership campaign was over, I would return to my legal practice.

Chretien had other plans.  Back in Ottawa, reaching me again on the phone, he told me he wanted me to work for him.  I was shocked.  I never wanted a job, I told him.  I was always planning to return to my litigation practice.

“You can be a lawyer anytime, young man,” the newly-minted Liberal leader said.  “I’m offering a chance to work for me and have some fun.”

So I took him up on his offer, as his Special Assistant, but it wasn’t a lot of fun at the start.  We ran headlong into the Meech Lake Accord, the Oka crisis, and Martin-friendly Liberal MPs quitting caucus to join the nascent Bloc Quebecois.

Chretien would experience a health scare, staff churn, and caucus rumblings, and – later – the Persian Gulf crisis.  Other Opposition leaders may experience a honeymoon in the wake of their win.  But we didn’t.

“You’ve made a big mistake throwing away your legal career to work for Chretien,” some legal and political friends would tell me.  “He’ll never be Prime Minister.”

Well, as I would later delight in telling those Chretien critics, he did okay, didn’t he?

Forty years of never losing an election.  Wrestling the deficit and debt to the ground.  Defeating a burgeoning separatist movement in a nail-biter.  Keeping Canada out of the ill-considered Iraq conflict.  And, along the way, doing what no other leader had done: winning three back-to-back majority governments.

He was – and always will be, to me – the best Prime Minister.  Since he retired in 2003, I’ve seen it many times when I’ve walked on the street with him, in Vancouver or Toronto or Ottawa: Canadians mostly love Jean Chretien.  “Come back,” they say to him, asking for selfies.  “You’d win!”

And he would, he would.  His successors, as Chretienites like to say, always make him look good.

Oh, and as I walked with him on one of those streets one sunny day, Chretien laughed and pointed at me.

“Look both ways this time, young man!”


  1. EVIDENTLY, the win absolutely has to come on the first ballot — otherwise you’re in deep doo doo — and likely going to be passed by those surprise second choices.

  2. Douglas W says:

    Chretien, always great with a quip: “was Paul Martin driving that taxi?” LOL

    Glad you prevailed.
    And thank you for the wonderful read.

  3. William Morrison says:

    Although I’m not a Liberal (shudder), I’ve come to appreciate him more and more as the years go on, especially in comparison to his successors as party leaders. I remember seeing him close up when he was the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, and I was working for Parks Canada, under his jurisdiction. 1969, a long time ago.

  4. Gilbert says:

    My feelings about Jean Chrrtien are mixed. If the separatists had won in 1995, his legacy would be very different. He was right to stay out of Iraq and he was good at reducing debt. On social issues, he was too liberal for me and he was prime minister during the sponsorship scandal.

    • The Doctor says:

      Sponsorship scandal was definitely a big black mark on his record. It was partly a symptom of the general arrogance that crept in when it became apparent that at that time, there was no credible opposition threat to Liberal rule — remember that for virtually all of Chretien’s reign, there was the Tory-Reform split, pizza parliament, etc. It was de facto one party rule.

      That’s the thing — his successor Dithers, by comparison, actually had to run against an opposition party that had a chance of forming government. Big difference.

      • All prime ministers make mistakes — some far more serious than others. If you can say on balance that you managed a 70-30% success record without royally pissing off either taxpayers or stakeholders, then you’ll go down pretty good in the history books.

  5. Ryan Spinney says:

    Many of us don’t have your fond memories of Chretien’s time in office as Prime Minister, Chretien didn’t wrestle down the debt and deficit, he dumped them onto the Provinces who didn’t have the Federal Governments options for dealing with it. As a result this empowered vile people like Premier Mike Harris to make their own cuts to healthcare and education.

    And for what? Chretien has applauded the job Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has done even as both the debt and deficits skyrocket and yet, no explosion in inflation, the deficit hawks were proven to be Neoliberal liers. So all the suffering that Chretien and Martin unleashed in the 1990’s to “wrestle down the debt” was for nothing, done at the expense of the most vulnerible and teachers and students and healthcare providers, and patience, and more.

    And to add insult to injury he stole money from the EI fund while throw working off it while still expecting them to pay into it, Employment Insurance low income part time workers couldn’t benifit from, but still had to pay.

    I was a student during this and I saw the repercussions of Chretien and Mike Harris’ actions on the education sector.

    I’m sure it was an exciting time for you, your own Canadian version of West Wing, but for millions of the rest of us, it was just aweful. I could go on to all the other bad choices Chretien made, but I think I’ve made my point.

    You have this rose tinted view of Chretien’s time as Prime Minister because you never had to see the harm it was causing people. Even Harper didn’t go after healthcare and education funding for goodness sakes.

    I honestly wish you could have seen the harm you were causing people, because maybe you wouldn’t wistfully idealize those days.

    • Pedant says:

      Liberals can get away with things Conservatives cannot get away with. It’s the cognitive dissonance that is the Canadian way.

      In any case, are there any real stats on the alleged “suffering” that occurred as a result of the government in the 90s living within its means?

      And btw, Mike Harris’ rule was fantastic for anyone who believes in meritocracy and respect for taxpayers. I miss those days.

    • Thanks for posting this and thanks for allowing it to be posted.

  6. the real Sean says:

    Perhaps what was most stunning about Ti-gars career was how unlikely it was. Almost nothing he achieved could have been easily predicted. There was no obvious trajectory. This brought out the best in him and made him more competitive. Smart as he was, he used this to his advantage. He thrived on being underestimated. You might not like his politics but no one can deny his political instincts. One of my pals likes to remind people that maybe he had trouble speaking English, but his name is on the fucking constitution.

  7. Pedant says:

    I give immense credit to him and Paul Martin for recognizing the wisdom of Mulroney’s GST and trade deals. Using the cash generated from the above, and combined with globally declining interest rates and the brilliant idea of raiding the EI fund, they managed to stop the debt bullet train created by Justin’s father (the increases during Mulroney’s reign were almost entirely interest, which was hefty giving the high rates of the 80s).

    Mulroney planted the seeds. Chretien/Martin got to pick the flowers. Lucky them.

    The Liberals in turn left Harper a surplus. Harper in turn left Justin a balanced budget (no small feat given the global financial crisis).

    I wonder what fiscal situation Justin will leave to his successor?

    • the real Sean says:

      Justin will leave a fiscal mess so massive that no Canadian living today will see the end of it.

    • The Doctor says:

      But come on, there’s the hypocritical flip side of that — the Liberals spent their entire time in opposition mercilessly shitting all over the FTA and the GST. Personally I’ll never forgive that. Total scuminess, utter lack of principles, and the best evidence you would ever need that the only thing the LPC really consistently stands for is the acquisition and retention of political power.

      • Ronald O'Dowd says:


        They’re politicians after all: look what Mulroney said in 1983 when running for the PCP leadership: “This country could not survive with a policy of unfettered free trade … we’d be swamped.”

        So, his support, at least initially, for the FT concept was lukewarm at best.

        • The Doctor says:

          Yes, but at least when Mulroney campaigned very clearly on the basis that he wanted to implement the FTA and then won, he actually, you know, kept his promise and implemented the FTA.

          Compare that to Chretien in 1993: he specifically campaigned promising to scrap the FTA and get rid of the GST. Then when he won, he did neither. Riddle me this: who’s the scummiest person (and political party) in that comparison?

          • Mulroney was against Free Trade in 1984 and was going pass it without an election until he was forced into by the Senate. He won the majority of seats, but a minority of votes in 1988.

    • Walter says:

      Harper was the first Canadian PM to lead the G7 in job creation, GDP growth, and lowest increase in Debt. In fact, Harper was the only G7 leader to lower the Debt to GDP ration in the 2006 to 2015 period.

      Although I had a similar view of Chretien, in hindsight I do appreciate that he got things done.
      Maybe what bugged me most at the time was how the biased press acted. Reform promised to eliminate the deficit, and Liberals mocked them. Then they did it. Reform promised to not cut Health transfers, and Liberals did it. Then as a reward to taming the debt monster – the Liberals decided to help themselves to cookie jar for a few treats.
      My view of Chretien has improved since he left office.
      Like Mulroney, he did some big things right and some big things wrong. Now he is in the group behind the top four of Macdonald, Laurier, King, Harper.

    • Pedant says:

      Of course I was being a bit facetious with my final question. The fiscal disaster Justin leaves behind will make the McGuinty/Wynne mess look like a bar tab.

  8. Full Retired Rambo says:

    I always tell people he has the best hand shake ever. It’s like his rooted to the ground.

  9. Robert White says:

    Best stories ever are these with PM Chretien. A book of stories like this would be good stuff IMHO.

    Thanks always for the historical political chuckles.


  10. joe long says:

    And is Justin Trudeau the most unethical PM?

    We (pun intended) tend to think so.

    • Martin says:

      Learned nothing from Adscam.

      • Walter says:

        Actually, he learned a lot from Adscam.

        Adscam was in it’s prime in 1996/97. It took about 5 years before any effects were felt as the Liberals could deflect and procrastinate. Then when the public mood finally shifted, Chretien had already left the position and someone else took the fall.
        Looking back on history, the press has generally forgiven Chretien for the wrongdoing.

        So the lesson that was learned – if you are a Liberal, no matter how corrupt you are it will take almost a decade before you will actually be called out, and then within 5 years you will be forgiven.

  11. Yet Another Calgarian says:

    Anyone who gets a beer in his honour… Shawinigan Handshake… can’t be all bad.

    I suspect one in honour of our current PM would probably taste like old sock.

  12. What I like about many prime ministers is how they handle reflecting on their time in office. Detachment and time passing is a wonderful thing. The more secure and confident they are in themselves and their record, the more likely they are to admit mistakes and be candid not only about the good but also the bad and the occasionally disastrous.

    Really says something about a former PM who can rise to that level. Chrétien and Harper each strike me as one of those.

  13. Doug says:

    I never considered voting for Chretien, even for a passing second. The 1993 election was the first in which I was old enough to vote. I was out of step with my cohort, but as a struggling 21 year old grad student, I was looking for big austerity to get on top of the deficit and finally allow the economy to move forward after many years of stagnation. The Red Book was regression to the failed 70’s doctrine of trying to build an economy on government spending and hiring. Appeasing the separatists was a costly distraction. Better to ignore them, as Harper ultimately proved. While Chretien eventually did tame the deficit, much of the effort came reluctantly after debt markets signaled unwillingness to lend. Chretien also got lucky, not as lucky as Justin Trudeau, but still lucky. Interest rates fell globally. Free trade drove economic growth. A US boom created by financial and telecom deregulation and the peace dvididend pulled Canada along for the ride. Austerity driven, pro private-sector policy from the likes of Klein and Harris encouraged growth. Yes, I am an unabashed neoliberal and no one will ever convince me that borrowing to keep the lights on (i.e. anything other than capital) benefits anyone other than politicians seeking re-election and public sector employees. Government is nothing more than a service provider of last resort. The most important measures of a government’s effectiveness are its ability to contain its scope to matters that can’t be performed by the private sector and to do so as efficiently as possible.

    My greatest Chretien memory was when I worked for a tech company that formed a joint venture with a Chinese partner after one of the Chretien led Team Canada missions. The Chinese President came to visit my Calgary office. The very progressive employer offered paid time off to any employee whenever a politician set foot in the office, sparing them of any real or perceived pressure to support that politician. Barely anyone take the day off when President Zemin visited. A few months later, Chretien was due for a visit and more than half stayed home. Not only did Chretien not show, he cancelled with only a few hours notice. That event demonstrates the mutual disrespect held between the leader of the Natural Governing Party and a region of the country that doesn’t matter to the elites.

    My opinion of Chretien has moderated slightly with time as I do admire his political instincts and cunning. Too bad about everything else. I consider him the third worst PM of my lifetime, behind the two Trudeaus.

  14. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Most people who are passionate about politics are far too partisan and simply incapable of reasonably and semi-objectively analysing a politician in or out of office and that’s sad. I don’t always succeed but I try to look at both sides of the coin and more importantly, summarily reject all BS and lies enthusiastically put out on a regular basis by both the left and the right. For example: Soros supposedly funding Antifa or Republicans not accepting the next election results if Trump and the GOP Senate get the heave-ho.

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