, 09.13.2020 12:37 PM

Madame

 

Imagine you are in an Ottawa hotel suite with the former Prime Minister of Canada and a former President of the United States.  The Secret Service are watching the door, and there’s a photographer getting ready to take some shots.  Imagine that.

But then imagine that the door opens, and in walks Aline Chretien, looking as beautiful and as elegant as always.

And then imagine that the former President, Bill Clinton, rises to greet her, like one would an old friend.  And there is genuine affection and respect in his voice.

Imagine that the former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, also rises to greet his wife.  And there is love and actual reverence shining on his face, and in what he says to her.  She smiles, and it is such a beautiful smile. 

Imagine all that.  And then Bill Clinton insists that Aline Chretien stands at the centre, at the middle, because that’s where she belongs.  And everyone smiles, and the photographer takes the picture.

In the thirty-plus years I have worked for him and supported him – because I have never really stopped doing either – there has been always one truth about Jean Chretien, Canada’s twentieth and best Prime Minister: he would have never been Prime Minister without her.  He would have never achieved the great things he achieved without her.

In the office, we simply referred to her as “Madame.” She came from a small town, with humble roots, like him.  She did not ever require us to stand on ceremony for her.  She was quiet, much of the time, and left the politics to him.

But she loved people, and people loved her.  One night, he invited me to come to a party at 24 Sussex.  I wasn’t sure why I was there: the place was full of their old friends from Shawinigan, all laughing and talking. There were no politicians or celebrities. They were cab drivers, and labourers, and teachers and waitresses and small business owners.

The Chretiens introduced me to their Shawinigan friends as “a fighter” for them, which was an honour.  And then Madame sat down at the piano – an instrument she had taught herself to master, later in life – and started to play and sing.  And the place was alive with her voice and everyone singing along.

She fiercely defended her husband for years, going back to when they were teenagers.  When the Conservatives mocked his facial paralysis in an ad, she was furious, and told me that “Jean is handsome.” And everyone knows the story, by now, about how she dispatched an intruder at 24 one night, using an Indigenous sculpture to do what the RCMP could not.

But when a too-ambitious Finance Minister tried to drive her husband out, she became resolute.  They had a mandate, and they would not be pushed.  One night, at a wedding, she took me and a couple other former Chretien staffers aside.  She pointed at me. “He tells the truth about Jean,” she said to them.  “He fights for Jean.  We all have to fight for Jean.”

And we did, we did.  But none as much as her.  She was his rock, his truest love, his everything.  And I confess that I am so worried for him, now.

Did you ever love someone so much, that they took your breath away, when they simply walked into a room?

Did you ever find yourself simply sitting at the edge of a group of people, watching your true love charm and delight those people, and saying nothing, because you are so proud and amazed that she chose you?

Did you ever love someone so much that you accepted, as a matter of course, that God sent her to you, so that you could breathe again, and so you could put one foot in front of the other, and go out into the day?

Did you ever owe everything you are, everything you achieved, to just one extraordinary person, who you loved so much that she was the air you breathe?

You don’t have to imagine a true love like that.  You don’t have to imagine it.  Because that is how much Jean Chretien loved Aline Chretien.  

And we all loved her as we love him.

20 Comments

  1. Norbert Boily says:

    This is a beautiful and moving column, Warren….. a fitting testimonial to a great lady….. My sincerest condolences to one of Canada’s great Prime Ministers and his family….

  2. Pipes says:

    So sad…respect and condolences.

  3. Aline Chrétien was an admirable First Lady, gracious, welcoming, charming, in the background while being in the foreground. She espoused CLASS, a quality that you either have, or have not. It is innate, and cannot be purchased, as evidenced by those cringe worthy women hanging around the White House. Madame, your presence as First Lady enhanced Canada on the World
    enhanced Canada on the World Stage. Bon Voyage and love, Madame!

  4. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    I have come to doubt that given Truth that Chrétien would never have become Prime Minister but for anyone else. We spent ages in the federal Progressive Conservatives underestimating the man, mostly to our own detriment.

    However, Aline absolutely was God’s precious gift to him no more so than when she entered the room saying “Four more years!”

    She was among the best people that in part politics can produce. My sincerest condoleances go out to the former PM, his family, his extended family, like you Warren, and his friends. Canada will lose a big piece one day when Chrétien goes. Canadian politics and civil society lost an incredibly important, loved, admired and respected piece of our fabric today.

  5. Mark D says:

    Taking a break from politics, but just saw the news and had to drop by your blog to wish you and the family of our former prime minister, my prayers and condolences.

    • Mark D says:

      It is with sadness that I must stop by your blog a second time this week to offer LPC members my prayers and condelences on the passing of the Right Honourable John Turner.

      Although I did not agree with his politics, I always found him a fundamentally good man, and there was no denying his love for all Canadians as well as for our country.

  6. Lyne says:

    Very touching and beautiful tribute.
    Vous m’avez fait pleurer.

  7. Syl Carle says:

    She was such an elegant and graceful woman. She and Mr. Chrétien were always so genuinely kind to us while we were doing our job to protect them. RIP.

  8. Campbell says:

    I knew that what you would write about this would be beautiful. I read it aloud to my wife, but couldn’t look at her as I did because I would have never got through it. I made it to the second last line before my voice finally broke, realizing that if we are lucky enough to have anywhere close to 63 years of marriage, I will be so unimaginably lost without her. A love like the Chrétiens shared is so beautiful and so rare, that the whole world is a lesser place when time takes its toll on our physical beings. But it is also the kind of love that makes this world worth living in, and the type that has an eternal quality, that will forever have made the world richer for it having happened.

    The way you captured it resonated deeply with me Warren. Thank you for writing this piece.

  9. Chuck Stevenson says:

    Beautiful read, he was a very lucky guy to know such a beautiful person.

  10. Terrible news, just devastating I’m sure to those that knew and loved her. My condolences to the Chretien family.

  11. Craig Cantin says:

    A beautiful tribute to Mme Chrétien, Warren. Very touching.

  12. Rene Gaudreau says:

    I only met her once. It was at a Liberal convention in Ottawa sometime in the 90s. As was often the case, there were a few get togethers in the evening in various offices and rooms in Centre Block. People had started lining up in the Hall of Honour as we heard Mr Chrétien was about to come down and meet with delegates. I was standing amongst a very large group, and here they came down the hall from towards the Library. The PM and Mrs Chrétien walked down greeting guests, music was playing. Madame walked down and it was as though she walked right towards me to shake my hand and have a few words. In that moment it was as though I was the most important person in the room. We had a very few short words where I told her how beautiful she looked that evening. And the moment was over. But even 25 years later, that moment is still there. I spend a lot of time talking to people about leadership (in education) and to make one person feel special, for even a few seconds, is a sign of a leader. I mourn your loss and Canada’s loss as well.

  13. Innocent III says:

    A genuinely touching tribute, Chief Magistrate. Well done.

  14. Robert White says:

    Canada just lost yet another stalwart defended of democracy, and a sweetheart of a person. All my best to the Chretien family and their friends.

    P.S. When my mother died my dad was lost for a good deal of time afterwards. Prime Minister Chretien will be equally as upset over time. You are right to be worried for him, Warren. Thank God he has millions of friends across the country, and beyond.

    Robert

  15. Kim Robertson says:

    Beautifully written- I admired her class and kind demeanour. Can you imagine your 63 year partner leaving you…?? There are no words to put on that. The pain of this loss must be unimaginable. Politics don’t always interest me, mostly because of ego centric, power attention seeking behvious. You must have a passion for people, life and purpose to serve others. Jean did this, but she was the foundation behind it all- that is the beauty in all of this- SHE was his heart. We need to all be thank ful for her, and the quiet power that she had. Using power is easy, filling others with it is much, much harder.
    We have lost a rare human. Condolences to all who have lost her.. RIP

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