Jean Chretien is turning 90 this week. And what a life he has had.
Let me tell you one of my favorite Chretien stories, about just one afternoon in that extraordinary life.
One sunny day a few years ago, I was in Vancouver for business. Turned out Chretien was, as well. We decided to get together for lunch, down near Water Street in Gastown.
It was a nice day, so the former Prime Minister suggested we go for a walk. Off we went, along with the one (1) RCMP guy assigned to him. We headed towards Waterfront Station. People would do a double-take when they saw him, then smile, then wave to him and say “Hey Chretien!” Things like that. Happened a lot.
We got to Waterfront Station, and there was a great big guy there. He was sitting on the sidewalk, looking pretty rough, and he might have been homeless. He got up and started walking rapidly towards us, his face stern.
Just when I was thinking that I would need to become a bodyshield for the former Prime Minister, the rough-looking guy stuck out a hand as big as a ham.
“Chretien!” He bellowed. “Thanks for keeping us out of Iraq! You did a good job! Got five bucks?”
We all laughed, of course. And Chretien, still laughing, reached into his wallet – and it wasn’t one of those fancy Italian wallets, either, it looked like he got it for a fill up at Petro Canada – and took out five bucks and gave it to the guy. And then they proceeded to talk about all manner of things, like they had known each other forever.
There are a million other stories like that about Joseph Jacques Jean Chretien, 18th of 19 children, 20th of 23 Prime Ministers. A million.
You just need to walk along any street in Canada, and I mean anywhere, and people will stop him to shake his hand or offer best wishes or ask for a selfie. I don’t know if anybody has ever done a poll on the most-loved Prime Minister, but if they had, I’m pretty sure my former boss would top it.
He turns 90 this week. He still goes in to the office. He still talks on the phone with Presidents and Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens.
He still offers free political advice to whoever asks for it. The recipients of the advice include unabashed fans, like one Stephen Harper, P.C. (Not so much the woke bloke, however, the one with the Chewbacca socks. That one doesn’t like getting advice from people with experience. And it shows.)
At 90, Chretien still waterskis at his little place in Shawinigan, or plays pickleball, or goes kiteboarding – or he heads to Harvey’s for a burger, a bemused Mountie in tow. And then people stop by his table to say hello, or ask for a selfie. He always stands to greet them.
That’s an important distinction, I think. Chretien is beloved, in part, because people sense that he does not regard himself as better than them, or better than anyone. And he doesn’t.
He didn’t let the job go to his head, you see, and the statistics suggest he was pretty successful at his day job. When he offered me the job of speechwriter in the Summer of 1990 – and, believe me, if there is a Maytag repairman equivalent in Canadian politics, it’s being speechwriter to Jean Chretien – lots of friends and family told me I was crazy. He’ll never become Prime Minister, they said. You’re throwing away a promising legal career, they said.
“Well,” I’d say many times over the subsequent years, “he kind of did all right, didn’t he?”
He certainly did. Forty years in elected politics, never a defeat. Held just about every major portfolio in federal politics, never a finding of wrongdoing by him. Balanced the budget more than once, kept Canada together more than once, won three majorities in a row. Fiscally prudent, socially progressive. Gave the Shawinigan Handshake™️ to a guy who deserved it.
And, through it all, he kept his connection to the people. One time, we were waiting for him to arrive to start an event at a restaurant somewhere. I asked one of my fellow aides where the leader was. He laughed. “He’s in the kitchen,” said the aide. “He always enters through the kitchen, so he can talk to the staff and shake their hands.”
That’s Chretien. That’s the little guy from Shawinigan.
Some of us who worked for him and who love him are gathering in Ottawa this week to sing happy birthday. Ninety years: by any standard, that’s a long life.
And Jean Chretien did some amazing things with that life.