, 01.06.2024 01:13 PM

My latest: little guy, big life

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.


  1. Jason says:

    Say what you will about him, Chretien was the last of our Prime Ministers that actually tried to look after everyone. You can never please everyone, but I don’t recall him ever once treating one region of his own country as an enemy.

    To be more succinct – he’s the last one who wasn’t a dick. That’s almost certainly too much to ask of our current and future crop of “leaders.”

  2. PJH says:

    A lovely and fitting tribute, Mr. Kinsella. He is indeed much beloved. This Tory even voted for him.

    Ive mentioned this before, but my late Mom loved him, and thought he was very sexy….She’d talk about him, and go…Rrrrrr!

    Happy 90th Birthday M. Chretien!…..You made us all proud to be Canadian.

  3. western view says:

    Mr. Kinsella makes a pretty good case for a common touch connection between Jean Chretien and voters.
    I would vouch for that. In the 1993 election, Chretien did the impossible and flipped long time Progressive Conservative strong holds in western Canada to the Liberals. Admittedly, disdain for the Mulroney PCs was so palpable at that point that westerners realized that a message needed to be sent to PC HQ.
    I would suggest that Chretien is the only Liberal leader in recent times who could gain the trust of people on the Prairies and win their vote. (In a way that the current Liberal leader NEVER will in a month of Sundays.) How was this possible? Because Chretien espouses traits that appeal to people of the land. Humility. A sense of humour. A refusal to put up with BS. A listener who can see the big picture. The Shawinigan Handshake is the clincher: a person who doesn’t go looking for trouble, but sure as hell won’t run away from it either.
    Happy birthday!

  4. Douglas W says:

    I recall Mr. Chretien, campaigning with Justin Trudeau in Brampton, 2021 federal election.

    My immediate thought that night as I watched the pair on the evening news: one guy is real; the other guy is fake.

    Still feel that way.

  5. Robert White says:

    I extend my most warmhearted Happy Birthday to
    our dearly beloved Prime Minister Chretien on his 90th
    birthday celebrations. May he have many more happy
    days ahead.

  6. Martin Dixon says:

    I had 8 younger siblings and one of my grandmothers was one of 14. Can’t even imagine 19 kids. And the water skiing at 90 makes me shake my head.

  7. Warren,

    We, in the opposition now, were fools then while in government. Most of us believed Chrétien was yesterday’s man. He made dunces out of us. And Yes, I also voted for him at least once.

    Bonne Fête!

  8. Sean says:

    These days I like to listen a lot to people who are not dialed into politics, not one party or the other. That’s the best way to know where the wind is blowing.

    During the last Federal Election, a good water cooler discussion ensued between a bunch of my coworkers. I didn’t talk and only listened. They were all sick of the current crop of leaders. One of them said “can’t we just get Chretien to come back and figure things out again?” That prompted laughter and unanimous agreement. Those people are not reliable Liberals… at all. That says something about his appeal / reputation.

    I might have posted this story before on this site, so sorry if I am repeating it 🙂

  9. Curious V says:

    Happy Birthday Mr Chretien!! The best PM ever!!

  10. Tim B says:

    God I’d give anything for that kind of leadership again. He made tough decisions that leaders today don’t make. They just kick the can down the road. He started with a fiscal mess and near the end of his tenure I recall that one of the main opposition gripes was that the surpluses were too large. You know things are going pretty well when…

  11. Gilbert says:

    I voted for Jean Chrétien once. For me he was better than Kim Campbell.

    • Gilbert,

      I think Charest was leader when I voted Chrétien. I wanted a female PM so I supported Campbell.

      • Martin Dixon says:

        I voted for Jane a couple of times but it was mostly related to who she was running against locally as opposed to who either of the leaders were. 2004 was the first year I started to pay serious attention. Liberals blew the nomination that year because too many of the local Liberal “movers and shakers” (I use that term very loosely) hated the mayor who ran for the nomination and they basically haven’t been heard from much since.


  12. Fred J Pertanson says:

    Chrétien was a good PM but one thing that really irked me (and continues to do so to this day) is the $125 million endowment of taxpayer money that Chrétien gave to set up the Trudeau Foundation back in 2002.

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