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.


Toots, RIP

I am so, so down about this. What a giant of an artist. What a genius! Seeing him a few years ago with my Jamaican brother Karl – it was one of the best shows ever.

So, so sad. I’ll be wearing one of my Toots tour shirts today. And here he is, with Pressure Drop, which I first heard when the Clash played it. RIP, great man.


From the archives: September 11 and Sammy

[Written the week after 9/11.]

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon just over a week ago, when the rural Ontario sky was clear and cloudless and seemed to go on forever, my wife and I pulled our 20-month-old son from the water of Stony Lake.

Sam was not breathing, and his little face was blue. His arms and legs lay on the dock of our friends cottage, as still and white as tiny pieces of china. Somewhere, I could hear my wife screaming Sam’s name and mine. I cannot remember very much, but I know that I picked him up and cleared his mouth, and tried to push the water out.

A friend, who is a doctor in Ottawa and who had invited us to the cottage, arrived to perform CPR. After a half-minute or so – 30 seconds in which the world was utterly quiet – Sam started to cough, then cry, and then come back to the world of the living.

We still do not know how long he was in the water, or how the cottage’s side door became unlatched. Following two days at the hospital, it became apparent that Sam – somehow, inexplicably – was just fine. His parents, suffused with guilt and fear and a feeling of powerlessness, weren’t. In the journalistic shorthand favoured by some, it was a near-tragedy. To us, it felt like one. It still does.

Notwithstanding that, I decided it was time to return to work. Numbed by what had happened not 48 hours before, I slipped into my office in a downtown Toronto office tower on an unforgettable Tuesday morning. Within minutes, I learned another office tower in New York City – one containing people I and my colleagues do business with all the time – was facing a tragedy of an entirely different sort.

There has been an avalanche of words in the days since September 11, when unspeakable crimes were committed against you, the people of the United States. Out of all of the images, and out of all of the words, it must be difficult to know very much that is certain. So let me offer one modest certainty, from a neighbour who came close to the edge of an abyss last week, too.

We, your friends and allies in the country to the North, have been outraged, and shocked, by what took place on that Tuesday in New York City and Washington – and greatly moved by the heroism that has taken place since. We have cried at the images flickering on our television screens – and, in our schools and workplaces, we have talked of nothing else. Canadians are, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, profoundly affected by the attacks on the United States of America in a way that is as enduring as your great Republic.

We know, in our deferential Canadian sort of way, that you do not think about us very much, most of the time. (Given our relative population, and the relative degree of influence we wield internationally, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.) But in the days that have gone by since that Tuesday, I can testify to the fact that we have certainly thought a lot about you.

There were many Canadians working in the World Trade Centre on that horrible day, which is one of the reasons we have shared your rage and sadness and dread. But for Canadians, it is not enough to simply state that these outrages could have targeted us. From our perspective, they did target us. Our shared way of life, our systems of democracy, our methods of commerce. If terrorism is a method of creating fear by striking at symbols, we in Canada are no bystanders to all of this. Because many of our symbols are yours, too.

Our relationship with the United States is a complicated one, most days. We watch your television shows, but we sometimes feel our own slender culture is being overwhelmed by the giant to the South. We live more securely under the U.S. defence umbrella, but we sometimes feel we need to be more independent of you, in places like Cuba, or on issues like landmines. We marry each other, and heal each other, and teach other. But we are Canadians, we proclaim to the world, stitching maple leaf flags onto our backpacks, cheering what remains of our hockey teams. We are not Americans, we declare.

Well, in that terrible week – and this week, and I suspect in many weeks to follow – we became Americans, in a way. The attack on you was an attack on us. As our Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, said at a ceremony in Ottawa marking a national day of mourning – a ceremony attended by more than 100,000 people on Parliament Hill, the Mounties estimated – we are with you in this one, and right to the very end.

Our friendship has no limit, Mr. Chretien said in his speech, while addressing the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Celucci. “Generation after generation, we have travelled many difficult miles together. Side by side, we have lived through many dark times. Always firm in our shared resolve to vanquish any threat to freedom and justice. And together, with our allies, we will defy and defeat the threat that terrorism poses to all civilized nations, Mr. Ambassador, we will be with the United States every step of the way. As friends. As neighbours. As family.”

I can report to you that our 20-month-old, Sam, is fine. He speeds around our home, chasing his older brother and sister, seemingly oblivious to what could have happened – what did happen. He survived his brush with finality and, eventually, so will his parents.

You will emerge from all of this, too – stronger, and more united, and filled with moral purpose. And if it matters at all, you should know that we Canadians will be there with you.

Always have been, always will be.