College Quarterly
Summer 2007 - Volume 10 Number 3
Reviews My Years as Prime Minister
Jean Chrétien
Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2007

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Political autobiographies are rarely useful in helping to understand the nature and fate of their protagonists, much less of the people they have served or sought to serve, tyrannized or sought to tyrannize. The principal motives for such books are usually allow their authors to put the best possible face on their records, to explain their failures (if any are admitted) and to take parting shots at former rivals. As such, they rarely tell us much that we did not already know. The best we can usually anticipate is a little warmed-over gossip and a few incisive digs at people we probably did1 not like anyway.

In this respect, Jean Chrétien’s comments (he dictated the book rather than wrote it) are unsurprising. His disdain for former Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin is patent. His defamatory words, if they do not rise to a legal cause of action for libel, are certainly unkind and unforgiving. In this, he is true to form.

Chrétien is famously self-described as a “street-fighter.” He demands loyalty from his gang (in a recent piece in Maclean’s magazine Peter C. Newman comes close to calling him a “thug”), but notably fails to repay loyalty with praise. There is little generosity in his memoir except, of course, to his wife Aline, to US President William Jefferson Clinton and to Liberal stalwart Lloyd Axworthy.

There is also no attempt to express any grand vision, fundamental principle or even favoured political strategy. He was in the “business” of politics, he says, and that is all about winning elections. With three successive majority governments in his “win” column, no one can deny that he was good at the game.

Jean Chrétien was also very good at appearing to be humble. His self-deprecating humour, his often incomprehensible syntax and his “little guy from Shawinigan” shtick were all quite endearing. He played the underdog skillfully, and was simultaneously able to sink a serrated knife deep in the back of an opponent.

Apart from his evident love for his wife and his apparent affection for his country, however, it is hard to evaluate his political legacy. This is partly because he eschewed abstract, philosophical ideas and preferred to imagine himself a pragmatic problem solver who would let history say what it will about the greater meaning – if any – of his career. Intellectual modesty, of course, can be an admirable stance, for too many politicians are presumptuous in their aspirations and maudlin in their disappointments. Sometimes, pretentious and extravagant conceits beget tragedies that are not theirs alone, but must be suffered by their constituents – supporters and detractors alike. People may therefore have many reasons to criticize Chrétien, but the quixotic pursuit of an arrogant ideological agenda is unlikely to be among them. His mind is more mundane. He does not seem to think big thoughts.

On the other hand, national leaders, who seek to do no more than to personify the practical fixer, may put us at risk if they are wholly immune to philosophical considerations. This, to me, was Jean Chrétien’s most profound flaw. It was displayed on at least three occasions.

First, in 1970, while serving as Minister of Indian Affairs under Pierre Trudeau, Chrétien was implicated in the invocation of the infamous War Measures Act. Chrétien’s role remains ambiguous. At first, he stood firmly with his leader. Then, as public opinion shifted from unqualified support to growing skepticism, Chrétien seemed to distance himself, explaining he was in such awe of Trudeau’s overpowering intellect that he acquiesced in the small-scale Canadian equivalent of George W. Bush’s bogus “war or terror.” Though such deference may have been unbecoming in a future Prime Minister, it certainly fit with Chrétien’s self-effacing persona; besides, Canadians had no trouble thinking of Chrétien as Trudeau’s intellectual inferior.

Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, on the other hand, much later noted that, with one honourable exception, his caucus had supported the Trudeau initiative. Mr. Stanfield further admitted that he had consciously allowed expediency to trump principle, for Canadian public opinion was thoroughly spooked at the time and he feared a serious fall in voter support were he to oppose Trudeau on this issue. Though less honourable than the consistent, principled opposition of NDP leader Tommy Douglas, Stanfield’s admission at least amounted to a belated “mea culpa.”

Jean Chrétien preferred to stick to his story of intellectual rapture. Sitting comfortably at the feet of his scholarly master, Chrétien long held that he simply took Trudeau’s word that suspending Canadians’ civil liberties in order to solve a criminal case was justified, and deferred judgment about the ethics of the initiative. This now appears disingenuous. It seems now that Chrétien, the “street-fighter,” was an early champion of bully tactics. Trudeau, we now learn, was initially hesitant, and contemplated the more modest tactic of merely increasing police powers. Instead, Chrétien advised: “Act now, explain later.” Trudeau acted and, not for the first time, led a Canadian government to trample on civil liberties going back to the Magna Carta all in the interest of ideological delusion and political theatre. Jean Chrétien never apologized; he never saw the need.

Second, once in power himself, Chrétien established a formal inquiry into Canadian military wrong-doing in Somalia. Members of Canada’s “elite” Airborne unit had tortured and killed a Somali teenager. Other accusations were made. When, however, the inquiry seemed to be doing its job and was about to conclude that the problems in Somalia were not isolated instances of misconduct by a few rogue individuals, but went well up the chain of command, Chrétien abruptly terminated the inquiry with the result that the public was denied full knowledge of what had transpired. Jean Chrétien never apologized; he never saw the need.

Finally, when it seemed opportune to provide cover for Indonesia’s dictator, President Suharto, when he attended a conference of Pacific Rim leaders in Vancouver, Chrétien stood strong against Canadian students and others who protested the Indonesian leader’s appearance. RCMP officers broke up a peaceful demonstration using pepper spray, and the victims became the butt of a lame Chrétien joke. Reluctantly, an inquiry was called, but its results were muffled. The television images faded. Suharto was soon overthrown in his own country. And Jean Chrétien never apologized; he never saw the need.

If there is one defining justification for the political philosophy of liberalism, it rests with the commitment to the rule of law, the primacy of due process and the protection of civil rights and freedoms. Other policies and principles can be compromised, and the enduring need to broker deals among a multiplicity of social and economic interests can be used to explain and justify pragmatism in a pluralist democracy. When, however, the abrogation of the rule of law and the suppression of individual rights is in evidence, we have intimations of a police state. No armed forces – military or civilian – have the right to operate in support of a political faction, and no political faction has the right to condone misconduct by those permitted to bear arms in the defence of the citizens of a democratic society.

In his years as Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien had the opportunity to atone for one egregious past error, and to uphold the core values of liberalism on other occasions when it also mattered. Others may chafe at his contemptuous dismissal of corruption “on his watch” – particularly the “sponsorship” scandal. Odious as such dealings may have been, they were ugly little events that may one day be forgotten. Chrétien’s silence on more fundamental issues of civil liberties is worse, and almost as corrosive of his legacy as the events themselves.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology