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Chretien reflects on 30th anniversary of election win, says House has become 'dull as hell'

It's been 30 years since Liberal Jean Chretien was elected prime minister, and while a lot has changed over the decades, there are parallels in the challenges the Canadian government is facing today, to those Chretien tackled.

In this English-language exclusive interview with CTV News' Vassy Kapelos marking the anniversary of his election, Chretien discusses why he thinks debate in the House of Commons has become "dull as hell." 

The former prime minister also dives into how he'd "confront" the current Quebec tuition debacle, and reflects on how he navigated taking a stance on a past Middle East conflict, amid domestic divisions.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Vassy Kapelos: I appreciate you making the time, on this 30th anniversary. Right to the day that you were elected. I was thinking, you know, thinking back 30 years ago. When you think back on that day, what is the memory that stands out the most to you?

Jean Chretien: "It's quite a day when you become prime minister of a country like Canada. And so it was a great moment of happiness and joy. But I knew what I was facing. I knew that it was not to be a holiday, that the work was to start right away.

"In fact, the first phone call I had in the morning was with Bill Clinton, who was the president of the United States. I remember because I said to my grandchildren, come with grandpapa in the bedroom, I will talk with the President of United States… But after congratulation, he moved right into problems. Because you know, NAFTA was not signed yet."

Prime Minister elect Jean Chretien raises his wife Aline's arm as they thank supporters after he won the federal election, in Shawinigan, Quebec. (CP PHOTO) 1993 (Stf-Ryan Remiorz)

Kapelos: So you did that just in the first phone call, on the first day?

Chretien: "I did not make the final decision, but I called a meeting right away for the same afternoon. And I was not even the prime minister, officially."

Kapelos: You said basically that you knew what you were getting into, you knew the set of challenges that faced you. I wonder though, was there anything initially that came as a surprise when you look back now and reflect on it?

Chretien: "Not really. You know of course the finances of the nation were in very bad shape, but I knew that. When people look at their problems today, just to give you an example, inflation was 11 per cent, unemployment was 11 per cent. We were spending 35 cents on every dollar of tax to pay the interest on the debt. It was what I had to face the first morning I was prime minister."

Kapelos: As you look at the economic situation now, does it remind you at all [of then?]

Chretien: "We're in much better shape than we were in '93. You know… the Financial Times declared that Canada was a candidate to become a third world nation. Some were saying that we were about to become a third world nation. That was the type of headlines I was confronted with.

"But I knew that because I had been, you know, on the Hill for years. When I became prime minister, I had been already 30 years on the Hill, 20 years almost as a minister or parliamentary secretary… I had three years of leader of the Opposition. So I knew very well what I was to be confronted with."


Liberal leader Jean Chretien gets some coputer tips during a visit to Lester B. Pearson high school in Calgary on Sept. 24, 1993. The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz

Kapelos: You make a good point, because you had already been in politics for a number of years. You were in politics for a number of years thereafter as prime minister, and I was curious to find out from you, I keep hearing from people how much politics has changed. How different the environment is. Do you feel that is true? Do you think that now compared to 30 years ago, is it completely different?

Chretien: "Every time you always feel that you're confronted with a wall that will block you. And we had all sorts of different difficult times in the 40 years I was on the Hill. And when I left, we were doing quite fine as a country. In fact, you know, when I quit if you will remember, the Economist had a big cover with a moose with rose-coloured glasses, saying Canada is cool… These were the headlines from abroad when I quit.

"But when I started… the financial situation of the land was awful, but we managed to balance the books, and it's only when the Tories came to power that we started to have deficit again."

Kapelos: I guess what I mean, is not just sort of the challenges that politicians are confronted with, but the manner in which things are discussed and debated now, right? There's a lot of conversation about how polarized things are, and certainly a lot of that lends itself to our proximity to the United States. But, I'm wondering if you feel for example, you would still want to run at this point in time, in this environment to be prime minister, versus 30 years ago?

Chretien: "If I was confronted with that challenge I would take it. You know, it's always difficult. When I started in 1963, a bomb exploded in the streets of Montreal. Nobody remembered that. After that, you go to Europe, they had you know, in Germany, in Italy, in Great Britain and France, they had violence in the streets. You remember all the problems within Northern Ireland and the big division in that country… The prime minister [Aldo] Moro of Italy had been killed by the Red Guards, and all that jazz.

"So when we were there, we thought it was impossible to face the future. And these problems of these days appeared. You know, before I became prime minister, Canada was in complete turmoil about the Constitution. You remember that? I remember I ran and I said 'those who want to discuss the Constitution, don't vote for me,' I had enough of it.

"We confront problems. It's always difficult. We have the feeling in politics that to fill a hole, you dig two more holes, and you have to dig all the time to face problems every day. But it's your job if you don't want to do it, it's easy: you take a piece of paper, you sign 'I resign,' and that's all."

Kapelos: So you think that the set of problems the world is dealing with right now…

Chretien: "Are very difficult."

Kapelos: How would you qualify the state of insecurity right now?

Chretien: "If I compare it, we had situations that were very difficult in the past, difficult to compare completely, and we have overcome them. Am I am confident that we will overcome? Of course, society is changing, because of the new technologies, people complain.

"In the old days, they would complain in the beer parlor. Now they write it from home and you the press, you read it. You are not in the taverns to listen to their frustration. So you read it, and it's easy for you, you just read a couple of them and you have a story for today. Makes your life much easier. And if you have 10 guys who complain on these new machines, you say, 'oh, the world is upset.' While it might be just a couple of dozen who have written these stories."

Kapelos: Do you feel that social media has distorted reality?

Chretien: "No, it's a new challenge that we have to face. When I became a member of Parliament, there was no TV… In the House of Commons, we had no television. In those days in the House of Commons, we didn't have the right to read anything. We had to get up and speak. It was fun. Today, they all come with speeches prepared by kids in the office and it is dull as hell, rather than have a real debate like we had in those days."


Prime Minister Jean Chretien receives a standing ovation from his caucus after announcing Canada will not participate in a war on Iraq that does not have the support of the UN Security Council, during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 17, 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson

Kapelos: When I was thinking about speaking with you about your time as prime minister and becoming prime minister, two things—I grew up with you as prime minister— and two things come to my memory first, right away. The first one is the Quebec referendum in 1995, and we're not dealing with the same issues of separatism now, but there is still nationalist sentiment, particularly when it comes to language for example, at the moment. I'm wondering from your perspective, federal politicians are hesitant to weigh in on things that happen in Quebec at the provincial level. Would you be weighing in on, for example, the announcement around doubling tuition for out-of-province students? Do you think federal politicians should talk about it?

Chretien: "I don't want to be the Monday morning quarterback, I don't want to be the mother-in-law. It's difficult to confront, but I would be confronting the problem. It was what I was known to do, but I'm not there anymore, so I'm not to speculate. You know, we have people who have been elected to deal with a problem. And if they want my advice, they can call me, but I'm not in politics anymore."

Kapelos: Would you be worried about the overall kind of identity, or the question of unity in the country?

Chretien: "It's much less of a problem than when I was there. You know, everybody was terribly upset. You remember one day I made a statement, they were all mad at me. I said 'Canadians, we're stuck in the snowbank, don't worry, a little bit forward a little bit backward, and we'd be back on the road.' I never lose my cool. There is always a solution to any problem.

"We have to be patient. We have to be moderate, which is why I'm a Liberal. I'm dead centre, so that I'm not a doctrinaire, and I borrow any good ideas… Sometimes people would say, 'Hey he's stealing our ideas.' But, I said 'If you don't want me to steal your ideas, shut up. Don't tell me to do something. And when I do it, you blame me.' So that was my style, and I had fun doing it."

Kapelos: The other memory I have very clearly and I'm sure many Canadians watching tonight will share it, is the position you took on Iraq. And I think now as we watch another war unfold in the Middle East, many of those Canadians would be wondering, I guess, your advice to the government as they navigate their own position and differences among even their own caucus, about the importance of taking a position, and your thoughts on that?

Chretien: "You know, I'm not following that closely. So I don't know all the elements to pass a judgement at this moment. But, as it was a case in the war in Iraq, I took a position that was not very popular. It was divided. The public opinion was divided half and half more or less. I remember the business community was extremely worried. They came to see me, telling me not to do that.

"They were afraid that the Americans were to retaliate against us. And I said to them, 'give me the list of all the goods and all the services that the Americans are buying from us that they don't need.' I've not received the list yet. Because business is business. There was no retaliation. I took a stand.

"At that time, it was very controversial. And now 95 per cent of Canadians apparently approve of what I've done, but at that time, I took a very difficult decision."

Kapelos: But was it difficult to assert a position with all the divisions, like you mentioned, even among the public among members of Parliament?

Chretien: "Oh, I was paid to make decisions. So, I was doing my job."

Kapelos: Well, Mr. Chretien, I will leave it there. I appreciate your time today, and congratulations on the anniversary.

Chretien: "Thank you very much, it was very nice to invite me."