He's uncouth but uncouthness can be a quality in a politician and it suits him particularly well(1). His accent, a lasting marker of his modest origins, fits in with the rural myth of the Québécois family. Chrétien was the 18th child of 19. That was not an uncommon number of children for a rural Québec family to have in the thirties(2).
The boy showed promise early on, attending law school at the prestigious Université Laval in Québec City. He became an MP in 1963 and for decades was Trudeau's right-hand man, his economic guru, his Gordon Brown. Except they got along famously. The aristocrat from Montréal and the plebeian from Shawinigan.
Québecers have always had a love-hate relationship with both Trudeau and Chrétien. Both men were staunch opponents of Québec sovereignty but they crystallised their image in the eyes of Québecers when Trudeau sent in the army and imposed the War Measures Act in October of 1970 (a.k.a. "The October Crisis") in order to fight a handful of hippie insurrectionists.
To the rest of the country, it's aslo a mixed bag. Trudeau and Chrétien dominated the political scene in Québec for over three decades and this signalled how, no matter how decentralised Canada is legislatively, all the power resides in Central Canada. The rest of Canada is consistently reminded how Québec, that bitter trouble-maker who just can't wait to turn eighteen and split already, keeps producing the country's greatest politicians, artists and athletes.
If you had asked me what I made of Chrétien when he finally became PM in 1993, I would have said that, well, he wasn't a Tory and he wasn't NDP. I have a bit more respect for him now. This is the man (along with the next PM, Paul Martin) who put the lid on bank deregulation when he was under great pressure to deregulate. Banks would whine and stomp their feet, saying we'd missed the boat and Canada possessed a Third World banking system. Our bankers now purr with self-satisfaction as the world is hailing the wisdom of the Canadian banks.
Chrétien is also the man who kept us out of Iraq. Last week, he was in Montréal to receive an honorary degree from Concordia University. He explained how he made his decision. "[The decision] was... based on the fact that young Canadians had made their view very well known," reports the CBC. The young are the ones who fight our wars and they should be heard but I never saw appetite for going to Iraq amongst other Canadians, no matter their age. Unlike Tony Blair in Britain, Jean Chrétien listened to Canadians and we owe him thanks for that(3).
And that decision will remain a huge part of his legacy. The US and the UK economies were strong and are now crumbling due to banking crisis. In the long run, it is their debt to China which might very well see them kneeling before the next world superpower. We don't talk about the very frightening rise of Chinese nationalism but what if the movement gains real momentum? It was hard enough to fight Germany and they weren't 1.5 billion strong and the West did not owe it hundreds of trillions of dollars.
Of course, Canadians suffer when the US and the UK are so terribly weak, but the fact remains that insofar as a Canadian PM could do what it takes to protect Canadians, Chrétien did what had to be done. He stood up to the business world and the world. A quality seldom found in a Canadian politician.
(1) This statement does not apply to "free willy" politicians like Berlusconi or the shirtless Putin.
(2) To understand this one must understand "la revanche des berçaux", "the revenge of the cradle". From the end of the eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century, Britain attempted to flood Québec with English speaking immigrants to eventually stamp out the use of French in the province. The Catholic Church saw this as a threat to its existence in Québec (read the Durham report) and pressured families into producing an unhealthy number of children. Even in the fifties my grandmother would get a visit from her parish's head priest every year she didn't have a child.
All this changed in the sixties when Québec underwent radical secularisation which we refer to as "la révolution tranquille", "the quiet revolution". Québec went from having the highest birth rate in the world to the lowest within two decades. But it worked. At the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, French speakers made up forty percent of Québec's population. Now, even after decades of low birthdates, it's over 85%. The province hasn't been at the bottom of the birthrate list in the last decades. Not being able to resort to faith, the Québec government has opted for throwing packets of money at people who have children in Québec. Of course, those measures need not discriminate according to language since our numbers mean French will maintain its dominance. For a while at least.
(3) In an earlier version of the CBC article (they keep editing their articles and changing the titles. This article's title used to refer to JC's decision's not to go to Iraq. Hate the CBC) JC also adds that it's a grave mistake for a politician not to listen to the people.