OTTAWA – The “little guy from Shawinigan” will be honoured tonight at a star-studded tribute to his 50 years of public service.
A veritable who’s who of Canadian politics have rallied behind the tribute to Jean Chretien, the former prime minister who led the Liberals to three back-to-back majority victories.
More than 700 current and former politicians of all party stripes, business leaders and party faithful have bought tickets to the Toronto event, at $400 a pop.
The tribute has been endorsed by two of Chretien’s bitterest leadership rivals — John Turner and Paul Martin — in what organizers hope is a sign that Liberals are finally putting behind them almost four decades of factional infighting that nearly destroyed the once mighty party.
It’s also drawn the support of a host of erstwhile partisan foes, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is to pay his respects to Chretien via video.
Those lending their names to the committee that’s been promoting the tribute include former Conservative prime minister Joe Clark, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and a raft of one-time Conservative, Liberal and NDP premiers: Jean Charest, Mike Harris, Bill Davis, Gary Filmon, Roy Romanow, Brian Tobin and Bernard Lord.
Charest is hosting the gala dinner, which will feature speeches from current Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, former Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie, Tobin, Romanow and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
Organizers hope the cross-partisan tribute to Chretien will remind cynical Canadians that politics can be a noble calling.
Chretien was first elected to the House of Commons in 1963 and spent the next 40 years there, but for a brief hiatus in the mid-1980s, serving in almost every senior ministerial position before becoming prime minister himself in 1993.
He was Pierre Trudeau’s go-to minister during the 1980 referendum on Quebec independence and spearheaded his subsequent effort to patriate Canada’s Constitution with a charter of rights.
As prime minister, he presided over a government that finally balanced the federal books, with Martin as his finance minister, and started the legislative ball rolling on legalization of same-sex marriage.
After Quebec came within in a hair of voting to secede in the 1995 referendum, Chretien sought the Supreme Court’s advice on the legal rules for secession and subsequently brought in the Clarity Act, stipulating that Ottawa would only negotiate a divorce if a clear majority of Quebecers voted on a clear question to separate.
Chretien retired in 2003 amid the sponsorship scandal and rancour over Martin’s leadership aspirations.
Since then, he’s resumed practicing law and continues to give advice, privately, to subsequent Liberal leaders. In 2012, he was appointed by Harper as Canada’s representative to the Diamond Jubilee Trust, a Commonwealth initiative to raise money for charities in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year reign.
Proceed’s from tonight’s tribute are being donated to La Maison de la francophonie de Toronto, an umbrella organization that supports non-profit francophone groups in the country’s largest city.