TORONTO – Former prime minister Jean Chretien was celebrated Tuesday as a political leader of courage, passion and vision — with some of the highest praise coming from his erstwhile partisan rivals.
The star-studded tribute for the little guy from Shawinigan who went on to serve in almost every senior cabinet post before leading the Liberals to three consecutive majority victories was unique in the annals of Canadian political history.
It brought together current and former politicians from coast to coast and of every partisan stripe to honour one man’s love of and commitment to his country, something commonly celebrated in the United States but curiously avoided until now in Canada.
Organizers hope the sold-out event, which attracted more than 700 politicos at $400 a pop, will help persuade Canadians that politics can be a noble pursuit, not just a ruthless blood sport, and that a single individual can accomplish great things.
“A lot of people denigrate politics,” Montreal business executive John Rae, who led Chretien’s three victorious election campaigns, told the sold-out crowd.
“But it’s clear from the evening we’ve had tonight that if you look at every important advance in history, it’s had political leadership behind it.”
Political leadership, Rae added, requires intelligence, team work, energy, passion, commitment and character — all of which speaker after speaker attested that Chretien has in abundance.
They recited Chretien’s many accomplishments: the first francophone finance minister, spearheading Pierre Trudeau’s effort to patriate the Constitution with a charter of rights, eliminating the federal deficit, refusing to join the U.S. in the 2003 war in Iraq, introducing the Clarity Act to spell out the rules for Quebec secession, among other things.
Roy Romanow, former NDP premier of Saskatchewan, called Chretien’s idea to take premiers with him on annual Team Canada trade missions “a stroke of nation-building genius.” And he went further.
“I say history will record that he was one of the best prime ministers that this great country has ever had.”
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, the master of ceremonies, spoke of the special bond that developed between him and Chretien during the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, when Charest was federal Conservative leader.
He and Chretien had numerous differences, said Charest, but when it comes to their shared belief in Canada, “We’ll always be shoulder to shoulder.”
The gala tribute opened with a video message from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is in the Middle East.
Harper noted that Chretien, who turned 80 on Jan. 11, shares his birthday with the country’s first, Conservative prime minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald. And he said the two share a number of attributes as well.
“Both Jean and Sir John A. devoted their lives to serving Canada, both loved politics and campaigning and, of course, both loved to win and did so,” Harper said.
“Jean, you have faithfully served our country and all Canadians for more than 40 years.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who grew up knowing Chretien as one of his father’s senior cabinet ministers, said Chretien always understood that “service to Canadians was the highest calling.”
“Politics was the route, public service was the reward,” Trudeau said.
“Thank you for reminding us all that authenticity in politics is not only possible but preferable.”
Of that authenticity, a number of speakers fondly recalled how Chretien once throttled a protester, using what he later referred to as “the Shawinigan handshake,” and actually saw his approval rating in the polls go up.
Chretien himself recounted how he wanted to be an architect but his father, who had his heart set on him becoming a politician, insisted he go to law school instead.
“So, for me, it was tough, yes but I have no regrets,” Chretien said of his almost 40 years in elected politics. “Because serving Canada … is the best thing you can do in life.”
Charest piped up that Chretien did become an architect after all: “The architect of Canada.”
The tribute was 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.
Others who lent their names to the committee that organized and promoted the tribute included former Conservative prime minister Joe Clark, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and a raft of one-time Conservative, Liberal and NDP premiers: Mike Harris, Bill Davis, Gary Filmon, Roy Romanow, Brian Tobin and Bernard Lord.
Several other former premiers showed up for the tribute, including Frank McKenna, Daniel Johnson, Dalton McGuinty and Bob Rae, who sang happy birthday to Chretien at the conclusion of the evening. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was one of the speakers.
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.
Chretien retired in 2003 amid the sponsorship scandal and rancour over Martin’s leadership aspirations, the former of which was not mentioned Tuesday night, the latter only alluded to obliquely.
Martin did not attend the tribute. He was in Alberta on Tuesday, announcing funding for an aboriginal education initiative financed partly by a trust fund he has set up.
Proceed’s from the 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.