Childhood & Early Life
Born in Quebec, Canada on 11th January 1934, Jean Chretien was one of the 19 kids of Marie and Wellie Chretien. His father was a keen Canadian nationalist and was supportive of war efforts during the Second World War, making him a controversial yet very influential figure. This was in the 40s, when most of the Canadian-French people were against the war and yet, Wellie held strongly on to his principles, which established him as a strong headed man, and turned their family into outcasts.
Jean Chretien inherited this strong will and a penchant for aggression from his father and was a feared young man in the neighbourhood, who would never back away from fights and could easily scare off the guys much older than him. One of his classmates from the school recalls that Jean was a violent kid and used to bully his weaker classmates, just for fun.
At the age of 12 Jean suffered from a condition called Bell’s palsy, which caused one side of his face getting a little paralyzed. But Jean, being too confident a man always joked about it and never took it seriously. He loved reading and talking politics, and even during his time at school, he would take part in rallies and distribute pamphlets for his favourite politician’s campaigns.
In 1959, Jean graduated in law from Laval University and started working with Shawinigan political firm. However, his support for the Liberal Party and keen eye on politics never wavered and he started making his way into Canadian politics while resuming his law practices in the early 60s.
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In the year 1963, Jean Chretien fought the elections for a seat in House of Commons and won it, and supported the Liberal Party with everything he had. He got the entry into the cabinet of the then Prime Minister Lester Pearson and was later appointed as the minister of national revenue. His portfolio expanded when Pierre Trudeau became the Prime Minister and Jean handled the Treasury board, industry, trade, commerce, finance, energy, mines and resources along with aboriginal affairs.
In 1980, Jean became the minister of Justice and kept growing in stature, which was due to his sharp intellect and hardworking nature. His emotional and strong speeches were extremely popular among the locals in Quebec and outside. One such bold step was taken during his tenure as the Minister of Justice, when he played a huge role in patriation of Canadian constitution along with the enactment of Charters of Rights and Freedom.
Such was his aura among his peers and the general population of Canada that Jean became one of the strong contenders for the leadership of the Liberal Party in mid 80s. John Turner was the top contender to become the leader and rightly so, he was officially appointed as the head of the party in 1986.
A little bit disappointed with this, Jean resigned his seat in House of Commons and practiced law privately for some time. He said that he wanted to focus on himself for some time and also during this time, and also worked on his autobiography which was named ‘Straight from the Heart’ and became a bestseller as soon as it was released.
Following his second defeat against the conservatives, John Turner resigned from the leadership in 1990 and this time, even though Jean faced tough competition from Paul Martin, he successfully became the party leader and also resumed his position in the House of Commons.
When Jean took over, the Liberal Party was at its low, but somehow Jean managed to get it together for the 1993 elections. During the elections, his party centred their campaigns on job creations and eventually, ‘The Red Book’ was released as part of the campaign, in which Jean answered the criticisms towards him and his party appropriately.
All the efforts paid and the Liberal Party secured a clean victory and the Conservative party, led by Kim Campbell, faced a bitter defeat. On 4th November 1993, Jean took oath as the 20th Prime Minister of Canada in a time when Canada was seemingly in trouble in regards to a high annual deficit, a huge national debt and tax rates which didn’t resonate with the general population. Jean knew that he had to take some very difficult decisions to get his country out of the mess and he did just that.
Under his first term as the Prime Minister, Jean cut down on federal programs, which also included subsidies to the provinces. However, the Goods and Service Tax’s requirement was felt and going against his promises of abolishing GST, Jean had to keep that intact. However criticised those choices were, in less than 5 years time, the nation saw a surplus, which wasn’t seen since the past 30 years. ‘Team Canada’ missions led by Jean had him travelling to many countries for economic co-operation and trade. Jean happened to become a close ally of Bill Clinton, the the President of the USA.
Federal elections took place in 1997, and the Liberal Party won this time as well, owing to the apparent economic turnaround under the rule of Liberal party. Thereafter, Jean focused his attention on the domestic politics, as a new Canadian Alliance Party was taking shape around 2000, where the Reform Party and Conservative Party joined hands together, with Stockwell Day as the leader. Jean hit them when they were unprepared for an election and the Liberal Party secured a clean victory for the third time.
The core issued during the third term of Jean as the Prime Minister was the relationship with the United States of America. Canada, although was doing well on the financial front, but due to a large exports from the USA, their armed forces were not in a very strong position. When the US waged a war against Afghanistan post the 9/11 attacks, Canada gathered whatever armed forces they could to aid USA in their war.
Things changed when America attacked Iraq, and Jean refused to send Canadian troops to support the USA, a move which was supported by the general population, but created a stir inside the Liberal Party and taking full advantage of that, Paul Martin succeeded in turning party insiders against Jean.
Tired of all the politics and blame games, Jean retired from the leader’s post of Liberal Party in December 2003, clearing the way for Martin to take his place as the Prime Minister.
Even after his retirement, Jean never stayed completely away from politics and kept raising his voice against political moves which didn’t resonate with him in the national interest.
Post retirement, Jean worked with many organizations such as World Leadership Alliance, a club of former Presidents and Prime Ministers that discusses the challenges faced by the democratic countries. Along with that, he is also a member of Foundation Chirac, an NGO working towards bringing peace to the world.