Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien - Canada's 20th Prime Minister

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The art of politics is learning to walk with your back to the wall, your elbows high, and a smile on your face. It's a survival game played under the glare of lights. If you don't learn that you're quickly finished. It's damn tough and you can't complain; you just have to take it and give it back. The press wants to get you. The Opposition wants to get you. Even some of the bureaucrats want to get you. They all may have an interest in making you look bad and they all have ambitions of their own.

-Jean Chrétien, 1985


One of Jean Chrétien's greatest assets as Canada's twentieth prime minister is his long years of experience in Parliament and Cabinet. In government or in opposition, he has served with six prime ministers, held twelve ministerial positions and sat in Parliament for a total of twenty-seven years. When it comes to the game of politics, no one knows better the players and the strategies.
The eighteenth child of a paper mill machinist, Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien was born in Shawinigan, Quebec in 1934, sharing with Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the same birthday of January 11. Although his academic achievements were modest, Chrétien's parents were determined to give him a good education and he was sent to the classical college in Trois-Rivières. After graduating, he attended Laval University, where he studied law. He was called to the Bar in 1958 and set up his law practice in the working-class district of Shawinigan North.
Chrétien had demonstrated an interest in politics from a young age. His father was a Liberal organizer and by the age of fifteen, Chrétien was helping to distribute pamphlets and attending political rallies. At Laval he joined the campus Liberal Club. Quebec Liberals were an endangered species in the 1950s; the Union Nationale had dominated Quebec politics for more than a decade, and in 1957, the Conservatives won federally. Nevertheless, Chrétien persevered, campaigning for Liberal candidates in both provincial and federal elections. By 1960, he was principal organizer for Jean Lesage, leader of the provincial Liberal party, in the election that made him Quebec Premier that year. In 1963, Chrétien was asked to run as the Liberal candidate for St-Maurice-Laflèche in the federal election. The incumbent was a Créditiste who had won the previous election with a margin of 10,000 votes, nine months earlier. In a hard-fought campaign, Chrétien won by 2,000 votes.
Chrétien spent his first two years in Ottawa as a backbencher, improving his English. By 1965, his enthusiasm and capacity for hard work had come to the attention of Prime Minister Lester Pearson; Chrétien was made a parliamentary secretary and worked under Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp.
After the 1968 election, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made Chrétien Minister of National Revenue. He served briefly in this portfolio before becoming Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. One of his first tasks was to draft a policy paper on Native issues in 1969. Chrétien set up the Berger Commission in 1972 to make recommendations on a proposed pipeline in the Mackenzie River Valley, and established an office for the settling of Native land claims. He also created ten new national parks during his six years as Minister.
In 1974, Chrétien served as President of the Treasury Board, then moved to Industry, Trade and Commerce in 1976 where he financed the development of the Challenger aircraft. In 1977, he became Minister of Finance, overseeing the removal of the wage and price controls that had been in effect since 1975. In 1980, Chrétien became Minister of Justice where he was responsible for supporting the "no" forces in the Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty. As Minister for Constitutional Negotiations, he drafted and organized the passage of the 1982 Charter of Rights and the repatriation of the constitution.
When Trudeau resigned as prime minister in 1984, Chrétien ran for leadership of the Liberal party. The contest was a close one between him and John Turner. Although Chrétien had enormous popular support, he was defeated by his association with Trudeau and by the Liberal tradition of alternating anglophone and francophone leaders. He served as Deputy Prime Minister for two months and then resigned from politics in 1986, returning to the practice of law.
When Turner left politics in 1990 after losing two elections, Chrétien announced his candidacy for leader and won the convention on the first ballot. The Liberal party had been divided and demoralized since Trudeau's departure, so Chrétien set about rebuilding and preparing for the next election. Disillusioned by the Tories, voters in 1993 sought to protest by voting for the new parties of Reform and Bloc Québécois. The Liberals ran a strong campaign and won a majority of 176 seats. Although their traditional opponents, the Conservatives, were all but annihilated, they now confront an avowedly separatist opposition party with the staunchly right-wing Reform party as a close third.
On November 4, 1993, Jean Chrétien was sworn in as prime minister and shouldered the enormous burden borne by the nineteen other Canadians who have tried to govern this country. In November 2000, he went on to win a third straight majority government. In December 2003 Jean Chrétien retired as prime minister and was succeeded by his former finance minister Paul Martin.

International Relations

Chrétien’s early foreign policy was shaped by two factors, trade and national unity. He changed the name of the Department of External Affairs to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), and the Secretary of State for External Affairs became the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Using “foreign” instead of “external” signalled the downplaying of Canada’s historic relationship with Commonwealth countries and he showed Canadians he was determined to pursue an effective foreign policy during a period of fiscal restraint.

Two weeks after his election, Chrétien travelled to Seattle and met President Bill Clinton at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum. During his election campaign, Chrétien had promised to renegotiate NAFTA but he quickly dropped the idea when the Americans threatened to walk away from the deal. He later led several “Team Canada” trade missions to Asian-Pacific and Latin American countries.
During the second Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995, the Canada–United States relationship was positive, with President Clinton affirming that America, while uninvolved, preferred working with an undivided Canada.  After naming Lloyd Axworthy as Foreign Affairs Minister in 1996, the focus of Canada’s foreign policy was on human security. Chrétien supported Axworthy in his campaign against anti-personnel land mines and also his efforts to create an International Criminal Court. Both these campaigns were quite successful. Canada sent peacekeepers to many parts of the world, including Rwanda.
Militarily, Canada supported the NATO bombing in Kosovo in 1999, a campaign that was NATO’s first aggressive action taken against a sovereign state. Relations with the United States became strained when President George W. Bush was elected in 2000, so John Manley was named Foreign Affairs Minister. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States, Canada moved swiftly to introduce an anti-terrorism bill and increased spending on domestic security. Despite these measures, the United States continued to criticize Canada for not doing enough.
Canada responded quickly in sending troops to Afghanistan to join the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. But when U.S. President George W. Bush began preparations to attack Iraq, because of the belief that the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, had weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to the western world, Chrétien announced Canada would not act unless there was proof from the UN weapons inspectors.
Chrétien took a renewed interest in foreign policy in his remaining months of leadership, focussing on aid and development. He increased foreign aid by contributing $50 million for vaccine and research to fight AIDS in Africa.
In December 2002, Canada adhered to the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Convention on Climate Change and at the G8 meeting in Kananaskis, Alberta he made Africa a central part of the agenda.

Other facts


  • St. Joseph Seminary, Trois-Rivières, B.A. 1955
  • Laval University, LL.L. 1958


  • Lawyer (called to the Quebec Bar in 1958)
  • 1962-1963 Director, Bar of Trois-Rivières
  • 1986-1990 Lawyer
  • Author


  • 1963-1968 St-Maurice-Laflèche, Quebec
  • 1968-1986 St-Maurice, Quebec
  • 1990-1993 Beauséjour, New Brunswick
  • 1993-2003, St-Maurice, Quebec

Other Ministry

  • 1967-1968 Minister Without Portfolio
  • 1968 National Revenue
  • 1968-1974 Indian Affairs and Northern Development
  • 1974-1976 President of the Treasury Board
  • 1976-1977 Industry, Trade and Commerce
  • 1977-1979 Finance
  • 1980-1982 Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Minister of State (Social Development) and Minister responsible for constitutional negotiations
  • 1982-1984 Energy, Mines and Resources
  • 1984 Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs

Political Record

  • Creation of ten national parks 1968-1972
  • White Paper on Indian policy 1969
  • Berger Commission 1972
  • Entrenched the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Constitution Act 1982
  • Appointed Bertha Wilson first woman justice of the Supreme Court of Canada 1982
  • Leader of the Opposition 1990-1993

Research Aids

Photograph of Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien - Canada's 20th Prime Minister


Quick Facts

Term(s) of Office

  • November 4, 1993 - December 12, 2003

Political Party

  • Liberal
  • 1990–2003 Party Leader


  • January 11,1934
  • Shawinigan, Quebec

Personal Life

  • Married 1957, Aline Chainé (b. 1936)
  • One daughter, two sons
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