Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Politician as Storyteller: An Evening with Jean Chrétien

 

The Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien is one of few politicians who can credibly claim that he has retired to spend more time with his family. Chrétien, who left the public stage after four decades in politics, has successfully transformed himself into a master raconteur. In conversation with Daniel Poliquin at Southminster United Church, Chrétien presented himself as a kind of national grandfather, ready to sit by the fireside filling his audience’s ears with stories. For readers who attended the event on November 1st, Chrétien’s colorful anecdotes told the story of a man who is willing to try almost anything in name of politics. The comfortable conversation between Chrétien and Poliquin also revealed how a multi-lingual nation had been bound together by a jovial, heavily-accented man from Shawinigan.

 

Chrétien knows how to pull the best lessons out of each of his carefully-selected tales. The art of storytelling and the art of politics are intertwined, and Chrétien has been honing both for years. Pitching his new book, My Stories, My Times, is clearly a pleasant new agenda for the retired prime minister. [Chrétien has previously published two autobiographical works; his new memoir is a more informal collection of stories than Straight from the Heart (1985) and My Years as Prime Minister (2007).] Ever the politician, he quickly deploys a joke to boost interest in the new book. Library and Archives Canada, he confides to Poliquin, had recently pressured him for the promised book manuscript. “Why?” asks Poliquin, amplifying the audience’s curiosity about any salacious details which might be included in My Stories, My Times. “Because they claim I will be the last one to write with a pen!” Chrétien shot back. Working in neat longhand, Jean Chrétien may indeed have been the last prime minister deposit a hand-written manuscript at LAC. Yet Canadian audiences will still want to read the printed pages of Chrétien’s vivid collection of anecdotes.

 

Largely drawn from My Stories, My Times, the memories which Chrétien shared in in conversation with Poliquin each offered insights into Canadian culture and leadership.  Chrétien’s remarks held an underlying reminder not to take oneself too seriously, to accept one’s own imperfections and to keep focused on a few selected values through life’s unpredictable journey. Some of the most amusing stories involved Chrétien’s interactions with the British royal family. He related a story of flying on a small plane with Queen Elizabeth. “The Queen was always speaking in French at me,” confided Chrétien to Poliquin, “You know why?” [He paused for a beat]. “She could not stand my English!” On the same trip, Chrétien admitted, he found himself singing a solo of “O Canada” in French to a crowd of non-Francophones. The scheduled Anglophone singer had cancelled at the last minute, and Chrétien, who was then minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, had yet to learn the English lyrics to the national anthem. The royal family, he reported, has never forgotten the trip. Most of the audience laughed at the anecdote, but it was carefully chosen: in politics, and in life, never forget to get out there and sing as the occasion might demand. This lesson still holds even if you’re sweating profusely, can’t carry a tune and don’t know the words to the song in question. Chrétien’s narrative, as well as his career trajectory, have made it clear that Canada is a better place when we can forgive each other our accents, inflections and mistakes.

 

Chrétien reminisced about the highs and lows of his career, including the personal attacks he weathered during the Quebec referendum crisis of 1995. Throughout the years, Chrétien has advanced by keeping his eyes on the prize, acknowledging his opposition, and refusing to be derailed by dissent. He advocated for so-called retail politics, stressing the significance of shaking hands with as much of the electorate as possible during his own campaigns. He also seemed very much at peace with his own observance that “when the nation is happy, the people are not [all] necessarily happy.” Over the years, Chrétien has found support and respite in his family life, as well as enjoying the benefits of sleep and “a bit of exercise.”

 

Family, exercise and nationhood were all interwoven in one of Chrétien’s final anecdotes of the evening. Earlier this year, a few of Chrétien’s children and grandchildren had set up a ski lesson for the retired prime minister and his great-grandson William. Coasting slowly with young William between his knees, Chrétien felt a deep pleasure in fate, grateful that he was healthy enough to teach a third generation of his family how to master a national sports. A few yards down the bunny slope, Chrétien released the boy, who continued along, pulled by on his own momentum and gravity. At the end of the outing, he told young William: “Never forget that you skied for the first time with your great-grandfather!” The boy immediately rebuked Chrétien: “No! I did it alone!” Chrétien beamed as he relayed the boy’s words to the audience: “chip of the old block!” With forty years of elected office under his belt, Jean Chrétien knows when to take credit for a transformative experience, when to give credit to others, and how to spin the whole episode into a usable, charming and funny story. Chrétien’s life to date, as he told Poliquin and the rapt audience, holds no misgivings. “I have done my best,” he concluded, fittingly, “No regrets!”