Politics a great human endeavour, Chrétien tells Selwyn House students

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, P.C., former prime minister of Canada, received a warm reception at Selwyn House School May 3 while visiting with students and speaking to an assembly of Grades 6 through 11.
By Richard Wills, publications editor

The Right Honorable Jean Chrétien, P.C., former prime minister of Canada, received a warm reception at Selwyn House School May 3 while visiting with students and speaking to an assembly of Grades 6 through 11.

The man who served as prime minister for over 10 years has three grandsons (Olivier ’99, Maximilien 2001, and Philippe Desmarais 2003) who attended Selwyn House.

After a casual visit with students in the Headmaster’s office, Mr. Chrétien made a brief speech before taking questions from students. He regaled the assembly with anecdotes from his childhood, as well as his 40 years in public life, and articulated his vision of Canada clearly and forcefully.

He encouraged young people to get involved in public life at any level, describing politics as “a great human endeavor.” In response to a question from Qifan Wang (Gr. 10) about “the most important attributes [one must] have in order to become a successful politician Mr. Chrétien replied: “honesty”.

“Honest in your talk, honest in your actions, and honest with yourself.” You also have to love people, he added, because it’s a very demanding job.

In response to a question from Sam Skinner (Gr. 9) on NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, Mr. Chrétien explained the difference between the situation there and the war in Iraq, where Canada declined to take part because there was no mandate from the United Nations. “To have the approval of the UN [the U.S. and Britain] needed proof of weapons of mass destruction, and they didn’t have it.”

Refusing to go to Iraq was a controversial move, he recalled, because members of the Canadian business community were afraid the United States would make economic retaliation against Canada. But Mr. Chrétien was skeptical.

“I remember meeting a group of [business leaders] and I said ‘Give me the list of all the goods and services that the Americans are buying from us that they don’t need.’ And I never saw the list, because business is business.”
Canada joined the war in Afghanistan because of its obligations to NATO, he explained. “Now we are getting out—probably not very elegantly. You know, starting a war is easy. Getting out of a war is complicated.”

Asked by Alex Nikolopoulos (Gr. 10) about his most difficult decision, Mr. Chrétien pointed to his government’s cost-cutting measures to eliminate its budget deficit. “I was there 10 years and we managed to balance the books seven or eight years. And we reduced the debt from 78 per cent of GDP to 29 per cent. And now we’ve become an example to the world. So, politics can be very important. You make your decisions, and you might make enemies, but you do it for the good of the nation.”

Will McLernon (Gr. 6) asked Mr. Chrétien’s opinion on Quebec separation.

“I’m against it!” he said stated plainly. “I think it would be bad for Canada and bad for Quebec.” He explained why his government adopted the “Clarity Act” in 2000 to ensure that a future referendum on separation could not be based on a vague question. “If you phrase the question as ‘Do you want a better deal?’ then it’s easy—but it’s not honest.”

Asked by Ulysses Pamel (Gr. 10) whether he thought the Quebec government would ever sign the Canadian Constitution, Mr. Chrétien replied that they would not so long as the province is governed by a separatist party. “The government of Quebec didn’t sign,” he said. “They should have signed. But that doesn’t change a thing. The constitution [still] applies to them. You can go to court and defend your individual rights using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That was part of what we did at that time, so I will not apologize for that. We gave rights to the citizens against the federal government and the provincial governments. There are limits now to what governments can do.”

Calling the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “a model for the world, he said that the majority of the elected people of Quebec were in favour of the Constitution when it was adopted. Of the 75 federal members of Parliament for Quebec, only two did not vote for it, and about 20 per cent of MLAs voted for it. “But the nationalists will not write that,” he said. “It does not suit their story. “

Asked about the future of the Liberal Party, Mr. Chrétien was optimistic. He defined his brand of liberalism as “fundamentally centreist. I’m not doctrinaire. I’m fiscally responsible and socially preoccupied. That’s the definition of a real good Trudeau-Pearson-St. Laurent- Chrétien Liberal. And these things are fundamentally a reflection of what Canada is.”

More photos here.

Video here.