PM Jean Chretien: Street Fighter With Political Instincts

Liberal Party Chief Led 3 Consecutive Governments

Jean Chretien Receives Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth
Jean Chretien receives the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II in October 2009. WPA Pool / Getty Images

A street-fighter with fine political instincts, Jean Chretien was a member of Parliament for 40 years and led three consecutive Liberal majority governments as prime minister from 1993 to 2003. Chretien's governments gave Canada liberal social policies and a healthy Canadian economy, including the elimination of the deficit. In its closing years, the Chretien government was marked by scandals over mismanagement and by a split in the Liberal Party as Paul Martin pushed to take over the job of prime minister.

Early Life

Chretien was born on Jan. 11, 1934, in Shawinigan, Quebec. He earned a bachelor's degree from St. Joesph Seminary in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, and a law degree from Laval University. He showed interest in politics from the time he was a teenager and was an activist for liberal causes during his college years.

Political Career

After working for other candidates, he won his first campaign to be a member of Parliament from St-Maurice-Lafleche, Quebec, in 1963. Pierre Trudeau became prime minister in 1968, and Chretien became a central player in Trudeau's government; he served as minister of national revenue, minister of Indian and northern affairs, minister of finance and then minister of justice and attorney general of Canada. After Trudeau resigned, Chretien left politics in 1986 and practiced law. But he did not stay away for long. In 1990, Chretien ran for leader of the Liberal Party and won and was also back as a member of Parliament representing Beausejour, New Brunswick; in 1993 the Liberals won a majority of seats in Parliament and that made Chretien the prime minister, a seat he held until 2003, when he retired. After stepping down, he returned to the practice of law and continues to be held in high regard as a Liberal statesman. 

Highlights as Prime Minister

  • Improved the Canadian economy, including the elimination of the deficit and a budget surplus for five straight years
  • Passed the Clarity Bill, which says Quebec can only separate from Canada after a solid majority votes "yes" on a clear question
  • Active social agenda included the child tax benefit
  • Ratified the Kyoto Protocol
  • Worked for a global ban on land mines
  • Pushed for the establishment of an international criminal court
  • Supported the war on terrorism but would not send troops to Iraq without UN resolution for military action

Retirement Years

In 2008, Chretien's book of his memoirs, "My Years as Prime Minister," was published. It joins his "Straight From the Heart," published more than 20 years before, in 1985. He's had cardiac issues and had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2007, from which he had a full recovery. Though he has long been out of government, he has not remained silent. In March 2013, he was vocal in his criticism of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper's positions on foreign policy, and in an open letter to Canadians about Europe's migrant crisis said that Harper "had shamed Canada" and   "I am sad to see that in fewer than 10 years, the Harper government has tarnished almost 60 years of Canada's reputation as a builder of peace and progress."  Chretien encouraged Canadians to reject Harper's government, and in 2015 that occurred with the Liberal Party victory, which made Justin Trudeau prime minister.