CHRETIEN DROPS IN By Chris Westdal (Article)

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Chris Westdal

I had a memorable little brush with our history the other day. I was a judge in the Winston Churchill Society’s high-school debate final round, held in the splendid new chamber of the Senate, housed for the next decade or so in Ottawa’s old main railway station, while Parliament Hill gets renovated. During a break in the proceedings, who should arrive - on what was supposed to be a private tour of the new facilities - but our Prime Minister from 26 to 16 years ago, the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien? We invited him in.

It was ... wondrous to see that titan of ours, 85 now, turn on, take command of the room, his profile fit for coinage, and speak straight from the heart, as he does - and straight from that formidable head of his. He’s in winter now, but a lion still.

Mr Chrétien told the debaters of his astonishing career, first elected to Parliament in 1963, before some of their parents were born, and his 1993-2003 Prime Ministership, all before most of them were. He told them that politics was about survival: “I got hit a few times, but I went on, day after day, more than 18,000 thousand times.”

Advised that Wikileaks had been debated, he said, “There aren’t really many secrets; most of all that stuff is known. The key thing is to tell the truth. If you tell someone “white” and someone else “black,” you’ll find it hard to remember. If you always tell the truth, it’s easy.”

Just before the session, I’d read Colin Powell’s line: “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” Well, exactly. That’s what Jean Chrétien does.

The occasion made me remember that there is no better preparation for leadership than public debate - and to realize that, as the 18th of 19 children and as a parliamentarian for 50 years, Jean Chrétien has been debating in public all his life - and that what he’s said has always had to bear a lot of scrutiny, from elder siblings’ put-downs to harsh partisan attacks. No wonder he’s good at it.


In my foreign service career, I got glimpses of the top, and was privileged from time to time to be in the company of great leaders - Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney among them. And in that brief encounter with Jean Chrétien, I felt I was in the company of greatness again.

So, what does a great, natural leader - in his 86th year, on a moment’s notice - say to high-school students? First, calm down: “Most of this stuff is known.” Then, persevere: “I got hit, but went on.” And then, “Tell the truth; it’s easier.” Everybody could understand his every word.

Jean Chrétien is 70 years older than those debaters. They’ll be his age in 2089; some may well reach the 22nd century. For all their lives, they’ll remember their encounter with that Right Honourable man. They’ve told their grandparents about it and will one day tell their grandchildren. In their families, that brief encounter will have spanned centuries.

For me, among the main reasons Jean Chrétien is a great leader of our country is that he has always been an utterly unhyphenated Canadian. In these days of identity politics, with divisive, hyphenated Canadian policy being pursued at home and abroad, I think we would be well served, in Ottawa and all our capitals, by leadership a lot more like Chrétien’s than ours has lately been.


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