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Jean Chrétien: Fox or Snake

Bob Plamondon's Chrétien: The little guy from Shawinigan was Canada’s most fiscally conservative PM?

Michael Taube

The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada

Bob Plamondon

Great River Media

427 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781775098119

Two of the more intriguing animal ​protagonists in literature are the fox and snake. In Aesop’s fables, they’re often depicted as intelligent, devious, and crafty. In contrast, the National Film Board’s puppet film The Man, the Snake and the Fox (1978), based on an Ojibwa legend, depicts a heroic, intelligent fox outwitting a sneaky, dastardly snake. This was one of my first thoughts while reading Bob Plamondon’s The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada. The former prime minister wasn’t an intellectual, an ideologue or a policy wonk by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, he played the game of politics better than most because of his razor-sharp, fox-like instincts and an uncanny ability to speak directly to Canadians with plain, straightforward language.

Plamondon doesn’t challenge this widely held view of Jean Chrétien. Nevertheless, he has contributed something rather unique to the existing scholarship, which includes autobiographies such as Straight From the Heart (1985) and My Years as Prime Minister (2007). The conservative political commentator holds views about the veteran Liberal politician that go deeper into the political woods than most have ever ventured. He describes Chrétien as having a deep intelligence; while he may not have articulated “a grand vision,” Plamondon writes, he still focused “on what mattered to Canadians in their day-to-day lives.” He also goes further than most Canadian conservatives might venture in appraising Chrétien’s views on fiscal and foreign policy; he notes how Chrétien allowed this thinking to evolve, “changed the rules of the separation game,” and left Canada “more united than it had been in 50 years.”

Plamondon assesses Chrétien’s role as a political tactician during one of his low points: the 1995 Quebec referendum. The prime minister was “advised by provincial Liberals not to take an active role, in part because his initial opposition to Meech Lake would be used against him,” the author writes, but still remained in the fray and attracted his fair share of controversy. Determined and even stubborn, Chrétien always believed “if he couldn’t win by brute force and raw guts, he would outmanoeuvre his foes” to ensure his message and voice were heard.

This single-minded strategy caused some difficult moments, but brought him successes, too. For instance, Chrétien was willing to grant Quebec additional constitutional powers as the separatist campaign gained in popularity. Nevertheless, he also “used his best acting skills” to let Quebecers know “the referendum was not a negotiation, it was a divorce.” By making this vote an all-or-nothing gambit, he turned the campaign into a federalist rallying cry—and forced separatists to backpedal when it came to negotiating Canada’s future.

Chrétien’s Plan B, which would have been enacted if the federalists had lost the referendum, is revealed for the first time (by an unnamed source) in The Shawinigan Fox. He would have “reneged by saying that the referendum question was unclear and that there was nothing in the Canadian Constitution that contemplated separation,” according to Plamondon. Most political analysts assumed this would be part of Chrétien’s strategy, but Plamondon’s source adds an intriguing twist. The next step of the PM’s plan “was to move quickly, within a month or so, to ask Quebecers another question in another referendum: Do you want Quebec to separate from Canada? If those voting yes had a clear majority—not just 50 percent plus one but some unspecified threshold—he planned to hold a national referendum on what position the government should take.” Would it have succeeded? Fortunately, we never had to find out.

It is not the only time in this book that we see Chrétien attempting to put Canadians “on the right side of history,” as Plamondon puts it rather generously in the chapter on Iraq. This episode epitomizes Chrétien’s perplexing foreign policy positions. Chrétien had told reporters in 1990 that the only way to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was to “crush him.” He had long been supportive of the U.S. government in its military efforts as prime minister, too. As Plamondon wrote, “Chrétien was more reluctant than most to go to war, but he was clearly not a pacifist.”

Yet, when a second Iraq war seemed imminent, Chrétien changed his tune. The PM wasn’t confident there was a strong case for a military intervention, and felt “Canada should not be in the business of removing dictators, especially in a turbulent part of the world.” He told U.S. president George W. Bush the evidence of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was “very shaky,” broke with the U.S. on military and financial matters, and didn’t tackle the anti-American sentiment festering in the Liberal caucus. In Plamondon’s view:

Chrétien was less interested in proving that he was right than in ensuring Canada did not suffer for refusing to join the American-led coalition. That’s why he did not admonish Bush and [British PM Tony] Blair or tell them they had it wrong. He didn’t throw stones or stand on the high moral ground. His cover was the shield of the United Nations.

This is not a position many conservatives—myself included—would necessarily agree with, but it could help dissolve some preconceived notions that Canada wasn’t willing to stand with its allies to depose a brutal dictator. It’s also an intriguing reframing of the debate about Chrétien’s stance on Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, an entire section of The Shawinigan Fox is devoted to Chrétien’s long-standing feud with his old political rival, Paul Martin, whose supporters would be well advised to keep a blood pressure gauge on their nightstands as they read. A new animal, Martin the badger, enters the political forest to confront Chrétien’s fox as the book plumbs the strained relationship between the two Liberal juggernauts after the vicious 1990 leadership race. Chrétien offered Martin the “highest-profile position on his front bench,” which he turned down to be opposition environment critic. Martin also initially rejected the role of finance minister, which stunned Chrétien (along with some readers, I’d imagine), although he eventually changed his mind.

Externally, Chrétien and Martin appeared to be a successful political duo. Internally, they had almost no direct contact, and usually communicated through Eddie Goldenberg, the PM’s influential senior advisor. Their distrust continued to build as Martin’s leadership ambitions grew. Chrétien thought Martin was “ungrateful,” since the popular cabinet minister was seen as his natural successor and didn’t need to lead a caucus revolt. He wanted to fire Martin, but was advised against doing so, in part, to keep the financial markets stable.

While observers have largely praised Martin’s stewardship in handling our economy, Plamondon argues that despite Martin being called “the government’s financial genius, the reality was that Chrétien consistently had a better handle on the numbers than his finance minister did.” This position seems to be supported by quotes from former Liberal MP Sheila Copps (“every expenditure had been reviewed by a whole team starting with the prime minister and including every minister in the government”) and former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest (“I don’t accept for a moment that Chrétien was just some bystander taking notes”). While no one believes Chrétien was off playing tiddlywinks while Martin crunched numbers, suggesting the former was closer to being Canada’s financial guru is a narrative few have ever explored—maybe for good reason.

Perhaps the biggest compliment Plamondon pays Chrétien is to claim him as one of his own. The book’s most unusual idea, by far, lies in the assertion that Chrétien was “Canada’s most fiscally conservative prime minister.” Plamondon rightly points out that Chrétien didn’t increase government spending, kept taxes at low levels, eliminated the deficit, reduced the debt, and slashed the bureaucracy during most of his time in office. He championed economic policies “designed to spur investment, create jobs, or strengthen the federal balance sheet,” and supported “the well-worn conservative idiom that the best social program was a job.”

Nevertheless, Chrétien wasn’t a deficit-fighting hawk or conservative Liberal. He happened to govern during a period of time when fiscal prudence was respected across party lines, from Alberta PC premier Ralph Klein to Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow. As a non-ideologue who can easily shift toward the prevailing political winds, he temporarily shed his left-wing skin and transformed himself into fiscal conservatism’s white knight. This continued until near the end of his tenure, when he unleashed his progressive side (as Plamondon acknowledges) by signing the Kyoto Accord and restoring some Employment Insurance measures that were torn asunder during his first term.

There’s a big difference between championing fiscal conservatism on principle and adopting fiscal conservatism for political gain. While Chrétien need not be admonished for practising the latter, it’s not the same as the former—and the author surely knows this. Regardless, a few minor quibbles doesn’t take anything away from Plamondon’s important contribution to understanding the Chrétien years. He has helped prove that Chrétien’s fable is not one of a sneaky snake, but rather of a crafty fox who used his down-to-earth personality, pseudo-populist demeanour, faux fiscal prudence, and heaps of political smarts to charm Canadians for more than a decade.

Michael Taube was a speech writer for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He is a syndicated columnist for Troy Media.