Chrétien Takes Charge in Canada Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Crowning a long political career as a dedicated member of Canada’s Liberal Party, Jean Chrétien took over the leadership of the federal government of Canada. His eventful tenure as prime minister lasted ten years.

Summary of Event

Capping a long career with the Liberal Party in Canadian federal politics, Jean Chrétien, a francophone protégé of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, assumed the premiership of Canada. In some respects this was a surprising result (Chrétien, in contrast to his longtime sponsor, Trudeau, lacked charisma and spoke somewhat halting English), but Chrétien’s election was a case of the right man at the right place at the right time. As prime minister, Chrétien crafted a solution to the festering issue of Quebec separatism, a solution that only he, or someone like him, could have offered. Prime ministers;Canada Canada;government Elections;Canada [kw]Chrétien Takes Charge in Canada (Nov. 4, 1993) [kw]Canada, Chrétien Takes Charge in (Nov. 4, 1993) Prime ministers;Canada Canada;government Elections;Canada [g]North America;Nov. 4, 1993: Chrétien Takes Charge in Canada[08750] [g]Canada;Nov. 4, 1993: Chrétien Takes Charge in Canada[08750] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 4, 1993: Chrétien Takes Charge in Canada[08750] Chrétien, Jean Trudeau, Pierre [p]Trudeau, Pierre;parliamentary elections Pearson, Lester B. Mulroney, Brian Bourassa, Robert

Born in Shawinigan, Quebec, a mill town just north of the St. Lawrence River in the center of the province, in 1934, Chrétien was a younger son in a typical French Canadian family. His father was a trade union official, and the workers in the local paper mill were well organized. Jean himself worked as a youth in the mill, but he grew up with greater ambitions. He chose to study law and quickly became involved in politics of a liberal kind—that is, he was a confirmed advocate of Quebec’s participation in federal Canadian politics. Commitment to federalism was visceral on Chrétien’s part, even though he spoke only French until he entered national politics, and he never, unlike his mentor Trudeau, mastered the art of political speech in English.

Jean Chrétien casting his ballot in a 1995 election.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Chrétien was first elected to Canada’s federal parliament in 1963, from a riding (the Canadian term for electoral constituency) of which Shawinigan was an important part. As a protégé of Pierre Trudeau, one of the Liberal Party’s leading politicians, Chrétien quickly earned appointments that gave him governmental experience: In 1965, he became parliamentary secretary to Lester B. Pearson, the Liberal prime minister in the mid-1960’s; he was made a junior minister of the Ministry of Finance in 1967; and in 1968, he became minister of national revenue. During Trudeau’s long premierships, Chrétien held a number of ministerial posts, including minister of finance in 1977. Throughout his early career he was known as a devoted party man who dedicated much of his energy to preserving Liberal electoral dominance.

Chrétien’s most important contribution to Canada, however, concerned the growing campaign within Quebec for independence, or sovereignty. Increasing popular demands within Quebec for at minimum some special status in an otherwise predominantly anglophone Canada had been central to Canadian politics since the 1970’s. These demands led to the first Quebec referendum, held May 20, 1980, in which the no votes outnumbered the yes votes by a very slim margin. This vote led in turn to repeated attempts on the part of Canadian politicians to create a Canadian political structure that would respect the demands for a special identity coming from the French-speaking inhabits of Quebec but would still preserve the unity of the confederation of Canada.

Trudeau, trading on his own French Canadian background, supervised the rewriting of the Canadian constitution that bore fruit in the revised British North America Act British North America Act (1867) (the confederation constitution provided by the British parliament in 1867). This revised constitution emphasized the importance of the different provinces and provided that much of the governing of Canada would be done in the eleven provinces, not in the federal capital in Ottawa; in this solution Canada seemed to be diverging from the model of the United States, its mighty neighbor to the south, where more and more government seemed to be concentrated at the federal level. Canada remained throughout a parliamentary democracy, where federal leadership came not from national electoral victory but from the possession of a majority in the parliament.

Although it might have seemed that Trudeau had masterminded a genuine compromise between Quebec and its fellow provinces, independence sentiment in Quebec continued to simmer. By the late 1980’s, it had again reached a crescendo, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, attempted to broker another accommodation. He collected the premiers of all the provinces at Meech Lake in Quebec in 1987 to put together another “compromise,” but Canadian voters rejected this compromise (known as the Meech Lake Accord), Meech Lake Accord as they did the attempt by Conservatives to rewrite it in the Charlottetown Accord Charlottetown Accord of 1992. This made the parliamentary elections of 1993 critical; the task fell to the Liberals, now led by Jean Chrétien, who organized a masterful campaign that led to Liberal victory in the elections.

Although the Liberals won nationally, Quebec remained separatist in feeling, and a new referendum in Quebec itself proved the only viable option. Quebec sovereignist movement The new referendum was set for October 30, 1995, in the province of Quebec only. Although support was strong in Quebec for the national government run by the Liberals, the proponents of Quebec separatism came close to winning: The no vote (opposing separatism) garnered 50.6 percent, and the yes vote, 49.4 percent. The continuance of the Canadian federation was electorally secured, but only barely. It was up to the Chrétien government to find a solution.

The solution Chrétien offered was a masterful one. He began by appealing the issue of sovereignty to the Canadian Supreme Court, Supreme Court, Canada;Quebec sovereignty which delivered an ambiguous decision. The court agreed that any province had a right to secede from the Canadian federation if a popular majority of voters in the province approved secession, but it ruled that such a majority had to be decisive—it implied that a majority vote that differed from the minority vote by only a fraction of 1 percent. or, indeed, any marginal fraction, was not sufficient. Chrétien then took the issue to the federal parliament in what was known as the Clarity Act. This legislation specified the exact conditions under which secession could occur, making it clear that a province could secede only when a significant majority of the provincial voters required it. Such a vote would be followed by negotiation with the federal parliament, which would act on behalf of the other provinces of Canada. Only someone as manifestly a “child” of Quebec and French Canada could have so clarified the issue as to render it moot for the immediate—and perhaps the distant—future.


The Chrétien government followed up its resolution of the Quebec issue by taking on a number of other issues that Chrétien had promised voters he would address. The most important of these was the federal deficit, which the government managed to eliminate, partly by cutting the sums devolved to the provinces from the federal government and partly by reaping the benefits of the economic boom that characterized the world economy in the late 1990’s. By the early years of the twenty-first century, half of the revenues collected by the Canadian government were returned to the provinces, which in turn were able to improve health care under the nationalized health care system of Canada and to improve education. Following the elimination of the deficit, the Chrétien government was able to expand the reach of the Canada Child Tax Benefit so that many middle-class families were included.

In addition, although Chrétien’s government did not bring about all the changes many had hoped it would concerning the situation of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, it did improve their ability to express their political views through constitutional changes affecting their political rights.

Finally, the Chrétien government worked to cement the allegiance of the voters of Quebec (who increasingly supported the Liberals in elections in 1997 and 2000) by instigating numerous development projects in the province. Some of these led in 2002 to the “sponsorship” scandals, when it was shown that advertising contracts had been given to political friends of the Liberal Party. These revelations contributed to Chrétien’s decision to resign at the end of 2003.

The Chrétien government oversaw a number of important changes in Canada, but unquestionably Chrétien’s most outstanding contribution was his role in crafting a strong and very possibly lasting solution to the “independence” movement of the Quebec populists. All of his other achievements pale in comparison to this great accomplishment. Prime ministers;Canada Canada;government Elections;Canada

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics and Provincialism. Rev. ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. First-rate history of Canada provides all the details needed for an understanding of Canadian politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chrétien, Jean. Straight from the Heart. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994. Memoir provides Chrétien’s personal point of view. Lawrence Martin, Chrétien’s biographer (see below), has criticized this work as being less than truthful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frizzell, Alan, Jon H. Pammett, and Antony Westell. The Canadian General Election of 1993. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1994. Presents a detailed account of the election tactics that brought Chrétien to the premiership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harder, Lois, and Steve Patten, eds. The Chrétien Legacy: Politics and Public Policy in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006. Collection of essays by a variety of authors, all specialists in their fields, discusses the accomplishments and shortcomings of the Chrétien government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Lawrence. Chrétien: The Will to Win. 2 vols. Toronto: Lester, 1995-1999. Detailed biography makes clear Chrétien’s origins in the bosom of Quebec federalism and, in particular, the role his parents played in shaping his life.

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Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord

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Categories: History