15 Minutes with Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien

After the publication of his memoir, we talked to Jean Chrétien about advising Justin Trudeau, tiring of Donald Trump and the importance of telling his tales.

Jean Chrétien in 2015Photo: Art Babych/Shutterstock

In conversation with Jean Chrétien

Reader’s Digest Canada: Your book, My Stories, My Times, comes out 25 years after you were first elected prime minister. What motiv­ated this moment of self-reflection?

Jean Chrétien: When I’m sitting with family or friends after dinner, they often ask me questions about my 40 years in public life—and I find I have a lot of stories to tell. My grandchildren told me, “Grand-papa, these stories will disappear. Why don’t you write them down?” And so, for a full year, I wrote something every week. The subject varied, as if I had been writing a column for a newspaper.

You mention that writing is something you would do when you had tired of the “surrealist vagaries” of Donald Trump. Care to expand?

I’m very surprised by what’s going on in the United States. Like many others, I’m watching it on TV and, sometimes, I don’t enjoy it. So it’s better to return to my desk and gain back my serenity with my souvenirs, my stories.

What are your thoughts on living in the era of “alternative facts”?

In my time, to be accused of lying was a terrible attack. If you alleged somebody else in the House [of Commons] was doing it, that caused a big storm. The member [making the alleg­ation] had to prove it or was suspended from the House. It doesn’t seem to be such a big problem today.

You chose Joe Clark, an old rival, to write the foreword.

Yes, and that’s why I asked him. I thought it would be a good message to send to people. We worked across the aisle from each other for more than 30 years. He was an opponent of mine all that time, but even when we had to challenge each other politically, we remained civilized.

The Trudeau government occasionally consults with you on current matters. How does that work?

I’m not advising them on a daily basis, but when they want to get my views on something, they call me. I have known Justin since he was a baby—I was sitting in the House of Commons next to his father when he was born. Justin is a different guy than I am, and as prime minister he has to do things his way. What’s important, though, is the values we share—values that have existed in our party for a long time.

Is there anything that stands out in that regard?

I was very pleased with the moves we made for the refugees from Syria. We took in a big number of them, and it was not a controversy in Canada.

Did you always dream of a life in politics?

My father was the one who wanted me to be a politician. When I told him that I wanted to be an architect, he said, “No, you will never be elected as an architect. You’re going to law school.” So I did. In those days, when your father said something, you did it.

Your father chose your career, and in the book, you write about how your mother chose your wife.

Well, I was very attracted to my wife, but it was my mother who did everything she could to make sure that we ended up together.

For insight into another Canadian icon, read our conversation with Peter Mansbridge!

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada