Jean Chrétien, born in 1934, politician and the 20th prime minister of Canada, from 1993 to 2003. Chrétien, who became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1990, led the Liberals to victory in the 1993 election. This victory ended nine years of rule by the Progressive Conservative Party. Chrétien’s government oversaw a dramatic economic turnaround in Canada during his first term. Chrétien and the Liberals won again in 1997 and 2000. Chrétien retired in 2003 and was succeeded by his former finance minister Paul Martin.
When Chrétien took office in 1993, the Canadian government was burdened by a large budget deficit. For 20 years, successive administrations had spent more money than they collected in taxes, amassing a huge debt. In 1993 federal spending exceeded revenue by 25 percent. Chrétien’s government cut expenditures, and by 1997 Canada had its first federal surplus since 1973. Canada continued to produce surpluses in each of the remaining six years of Chrétien’s tenure as prime minister, contributing to a period of continuing economic growth, low levels of inflation, and reduced unemployment.
Despite economic successes, Chrétien was unable to placate French Canadian Separatists in Québec. From 1993 to 1997 the political party Bloc Québécois held the second largest number of seats in the Canadian Parliament. As the official opposition, the Bloc Québécois promoted Québec separatism. In 1994 the Parti Québécois (PQ) won control of the Québec legislature, and in 1995 it held a provincial referendum proposing Québec’s independence from Canada; the referendum almost won. The separatist provincial government was reelected in 1998 and declared it would hold another referendum on independence in the future. But Chrétien persisted in his strong stance against separatism, support for the PQ declined, and in 2003, the year Chrétien retired as prime minister, the PQ lost power in Québec.
Chrétien was born in the small Québec town of La Baie Shawinigan, near the city of Shawinigan on the shore of the Saint-Maurice River. He was the 18th of 19 children (10 died in infancy) born to Wellie and Marie Chrétien, French-speaking Canadians whose Québec roots extended back several generations. Wellie Chrétien was employed in the community’s principal industry, working as a machinist at a newsprint mill. Like his father before him, Wellie was an organizer for the Liberal Party.
Although the Chrétien family’s means were limited, Wellie and Marie were determined that their children receive good educations. Jean was sent to a boarding school for his primary education. At age 13, he was enrolled in a seminary college, a Roman Catholic boarding school in which students could receive both a high school and university education. Chrétien chafed under the strict discipline enforced by the priests who ran the seminary and was in frequent conflict with his teachers.
Over the course of eight years, he was sent to three different seminary colleges. Chrétien impressed other students with his independence and the force of his personality. He settled down to serious study in the last three years of his college education and graduated from Saint Joseph Seminary in Trois Rivières in 1954. He entered the law school at Université Laval in Sainte-Foy, a suburb of Québec City, and received his law degree in 1958. He married Aline Chaîné in 1957.
From a very young age, Chrétien helped his father in election campaigns. By age 14 he was attending political rallies, and at 16 he was making political speeches. At Université Laval Chrétien began pursuing his political career in earnest. He was elected president of his class and the campus association of the Liberal Party. In 1958 he was a delegate at the Liberal Party’s national leadership convention and was elected vice president of the party’s national youth federation.
In 1959 Chrétien joined a Shawinigan law firm, where he quickly established a successful practice. Chrétien remained interested in politics and started preparing to run for public office. He joined the Liberals’ local association and began to form a network of people that would later serve as the foundation for his political organization.
In 1963 the Liberal Party nominated Chrétien for the federal Parliament seat representing the Saint-Maurice-LaFlèche district, which encompassed Shawinigan and a number of small neighboring communities. Chrétien used an intentionally folksy style in his campaign to reach out to the large working-class population in his district. “I have always had to pay a political price among the intellectuals of Québec for using slang, emotions, and jokes in my speeches, but the Saint-Maurice Valley was a region of populist politicians famous for their colorful style,” Chrétien wrote in his 1985 memoir, Straight from the Heart. “Since I had to fight populists, I learned from them and even tried to outdo them.” He won an upset victory, due to his distinctive and effective political style and the strong organization he had built in the district.
Once in Parliament, Chrétien maintained his populist style, winning over English-speaking Canadians in addition to his French-speaking supporters in Québec. Because he never fully mastered English, he often mispronounced words and muddled his syntax. This became part of his appeal—reinforcing his image as a man of the people. Chrétien referred to himself as “the little guy from Shawinigan.”
Chrétien’s election to Parliament in 1963 coincided with the Liberals’ return to power, under Lester Pearson, after six years of Conservative government. The new member of Parliament from Saint-Maurice-LaFlèche quickly caught the attention of his colleagues in Parliament with his energy, organizational abilities, and effective political style. In 1965 Pearson chose Chrétien as his parliamentary secretary. In that position, Chrétien had no specific administrative responsibilities, but he had an opportunity to work closely with Pearson.
Following the election, held later in 1965, Pearson appointed Chrétien parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance, Mitchell Sharp. This appointment was a turning point in Chrétien’s career. Sharp, a senior and respected minister, became Chrétien’s counselor and political mentor. Chrétien had come to Ottawa as a “left” Liberal, committed to the concept of an activist government that cares for the economically weaker members of society. Under Sharp’s tutelage, Chrétien acquired the view that proposals for government action should always be assessed against the need both to avoid large deficits and to preserve an economic climate attractive to investors. Chrétien continued to see government action as a positive force for helping the disadvantaged, but began to judge each case on what was practical within economic constraints.
|A||Early Cabinet Appointments|
In 1967 Chrétien gained his first cabinet appointment as a minister in the Department of Finance, and the following year he became minister of national revenue. His early appointments were primarily administrative, with little policymaking responsibility. They gave Chrétien an opportunity to develop ministerial experience without serious political risk.
In 1968 Pierre Elliott Trudeau succeeded Pearson as Liberal leader and prime minister, and he promoted Chrétien to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development—Chrétien’s first tough ministerial assignment. As Chrétien began his tenure at the department, indigenous leaders and groups were becoming more politically active. They were determined to improve the living conditions of their people, to preserve rights guaranteed by Indian treaties, and to achieve self-government. Although Trudeau wanted to improve indigenous people’s living conditions, he opposed granting them special treatment as a particular group because he believed that rights should be granted only to individuals, not to groups.
In 1969, when Chrétien introduced policy proposals based on this principle, indigenous peoples reacted with such hostility that he ultimately had to withdraw the proposals. Despite this and other clashes with indigenous leaders, Chrétien continued to work at improving the government relations with them. By the time he left the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in 1974, he had earned their respect and appreciation for his efforts.
Following the 1974 election, Trudeau appointed Chrétien president of the Treasury Board, the ministry that controls government spending. At this post, Chrétien became involved in the problem of trying to contain the government’s growing deficit. The minister of finance actually controlled the budget, so Chrétien had little control over the overall problem of the deficit. However, he closely monitored spending and earned a reputation as a competent administrator. Two years later he moved to the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Commerce, where he had an opportunity to take a more active role in economic policymaking. Chrétien encouraged industrial production and international trade, and contemporaries judged his performance in this ministry to be strong.
|B||Minister of Finance|
In 1977 Trudeau appointed Chrétien to the critically important role of minister of finance. The political situation in Québec influenced Trudeau’s decision. In 1976 the separatist Parti Québécois won control of Québec’s legislature and announced its intention to hold a referendum on whether Québec should secede from Canada. By moving Chrétien to the Department of Finance, Trudeau hoped to use Chrétien’s management skills and appeal as a Québec native to help convince Québec voters of the economic advantages of remaining within the Canadian confederation.
Unfortunately for Chrétien, he came to the Department of Finance when the country was entering a period of severe economic difficulty. Inflation and unemployment were rising while the growing deficit increasingly limited the government’s possible responses. Chrétien could find no course that offered clear solutions. In 1978 Chrétien clashed with the Québec provincial government after he proposed a temporary cut in provincial sales taxes as a means to stimulate the economy. Québec finance minister Jacques Parizeau requested changes to the tax proposal, but Chrétien said Parizeau had already agreed to the proposal before it was announced, and he refused to make changes. As a result Chrétien came under attack from the Québec press and opposition parties, as well as from the Québec government, which refused to participate in the federal tax plan. A few months later Chrétien’s reputation suffered an even more damaging blow when the prime minister announced major spending cuts without consulting him.
In 1979 the Trudeau government lost to the Conservatives in a general election in which the Liberal government’s management of the economy was a central issue. However, the Liberals spent only nine months in opposition because the Conservative government did not command a majority in Parliament. All of the opposition parties combined to vote against the Conservatives’ budget, forcing Prime Minister Joe Clark to call an election. The Liberals won. When Trudeau formed his Cabinet in March 1980, he gave Chrétien the greatest challenge of his ministerial career, appointing him minister of justice. In this position Chrétien was responsible for directing the federal government’s campaign opposing the referendum on Québec secession.
|C||Minister of Justice|
A key element in the government’s campaign against the Québec referendum was a promise by Trudeau to reform Canada’s constitution. In May 1980 Québec voters rejected provincial independence, with nearly 60 percent voting against the measure. After the referendum failed, Trudeau assigned Chrétien to work with him to negotiate constitutional changes with the provinces. The government’s proposed changes included streamlining the process for amending the Constitution so that unanimous approval by the provinces would not be required. The government also wanted to incorporate a bill of rights, which the provinces would not be able to override, into the Constitution. This bill of rights was called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Nearly all of the provinces initially opposed the proposed changes, primarily because of the way the charter would limit provincial powers. Québec was also dissatisfied because the new constitution would not recognize the province as a “distinct society” and would deny it a veto over constitutional amendments—which it deemed vital to the protection of its interests as the only predominantly French-speaking province. Over the next 18 months, while Trudeau was clearly in charge of negotiations on behalf of the federal government, it was Chrétien who built goodwill with provincial negotiators and kept the lines of communication open to the provinces. When all of the provinces, except Québec, agreed to the terms of constitutional reform, Chrétien shared in the triumph. However, by supporting the constitutional changes, Chrétien had alienated many people in Québec, where both the separatist government and the opposition provincial Liberal Party viewed the changes as illegitimate. Later in 1982 Trudeau moved Chrétien from the Department of Justice to the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources.
In February 1984 Trudeau announced he would resign as Liberal Party leader, and Chrétien focused on fulfilling his own ambition to become party leader and prime minister. Chrétien was one of the two leading candidates at a party convention in June. The other frontrunner was John Turner, a prominent former Trudeau minister who had resigned from politics in 1976 to practice law.
Chrétien had two major disadvantages. After being out of politics for eight years, Turner was widely viewed as representing change, while Chrétien was considered as part of the tired establishment. Second, the Liberal Party had traditionally alternated French- and English-speaking leaders. For that reason many delegates at the leadership convention in June 1984 felt they should support Turner. Turner won on the second ballot. Three weeks later he became prime minister and appointed Chrétien as deputy prime minister and minister of external affairs. In the September 1984 election, the Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, routed the Liberals and swept Turner and his Cabinet out of office.
Chrétien was reelected to Parliament in 1984. His party seemed to have little prospect of an early return to power, and his relations with Turner were strained. He resigned his seat in 1986 and resumed practicing law. Four years later Mulroney and the Conservatives once again defeated the Liberals, led by Turner, and Turner resigned. Chrétien received his second chance to seek the party leadership. This time he was the candidate of change, and the tradition of alternating between English- and French-speaking leaders worked to his advantage. In June 1990 the Liberal Party elected Chrétien their leader.
Chrétien assumed the party leadership at a critical point in Canada’s French-English relations. The day before he became party leader, the Meech Lake Accord, a package of amendments the Mulroney government had crafted to make the constitution acceptable to Québec, failed to be approved by the provinces. Throughout his campaign for party leadership, Chrétien had angered Québec nationalists by criticizing the accord for granting Québec special powers and status. When Chrétien became party leader, two Liberal members of Parliament defected to join a new separatist party, the Bloc Québécois, formed to advocate the separatist cause in the federal Parliament. The Québec issue continued to dominate Canadian politics while Chrétien led the official opposition in Parliament. In 1992 the Mulroney government sought public input and support for the Charlottetown Accord, a new set of constitutional amendments intended to placate Québec. Chrétien backed the agreement, but voters rejected it in a national referendum in October 1992.
The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords combined with persistent economic problems to doom Mulroney’s government, and he resigned in June 1993. In the campaign for the fall 1993 general election, Mulroney’s successor, Kim Campbell, claimed to offer a change in approach. However, the Liberals emphasized her part in the Mulroney government. The Liberal campaign was built around Chrétien’s populist image, stressing his concern for the plight of the weaker members of society. The Liberals advocated new government investment in job creation and promised to “kill the GST” (an unpopular goods and services tax the Conservatives had introduced). The Liberals also pledged that they would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Liberal leaders said the pact, which the Mulroney government had negotiated with the United States and Mexico, would hurt the Canadian economy.
Chrétien and the Liberals won the general election in October 1993, but it was far from a sweeping victory. Their message resonated with the Atlantic provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), where they won 31 of 32 seats, and Ontario, where they won 98 of 99. In western Canada, however, a new party, the Reform Party, undercut the appeal of the Liberal Party. The Reform Party won 51 seats in the four western provinces (British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta), while the Liberals won 27 and the New Democratic Party won 9.
The most disquieting result for Chrétien, the Liberals, and the rest of English Canada was the outcome in Québec. The Liberals had hoped to build on Chrétien’s native-son appeal to carry Québec, but his role in the constitutional debates had hurt him. Many Québécois believed that Chrétien had betrayed them when he opposed special powers for Québec. Both Separatists and moderate Québec nationalists turned instead to the Bloc Québécois, which was led by Lucien Bouchard—a former minister in the Mulroney government who had resigned because he did not feel the Meech Lake Accord adequately dealt with Québec’s needs. This party based its appeal on the claim that English Canada had “rejected” Québec and the only alternative for Québec was to become independent. The Bloc won 54 seats in Québec, the Liberals 20, and the Conservatives 1. With the second largest number of seats in Parliament, the Bloc formed the official opposition, allowing it to make its separatist agenda a continuing focus of parliamentary debate. Every government decision and initiative had to be assessed considering how the Bloc might use it to build support for separatism.
When Chrétien became prime minister in the fall of 1993, his major goal was to reduce the country’s high level of unemployment, but he was constrained by the federal budget deficit. Inherited from the Conservative government, the federal deficit was nearly C$45 billion, which represented 6 percent of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
To tackle the budget deficit, Chrétien appointed Paul Martin, his principal rival for the Liberal leadership in 1990, as minister of finance. Martin moved cautiously in his first year, hoping that an increase in tax revenues as the national economy emerged from the recession of the early 1990s would be enough to bring the deficit down. By the end of 1994, Martin had concluded that significant cuts in government spending were the only way to bring the deficit under control. Martin was supported by Chrétien, who established a Cabinet committee to undertake a comprehensive review of spending and made clear to other ministers that he was committed to budget cuts. With this support, Martin slashed expenses from every area of government activity. Within three years the government had reduced its spending by C$25 billion and was on the path to eliminating its deficit.
The spending cuts under Chrétien helped restore investor confidence in the Canadian economy and enabled Canada to share in a new period of growth in the North American economy. As a result, the rate of job creation increased, and the unemployment rate fell below 10 percent for the first time in more than a decade. At the same time, as the economy improved, revenue from taxes increased, which helped further reduce the deficit.
In the fall of 1993 Chrétien also faced his campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Parliament had already approved NAFTA in May 1993, but Chrétien wanted to revise it to protect Canada’s cultural industries and to limit the effects on Canada of its provisions in respect to subsidies. However, the agreement was about to come to a vote in the United States Congress, and American trade negotiators were reluctant to make any changes that might jeopardize its passage. A compromise was worked out in which the special recognition accorded Canada’s cultural industries in the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade agreement was continued and it was agreed that the contentious subsidy issues would be addressed through continuing “side” negotiations. The compromise permitted Chrétien to claim that his government’s principal objections had been met, while avoiding problems in the U.S. Congress. The Chrétien government proclaimed the agreement in December, just before it took effect in January 1994.
By approving NAFTA the Chrétien government signaled that it would continue the course of closer economic cooperation with the United States. Canadian nationalists feared that Canada might lose its political independence if the country’s economy became too closely integrated with that of the United States. They criticized this aspect of the Chrétien government’s policy.
Chrétien and his government also faced a new challenge in Québec. In the 1994 Québec provincial election, the Parti Québécois, the provincial separatist party, defeated the Liberal Party, and the new provincial government scheduled another referendum on secession for the fall of 1995. At first, the Chrétien government did not believe that the Separatists could win the referendum because the provincial premier, Jacques Parizeau, was waging a poor campaign. But support began to shift toward the Separatists when Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the federal Bloc Québécois, assumed a leading role in the campaign. Near the end of the campaign several polls indicated the Separatists would win. Chrétien felt pressure to make some concession to moderate nationalist opinion. He promised to seek recognition of Québec as a distinct society and to allow Québec a veto over constitutional amendments. His promises helped defeat the Separatists. The outcome was a very narrow victory for those opposed to the referendum, 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent. Chrétien had hoped for a decisive result that would put the issue to rest.
In the spring of 1997 Chrétien called for an election in June to seek a renewal of his government’s mandate (support from the voters). The Liberals were expected to win an easy victory because the opposition was divided; no party had a sufficiently broad national base to defeat the Liberals. The Bloc Québécois was still strong in Québec, and the Reform Party was favored in Alberta and British Columbia. In the campaign, however, the government was attacked from the right—the Reform Party and the Conservative Party—for failing to cut taxes. From the left the New Democratic Party criticized the Liberals for having cut spending on social programs and breaking its promises to eliminate the goods and services tax and to significantly renegotiate NAFTA. Québécois nationalists attacked the Chrétien government for not going far enough to address Québec’s claim to special status, while in western Canada residents blamed the government for making too many concessions to Québec.
Chrétien and the Liberals defended themselves against their critics on the right by arguing that tax cuts would be irresponsible while the government was trying to eliminate the deficit. In response to the criticisms from the left, they argued that the government had to lower the deficit or all of Canada’s social programs would be in jeopardy. Chrétien argued that some cuts to social spending had been necessary and that there was no realistic alternative to the GST. The Liberals won the election but with a reduced majority of 155 seats out of 301.
The Chrétien government’s cuts to social spending hurt the Liberals in the Atlantic provinces. These provinces had the highest unemployment rates and lowest average incomes in the country. The Liberals lost 21 of the 31 seats they had won in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island in 1993. They also lost 14 seats in the four western provinces, most of them to the Reform Party. The Reform Party won 60 seats in all, the Bloc 44, the NDP 21, and the Conservatives 20 (1 seat went to a candidate not affiliated with a political party).
In his second term Chrétien continued to make significant progress in dealing with the government’s deficit. By the 1997-1998 fiscal year, his government reported the first federal government surplus in 23 years. The government predicted that it would accumulate surpluses of nearly C$100 billion over the next five years based on projections of continued steady economic growth. Economic conditions continued to improve, with unemployment falling to less than 9 percent by 1999.
But separatist sentiment remained strong in Québec. In 1998 the Parti Québécois won another term as the provincial government after a campaign in which it promised to hold another referendum on separation “when the conditions are right.” The threat of another referendum continued to occupy Chrétien. In the aftermath of the 1995 referendum, his government had fulfilled a campaign commitment to pass a parliamentary resolution declaring Québec a distinct society. In addition, his government announced its support for a constitutional veto for Québec. Chrétien’s government also promised that in the absence of a formal amendment to the constitution, the government would use its own veto to prevent any change to the constitution that Québec did not approve.
At the same time, the Chrétien government sought to clarify the conditions under which it would deem a future referendum to be legitimate. Chrétien wanted to ensure that if there were another referendum, the question put to voters would be clear in specifying what was proposed and what the rest of Canada would regard as an outcome justifying separation negotiations. In June 2000 he secured the approval of Parliament for the Clarity Act, which declared that the Canadian government would recognize a vote for independence in a referendum only if the referendum asked an unambiguous question and it was approved by a substantial majority of Québec voters. Over the next three years support for separatism gradually declined, and in 2003 the PQ government was defeated by the provincial Liberal Party.
In its second term, the Chrétien government’s foreign policy reaffirmed that while Canada would remain a firm ally of the United States, it would act independently from the United States—pursuing a United Nations-based approach to international issues. Among the more notable differences were Canada’s leading role in negotiating the international treaty banning the use of landmines in 1997 and Canada’s support for the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court in 1998. The United States refused to sign both treaties.
Although the Liberal Party had won a second majority in 1997, its success was largely the result of the collapse of its principal competitor—the Progressive Conservative Party (PC)—and the defection of many of the PC’s supporters in western Canada to the Reform Party and in Québec to the Bloc Québécois. In 1999 some members of the PC Party, in an effort to overcome this divided opposition, joined with the Reform Party in forming a new national conservative party, the Canadian Alliance. To preempt the challenge from this new party, in the fall of 2000, three and a half years into his five-year term, Chrétien called an early election. His strategy worked—in part because the Alliance was unable to displace the PC Party, which continued as a significant electoral force; in part because it was seen by many voters as being too far to the right; and in part because the Chrétien government’s fiscal policies had helped produce a substantial improvement in the national economy. The Liberals were reelected with an increased majority of 173 seats in the House of Commons, and Chrétien became the first prime minister since 1945 to win three successive majorities.
Chrétien’s third term was marked by growing controversy—over policy, over his leadership of the Liberal Party, and over issues involving Canada’s relations with the United States.
Controversy over policy revolved mainly around how the government would allocate the surpluses it began to accumulate in 1997. Although the government wanted to pay down the public debt, there was pressure from conservative interests to reduce taxes and from liberal interests to restore spending on social programs. The government’s decision was to do some of all three, which ultimately did not fully satisfy anyone.
The disagreement over this issue contributed to increasingly strained relations with provincial governments. Under the Canadian federal system, the provincial governments have responsibility for delivering most social programs. The federal government’s social spending cuts had been made largely at the expense of transfers to the provinces. These cuts were widely believed to have contributed to declining standards of service in the government-run national health-care system. The provinces accused the federal government of passing off its fiscal problems and adopting a “take-it-or-leave it” attitude in responding to provincial concerns.
As to Chrétien’s leadership of the Liberal Party, controversy had begun even before the 2000 election. Many members of his party, particularly his supporters in the parliamentary caucus, felt he had centralized too much power in his own hands and governed with indifference to their opinions. In addition, many of them found during the 2000 campaign that there was growing public discontent with his leadership and a widespread feeling that the government was in need of rejuvenation under a new leader.
Some of the concerns of party members were allayed by Chrétien’s announcement that the 2000 election would be his last. However, following the election, he delayed setting a date for his retirement, and the discontent in the party broke into a full-fledged revolt. An increasing number of Liberals became supporters of a movement to make Paul Martin the party leader. The party divided into pro-Chrétien and pro-Martin factions.
When Chrétien forced Martin from the Cabinet in May 2002, it set in motion a series of events that led finally to Chrétien announcing his decision to retire. In November 2003 Chrétien convened a convention where Martin was chosen as Liberal Party leader. In December 2003 Martin replaced Chrétien as prime minister.
Finally, issues in Canada’s relationship with the United States were a major preoccupation of the Chrétien government following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Canada offered immediate help to the United States on the day of the attacks and committed military support to the invasion of Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban regime that harbored the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attacks. But the steps taken by the United States to impose stricter control at border crossings created a new series of difficult issues because the measures taken were potentially harmful to the flow of trade between the two countries.
While most of these issues were resolved through negotiation, there were differences between the style and outlook of the Chrétien government and those of the administration of President George W. Bush in the United States. These differences contributed to continuing tensions in the relationship.
Those tensions became a serious breach in 2003 when Canada sought an extension of United Nations (UN) arms inspections in Iraq. Canada refused to participate in the U.S.-led war against that country. Ironically, Chrétien’s position on this issue helped restore his popular esteem in Canada because a large majority of Canadians were opposed to the war. Even though Canada subsequently contributed funds and personnel to provide postwar humanitarian aid and to build a democratic regime in Iraq, its decision not to participate in the war had a significant effect on relations with the United States through the remainder of Chrétien’s term. See also U.S.-Iraq War.
Chrétien’s most important accomplishment as prime minister was ending the 23-year cycle of spiraling government budget deficits and growing public debt. While Finance Minister Paul Martin was directly responsible for the policy that achieved this reversal, Martin could not have succeeded without Chrétien’s backing. Through its success in bringing the federal government’s finances under control, Chrétien’s government was credited with contributing to a period of sustained growth in the national economy. Canada’s growth outperformed that of the other seven leading industrialized countries from 1997 to 2003.
Critics said the Chrétien government’s spending cuts were too deep, seriously weakening important national programs. However, Chrétien’s defenders argued that widespread spending cuts were unavoidable if the government’s rising debt was to be contained. With the debt under control, the government did not have to set aside as much money each year to pay off the interest on the debt and therefore could set its own priorities.
Upon his retirement, the most frequently heard criticism of Chrétien was that he had no clear vision of the direction the government should take after its finances were in order. His lack of vision, it was claimed, left his government without effective leadership in his third term. As a result, in this view, many national problems were not addressed.
Most commentators agree that when Chrétien came to power, Canada’s greatest need was a leader with administrative competence and a belief in the overriding importance of responsible financial management. These were Chrétien’s strengths as a cabinet minister, and he brought them to his role as prime minister. Supporters say his managerial leadership through his first two terms restored confidence in the country’s public finances and economy, and it is this achievement for which his tenure will be remembered.