Canadian prime minister ending four-decade career

Friday, November 14, 2003

TORONTO -- A grateful Liberal Party told Jean Chretien "au revoir" Thursday night with a star-filled tribute to thank the retiring prime minister for a 40-year political career culminated by a decade in power.

The celebration on the opening night of a convention to choose a new party leader, and by extension prime minister, overlooked divisions of the past two years from the rivalry between Chretien and his successor, former Finance Minister Paul Martin.

With Martin poised to be named Liberal leader today, the focus this night was on Chretien, who sat with his wife Aline in the crowd of 7,000 at the Air Canada Center for performances by young musicians, gospel singers, Celtic fiddlers, jazz great Oscar Peterson and singer Paul Anka.

In his final speech as party leader, Chretien focused on his accomplishments as one of Canada's most successful politicians, winner of every election he contested including three straight Parliament majorities for the Liberals.

Ever the politician, he rallied his party against conservative parties trying to merge to form a united opposition in the next election.

"Canadians should beware of those on the right who would weaken the national government because they do not believe in the role of government as an agent of good," he said to one of numerous standing ovations. "My friends, my fellow Canadians, my fellow Liberals, if you remember only one thing that I say tonight, remember this: We must never, ever lose our social conscience."

He called Martin a great Liberal who will carry on the party tradition, a conciliatory gesture after their rivalry caused party infighting that almost led to a revolt last year intended to force Chretien from power.

"Although we have accomplished so much, there is still so much more to do," Chretien said to a huge cheer. "Paul Martin will need all our support ... and I can assure Paul that you have my support."

Martin has secured enough support for a first-ballot victory in Friday's leadership vote. Under Canada's political system, the head of the majority party in Parliament forms the government, meaning Martin can succeed Chretien without an election.

He is expected to seek a fresh five-year mandate next spring instead of waiting to serve out the final two years of Chretien's term.

Still, it remains up to Chretien to formally retire and hand over the prime minister's office. That is expected to happen early in the new year, and Chretien said Thursday he would meet with Martin next week to set the schedule.

It will be the end of an unlikely but remarkably successful career for the rough-and-tumble politician who turns 70 in January but still bounds up stairs.

In his speech, Chretien cited the triumphs of his 10 years in power -- eliminating a huge budget deficit to promote consistent economic growth; withstanding the separatist aspirations in Quebec; asserting Canadian autonomy in the face of dominance by its superpower neighbor, the United States.

He angered President Bush this year by refusing to take part in the Iraq war, and his government ratified the Kyoto Protocol intended to curb global warming, which Bush's administration rejected.

"We have also known when we must go our own way internationally -- in a manner that is consistent with our values, doing the right thing, no matter how difficult," Chretien said to applause. The crowd stood and cheered when he cited Canadian values of multilateralism for staying out of the Iraq fighting.

Lawrence Martin, who has written two biographies of Chretien, wrote in a column in The Globe and Mail newspaper that called the prime minister the Canadian version of Harry Truman.

"As a character out of the give-'em-hell-Harry mode, Canada will probably never come closer to having its very own Harry Truman than it did with Jean Chretien," wrote Martin, who is no relation to the man expected to be the next Liberal leader.

Chretien liked to refer to himself as "the little guy from Shawinigan," referring to the working-class Quebec town where he grew up. A fighter since childhood, when other boys would tease him for the birth defect that left him deaf in one ear and with a misshapen smile, he combined that toughness with extraordinary political instinct to rise through the Liberal Party ranks.

After holding various Cabinet posts under Pierre Trudeau, he failed once in a leadership bid and left politics, but spent the time plotting a return. That occurred with his victory over Martin for the party leadership in 1990.

He became prime minister three years later, and noted Thursday that he probably could win another term if he chose to run again.

Tall and angular, Chretien never appeared fully comfortable in his public life. He spoke little English when he arrived in Ottawa as a Parliament member in 1963, and still gets lampooned for his rough treatment of both official languages.

His passion for Canada always was evident, an attribute noted by longtime opponents at his final Parliament session earlier this month.

"He did his best, and he did it straight from the heart, and he did it for Canada, first and foremost," said one of his sharpest critics, John Reynolds of the Canadian Alliance. "It is our deep abiding love for Canada that is our common ground."

Or as Anka sang in a modified version of "My Way" written for Chretien: "With him as guide, our national pride, was resurrected."

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