It was big news on this date in 1986, when Liberal MP and former cabinet minister Jean Chretien announced his resignation from politics. To help us mark this anniversary involving Canada’s 20th Prime Minister, I’ve turned for help to Lawrence Martin, the author of a two-volume biography of the Little Guy from Shawinigan. Lawrence is, of course, also a Globe and Mail columnist and so much more. For me, Lawrence’s work truly impacted my life and career. In the early 1980s he published the seminal volume, The Presidents and the Prime Ministers, that chronicled the relationships between Canada’s PMs and US Chief Executives dating back to 1867. I was in high school when it came out and I read it in my school’s library back home in Scarborough. It sparked my life-long, and continuing, fascination in Canadian-American relations. I remain in Lawrence’s debt today. Over to you, my friend.
by Lawrence Martin
When Jean Chrétien, after almost a quarter century in parliament, stepped down in 1986, it wasn’t really a resignation. It was a strategic retreat. And it turned out to be one of the best moves he ever made.
Resigning, oddly, has proved to be a good career move for many politicians. Chrétien went on to become prime minister after resigning. So did John Turner, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.
Chrétien was bitter after losing the Liberal leadership race to Turner, who was subsequently annihilated in the 1984 election by Brian Mulroney.
In opposition there was no repairing relations between the two. Chrétien performed dispiritedly as an opposition critic. He felt maltreated by Turner’s inner sanctum. His wife Aline agreed, telling a reporter on his retirement that “He doesn’t have to take that sh-t.”
On the sidelines the risk was that Chrétien would be seen as a sore loser. It was hardly the case. He set about writing a memoir which some saw as a bit strange. Who’d want to read a book from the guy who just lost? And there was the warning from journalist Peter Worthington to publisher Anna Porter, “This guy doesn’t read books. How do you expect him to write one?”
The book, “Straight from the Heart” went on to be a publishing sensation. It sold over 100,000 copies. It was a signal to Liberals, as were opinion polls, that with Turner they’d made the wrong choice.
Chrétien worked for a few years on Bay Street and made a lot of money. All the while he could see that Turner’s days were numbered and built support among Liberals to help ensure that eventuality.
Turner fared better in the 1988 campaign but the Tories still won another majority. It was clear Turner would have to step down and make way for the little guy from Shawinigan.
He went on to win three straight majority governments.
Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist. He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy. A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.