Most people don’t know where Shawinigan is, where my family on my mom’s side is from. That’s ok. It’s a bit obscure. It’s a city of less than 50,000, down from around 100,000 at its industrial peak, in the Saint Maurice region of Quebec, between Montreal and Quebec City. It was once a pulp and paper town—and a stronghold in the Quebec labor movement, boasting the highest salaries in Canada—and still is a hydroelectric town. But it’s greatest claim to fame is as the birthplace of former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, aka the Little Guy from Shawinigan.
My British great-grandmother taught Chrétien and his siblings how to speak English; my grandfather gave some of his younger siblings a job in the general store he opened after World War II. The tradition in Canada is that the leaders of the various political parties would be “at home” in their ridings (or districts) on election day, waiting for the results. When the news would show Chrétien “at home,” it was a cottage on the same lake where my family has a cottage—the same lake, Lac-des-Piles, where my mother spent her summers growing up, where I spent many weekends over the summer while I was growing up. We always knew when Chrétien was at his cottage because a number of kayakers, his security detail, would be roaming the waters outside his place.
There was no question who my family was voting for in the 1993 election. We certainly weren’t voting for the new separatist Bloc Québécois party, and there weren’t any candidates from the western-Canadian Reform Party even running in Quebec. Canadian politics, at least over my lifetime, has always consisted of one-party rule for an extended amount of time until they become just corrupt or ineffective enough to kick out of office for one of the other parties. So, following NAFTA, a failed attempt to bring constitutional reform, and the despised Goods and Services Tax—which alienated both Quebec and the Western provinces—the Progressive Conservatives were out, and Jean Chrétien and the Liberals were in. That election saw the fracturing of Canadian politics along regional lines: Ontario carried the day, winning the largest number of seats in the House due to it having the largest population, but with The Little Guy from Shawinigan leading the way.
Jean Chrétien was a lifetime politician and a lifelong Liberal, back when being a Liberal in Quebec was dangerous, and going against the Church and the conservative political establishment in the province was considered heresy. Growing up during La Grande Noirceur, he butted heads with the Catholic priests who ran his school, and even then-Premier Maurice Duplessis. Chrétien’s father was also a Liberal, and in a place like Shawinigan, that was a very risky—both personally and professionally. The local priest even refused to marry Chrétien and his wife.
So Chrétien learned to fight. And he loved to fight. Chrétien famously strangled an alleged attacker at a public event, and the press quickly dubbed it The Shawinigan Handshake. He could also hold a grudge. He was a staunch Canadian nationalist, and never gave any ground to Quebec and the separatists; no “distinct society” clauses, no special status. And Quebec (more specifically the Québécois), hated him, just as they had hated Pierre Elliott Trudeau, under whom Chrétien got his political start. He fought his rival Paul Martin in the Liberal leadership race in 1990, refusing to back down on his opposition to the Meech Lake Accord, which would give special status to Quebec—special status Chrétien would never accept.
Whenever I told people that my great-grandmother taught him English, they would joke that she hadn’t done a very good job. Chrétien refused to speak the Parisian French favored by the Quebec political elite, but also never got rid of his thick Québécois accent when he spoke English; it was a part of his brand, so to speak—the Little Guy from Shawinigan. And it never struck me as odd that my grandfather would give local kids jobs at his store, although those kids, being the children of an evil Liberal, wouldn’t be able to get jobs anywhere else. But growing up, I was proud that my family had played a role, however small, in the rise of our country’s leader. He led the country for a long time, ten years in all; so long in fact that I had completely forgotten that he was still our Prime Minister on September 11, 2001.
Chrétien played to win, and he played dirty. Like all politicians, he broke promises, largely the ones to scrap the hated GST and renegotiate NAFTA. But he furiously attacked the Bloq and the separatist movement, to the detriment of all other politics. He spoke passionately at the Unity Rally that took place just before the 1995 Referendum, and encouraged (however illegally) many federally supported industries (Air Canada, Via Rail, Coach Canada, Canadian Airlines) to slash their fares in order to allow Canadians from across the country to attend. He supported a strong, central Federal government, but I think he also recognized the same problematic tendencies from the Duplessis era in the modern separatist movement—linguistic purity.
I grew up in Quebec, so Chrétien’s attitude toward the separatist movement was all the local media focused on. I was a teen during the height of his power, and we were worried about separating from Canada—worried about draconian language laws, high unemployment, and motorcycle gang wars (this three-part series on Montreal in the 1990s is a must read). But the rest-of-Canada, especially the Western provinces, were fed-up with never-ending fights about Quebec, and were bitter about transfer payments; oil-rich Alberta in particular was tired of financially supporting Quebec through the transfer payment system. When I moved there after college, I experienced the same level of contempt and hatred of Chrétien as I did at the francophone university I attended.
Late in his career, it was revealed just how dirty Chrétien played. First it was Shawinigate, where he improperly profited on real estate deals in his hometown. Then it was the much more damning Sponsorship Scandal, in which money that had been put aside to promote Canada in Quebec had instead disappeared into the pockets of the Chrétien’s inner-circle—which was particularly galling to the separatists. Of course, the more fiscally conservative Western provinces also resented that their money was being wasted. Although Chrétien had successfully kept Quebec in Canada, and witnessed the fall of the Bloq, the scandals tainted his legacy. After Chrétien resigned in 2006—forced out by his longtime rival Paul Martin thanks in part to the scandals, and in part because after a decade in power he was no longer effective—the Liberals could only achieve a minority government. Like clockwork, the newly-formed Conservative Party, a joining of the two main conservative parties, won a landslide majority.
I obviously still have a soft-spot for the guy. He was a constant presence for me growing up and coming of age in Quebec. In my first Federal election, I voted for him—or rather, I voted for the Liberal candidate in my riding, as the rule goes for Parliamentary politics. And it must have felt good for him, having been persecuted as a boy in Shawinigan—for being too French, too Liberal, too loud, too aggressive, too sick, not Catholic enough—to have won the seat in his riding in each election for almost 40 years. I think I admired his stubbornness. His fall was inevitable, but I will still mourn him when he passes. No one will know where my family is from anymore.