[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 08:36 GMT
Canada's street fighter bows out
BBC correspondent Rob Watson
By Rob Watson
BBC correspondent in Ottawa

Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien promised his Liberal Party a "hell of a ride" when he stood to be its leader in 1984. He gave them that, and a long run too.

Jean Chretien dwarfed by a large maple leaf on Canada's flag
Jean Chretien said he believed in Canada as an example to the world
Mr Chretien, who steps down on 12 December, has been a Liberal Party politician for the last 40 years, most of it spent in the Canadian parliament in Ottawa.

The secret of his longevity, according to Canada's Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, is his willingness to fight tough.

"Jean Chretien is not only a street fighter, he actually used to play lacrosse which is Canada's other national sport other than hockey," she said.

"What they used to do with lacrosse when the aboriginal people would play it, they would literally play for days until somebody died. Jean Chretien was always the last one left standing."

Small-town boy

Mr Chretien was born in the French-speaking province of Quebec in the small town of Shawinigan.

He plays up his populist image as one of us, an ordinary Canadian, and it's been extraordinarily successful
Antonia Maioni,
McGill University
The 18th child in a far-from-rich family, it was an unlikely background for a future prime minister.

Dismissed as uncultured and lacking any real political vision, the joke has always been that Mr Chretien spoke both French and English as a second language.

But, as Antonia Maioni of Montreal's McGill University points out, Mr Chretien relished playing the little guy from Shawinigan.

"He's not the most articulate, he's not the most patrician of politicians either, [but] he's used that to his advantage, he plays up his populist image as one of us, an ordinary Canadian, and it's been extraordinarily successful.

"But at the same time, it's allowed people, in effect, to poke fun at him in some ways."

Frosty neighbours

Jean Chretien's biggest success as prime minister was seeing off the threat of Quebec's separation from Canada. He also gets credit for steering the country from the brink of bankruptcy in 1993 to its current prosperity.

But if Canada seems happy within its borders, things are not so smooth with the powerful neighbour to the south.

Mr Chretien's refusal to give Canadian backing to the US-led war against Iraq has turned relations between these usually most friendly of neighbours decidedly frosty.

Jean Chretien (left) and George W Bush
Mr Chretien has clashed with US President George W Bush
And while many Canadians supported their prime minister, opposition members of parliament like Scott Reid say Jean Chretien's antagonism towards the Bush administration was a horrendous blunder.

"I think it's been a terrible mistake. Canada is very much dependent on the United States for its foreign trade," Mr Reid said.

"Something in the neighbourhood of 85% or 90% of our foreign trade is with the United States which means that there are times when we have to go toe-to-toe with the Americans or eyeball-to-eyeball with them, fighting over our trade disputes.

"And in order to have some kind of leverage in those disputes we have to have some credibility.

"Now when we go and squander that credibility by constantly and unnecessarily taking the opposite side on issues where we don't agree with them and being deliberately belligerent, as we were with the Iraq issue for example, I think it very much weakens our capacity to negotiate with the Americans on the matters which really matter to us."

Mixed reviews

Though a populist, Mr Chretien's relations with the Canadian people have always seemed to be on thin ice.

Opinions voiced at a skating rink in Montreal were as divided as they have been throughout his time in office.

"I think Prime Minister Chretien did a good job. He had his own style and when he wanted something he went and did it, there was no procrastinating - that's what I like about him," one man said.

But a woman told me: "Canada has changed and I think we have much more of an American influence here which is, I think, less positive."

Another man said he would not miss Mr Chretien. "I think it's time for a change. Ten years is a long period of time and I think Canadians are thirsty for that sense of leadership, true leadership."

Loyal love

Just a few nights ago on Ottawa's Parliament Hill Canadians gathered in the freezing cold for the annual switching on of the Christmas lights.

It was the kind of evening Jean Chretien would have liked, the national anthem was sung in French and English and there were messages of unity from all the country's far flung provinces. It all seemed to echo the prime minister's own farewell address.

"This country, as I have said during my whole career, is the example to the world - a country of tolerance, a country that I love," he said.

"My friends, I believe in Canada and it's why I say to you tonight, au revoir et vive le Canada!"

Canadian PM sets retirement date
18 Nov 03  |  Americas
Canada picks leader in waiting
15 Nov 03  |  Americas
Canada's Chretien bids farewell
14 Nov 03  |  Americas
Country profile: Canada
11 Dec 03  |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific