April 18, 2023

Jean Chrétien charms in fireside chat with UCalgary law students

Former prime minister defends his decisions and shares Ottawa anecdotes at April event
Jean Chretien charms in fireside chat with UCalgary law students
Jean Chrétien, left, with event MC Joel Tallerico. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

He admits it isn’t perfect, but former prime minister Jean Chrétien says the notwithstanding clause he championed has certainly saved Canada from partisan courts like those plaguing the United States.

The Right Honourable retiree, speaking to UCalgary law, public policy and political science students, was keen to defend the contentious legal legacy — Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — which gives legislatures and parliament the power to override the charter and ignore the law.

“We wanted to have a balance. We had a debate about who should dominate — you can have a government with a Supreme Court, as they have in the United States, and you run the risk of having a government with people unelected, who are the judges,” said Chrétien, who was federal justice minister when the clause was proposed.

“The provinces were afraid that the judges would be completely above Parliament.”

Guest of honour at UCalgary campus event

Chrétien, guest of honour at the UCalgary campus event hosted by the law school, said Section 33 has kept Canada safe from rule of partisan law, even as it still faces criticism for allowing discrimination, like Quebec’s ban on religious symbols for civil servants.

Chrétien, along with provincial ministers Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow, included the notwithstanding clause in the so-called “Kitchen Accord,” which broke a deadlock on Canada’s new constitution, and ultimately lead to the deal signed by most provinces in 1982.

“It was done to make sure that the elected people can eventually have the last word… and as you see, it’s been working for 40 years now,” said Chrétien.

‘Part of the fabric of our country’

Canada’s oldest living former prime minister at 89, Chrétien was first elected to the House of Commons in 1963, while practising law in his hometown of Shawinigan Falls, Que.

Introduced by UCalgary Faculty of Law Dean Ian Holloway, who described Chrétien as “part of the fabric of our country,” the former prime minister’s 60-year resume was then shared by Joel Tallerico, president of the Society of Law Students and MC for the event.

From leading the federal side during the 1995 Quebec referendum to laying the groundwork for same-sex marriage, while pushing through key environmental laws, Chrétien might have easily spent the hour bragging about his achievements in office.

National Energy Program versus economy

And while he did share stories of his political victories, Chrétien seemed equally happy talking about the battles, like Alberta’s anti-federalist bitterness over the National Energy Program (NEP), signed when Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed led Canada and Alberta respectively.

“What happened is the price of oil went down, not only in Alberta, all around the world — so the industry collapsed somewhat,” said Chrétien.

“And of course there was a shutdown of the economy, not because of Trudeau, not because of Lougheed, but because the price of oil and gas had gone down.”

Laughter and charming anecdotes

If he risked upsetting Alberta all over again for blaming the NEP’s failure on the economy instead of federal meddling in oil prices (as Alberta’s favoured narrative goes), Chrétien’s relaxed manner and charming anecdotes kept the laughter flowing.

At one point, he told the standing-room-only audience he was one of the few prime ministers who enjoyed the gruelling antagonism that came with Parliament's Question Period, and he joked about a sweat test to see if he’d won the debate.

“When you’re trapped in a situation like that, you never know if you’ve done well,” said Chrétien, sliding a hand under his armpit, to the laughter of the crowd.

“If it was dry, I had done well. And if it was wet, I had had troubles.”