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Author close-up: Jean Chretien

Jean Chretien

Former prime minister Jean Chretien appeared at BookExpo Canada as the guest of honour at a Random House of Canada reception on Sunday afternoon, promoting his upcoming memoir, A Passion for Politics. On Monday morning, he talked with Q&Q about the book, which will be published by Knopf Canada in October. Chretien was careful not to give too much away. “I am not at liberty to reveal the book. We have to maintain the drama,” he said. But here are some hints about what to expect – in vintage Chretien style.

When did you start writing the book?

About two years ago. I started in the summer and I dictated about 1,600 pages. The guy who worked with me doing the editing and so on, helping me on research … is Ron Graham, and Daniel Poliquin is doing the same type of work on the French side. They worked together because I wanted the book to be published the same day in English and in French. The publisher in French will be [Les Éditions du] Boréal. To reduce 1,600 pages to 400, it’s a lot of work. So we worked together and we reduced it and we redictated. That’s why we are working since two years [ago].

Mulroney’s memoir [to be published by McClelland & Stewart in September] is more than 1,000 pages.

That’s not my business, it is his. This is my second book. I wrote one before in 1985 and all my personal life and my upbringing was talked about in the first book. This one is from the day I became Prime Minister until the day I resigned as prime minister – the 25th of October 1993 to the 12th of December 2003.

Will you be touring with the book?

I did that last time, and I expect to do some of it again.

How did you decide to have Knopf publish this one?

Because I chose them. There was a special relation because my son-in-law … had family who had investments with Bertelsman. And Anna Porter, who did my first book, had quit at that time, so the choice was made for me basically, and I’m very happy.

Is the new book as personal in its style as Straight From the Heart?

I’m not a good judge for myself … but apparently it’s very much a Chretien-type of book…. I formulate my phrases à la Chretien. You know, I could not speak a word of English before I was 30. I never studied English in my life, a little bit at college, but for me, I was from French Canada, rural Quebec, [studying] to be a lawyer, working in French, so I was not exposed at all to English until I came to Parliament. I don’t know. I dictated the book and they say it is very lively. But I am not a good judge. It’s my style, so it will be very much in the same style as Straight from the Heart.

You and Mr. Mulroney will have books out in the same season.

So there will be two books.

Will it be like old times, sharing the headlines again?

(More after the jump.)

No, no, because I never ran against him. He quit before having the fight.

But you were the leader of the Opposition while he was in power.

Yes, but already we knew that he was leaving, so we never competed on the same grounds.

Is this book an opportunity for you to define your part in Canadian history?

No … what will define me as part of Canadian studies is what I have done as prime minister, so I talk about it.

Are you giving Canadians a behind-the-scenes look at how it felt to be prime minister?

Not just how it felt, but what it is to be [prime minister]…. about what happened and everything and the policies and the successes we had, that we won three majority governments. It seems to be difficult now that I left to have majority governments.

Does the book shed new light on the sponsorship program, beyond what was discussed at the Gomery Commission?

I testified on that in front of the committee, I even had golf balls. So I said what I had to say there, there’s nothing I can add. It was a program to promote Canada in Quebec. For all the big talk about it, now the program for sponsorship is not $50 million, this year it is $60 million. So, so much for those who say it was a bad program.

Do you discuss the decision not to send troops to Iraq?

Of course. It was a very important moment for the independence of Canada. And today 90 or 92% of Canadians are happy with my decision. I’m not sure that others would have done the same thing. It was tough at that time. In fact the prime minister of today blamed me at that time. So now he’s walking away a little bit, but I remember well. [Canadians] know that if it had been the reverse situation [with the Harper Tories in power] we would have been there. We would have been the smaller poodle.

And the fate of the Liberal party and your differences with Paul Martin?

We talk about it. Since a long time, I was not supposed to run a third time, so you will know in reading the book why I ran a third time. And in reading the book, you will know why I did not run a fourth time. I didn’t want to have a divorce.

So Aline is enjoying your lives as private citizens too?

Oh yes, she read the book and made some good suggestions. My wife read it, my daughter, my son-in-law, and my grandson read it. I wanted to make sure that everyone was comfortable with it, and the facts too. I talk out of memory only. I was active to make decisions. I was not spending hours to write notes at the end of the day for posterity. I didn’t have time for that, and I’m not the type. I do my job, and the morning after it’s another morning.

Kyoto is a hot topic now.

Yes, we talk about it. I made the decision to say yes to Kyoto. If they had moved after we made the decision, it was possible to meet the targets, but they have been talking since I made the decision and not much has happened.

Were there things, as prime minister, you couldn’t write about for reasons such as national security?

I will not talk about what I could not talk about. And there are not many secret things in life and politics. There is a lot of mythology about it but everything is virtually known.

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