Jean Chrétien: From Behind Closed Doors

 (Originally published in OSCAR)

In 1982, when Eddie Goldenberg was a McGill law student, he landed a job as an intern for the Indian Affair minister in Ottawa. Most interns spend summers filing or doing other paperwork.  Goldenberg’s minister wanted him to attend meetings – often private meetings behind closed doors.

Chretien 1.jpg

“Listen. Learn,” Jean Chrétien told the young Goldenburg. “Eventually I’ll ask you what you think.”

Chretien 4.jpg

Eddie Goldenberg soon started sharing his thoughts, and continued to do so for another 30 years. Jean Chrétien sought his advice every step in his career: Indian Affairs; Treasury Board; Industry, Trade and Commerce; Finance; Justice; Energy, Mines and Resources; two campaigns for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada; and, eventually, three terms as Prime Minister (1993-2003) where Goldenberg was Chief of Staff.

Along the way, Chrétien would make the same requests of his deputy ministers that he made of young Goldenberg: “I want to know what you think.” 


Chrétien was always seeking perspectives from those who had different ideas. Senior government and political officials sometimes found it frustrating when he countered their advice with the opinions shared by old friends whom phoned in Shawinigan.

Chretien cabinet.png

He gave his ministers flexibility to do their jobs, saving his own input for the big issues. When Goldenberg reported that one of the Ministers was pursuing a policy that might lead to problems, Prime Minister Chrétien asked, “Is this issue of national importance?” Goldenberg replied that it was not. The PM replied that he would not interfere.

goldenberg-18057 - Cropped (002).jpg

On a Monday night at St. Paul’s University, this was one of many anecdotes that Goldenberg gave the audience of the Old Ottawa East’s sesquicentennial series on the Prime Ministers. Jean Chrétien, it was noted, lived for 11 years at the corner of Bower and Echo, in a house he bought from former Defence Minister, Barney Danson.  He occasionally attended community association meetings.  Once he prefaced his input by saying, "Unaccustomed as I am to speaking in public..."

The decision on whether Canada would join the USA in invading Iraq was made following a demand from the British government that a response be given in a matter of hours.  Chrétien used Question Period to announce Canada would stay out.

The “Team Canada” trade missions to India and China proved invaluable as federal-provincial gatherings where Premiers and the Prime Minister could meet informally, address one another by first names, and agree to matters would later be implemented as policy. 

At first, the proposal to creat Canada Research Chairs as a millennium project to attract and retain the best and brightest research from around the world was a tough sell to the Prime Minister.  Canada already lots of researchers, Chrétien argued. Why spend so much money on more?  Someone made the comparison to the Montreal Expos pitcher, Pedro Martinez, who had just been traded to the Boston Red Sox. The Prime Minister immediately saw the logic behind paying top dollar for getting the best talent.

Chretien Martinez.jpg

On September 11, 2001, a package was left in a car parked illegally on Parliament Hill.  Security advised that, in light of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, Parliament Hill should be evacuated while the suspicious package disposed of.  Chrétien disagreed.  Such a move would cause a panic across the country. In the end, the package was merely someone’s shopping bag.


During the 1995 Quebec referendum, federal polling suggested that the “Non” side could wrest more votes by arguing that, if Canada was divisible, then so was Quebec.  Chrétien did not want to risk fracturing the coalition with the provincial Liberals, who would not have agreed to the proposition. Chrétien said that the ten days following Premier Parizeau’s withdrawal as the leader of the “Oui” forces, and the resurgence of Quebec separatism under Lucien Bouchard, was the worst experience in his ten years as Prime Minister.

Chretien dion.jpg

The passage of Stephan Dion’s Clarity Act Goldenberg regards as one of the great achievements of the Chrétien government. The accomplishments were incremental rather than visionary, said Goldenberg, and included:

  • The publication of The Red Book as an election platform – since 1993, all parties have published their platforms in this way;
  • Measures to improve the Knowledge Based Economy, including the Canadian Institute of Health Research;
  • Within just three years, balancing a budget that, at the beginning of the mandate, consumed 38 cents of every tax dollar just to service the debt.

With the budget balanced, Chrétien faced “the most difficult issue to manage” – what to do with a surplus?  Once again, he sought middle ground:  half the surplus would go toward debt reduction and lowering taxes; the other half to program priorities.


The budgets underscored the close relationship Chrétien had with his Finance Minister, Paul Martin, but eventually the “civil war” (Goldenberg’s words) ousted a sitting Prime Minister.  The Martin forces “were pushing an open door,” says Goldenberg.  Chrétien had no intention of running in another election. Goldenberg flashed his anger against Martin’s followers as “a bunch of thugs who wanted jobs in the PMO.”

Chretien 3 handshake.jpg

Not everyone in the audience agreed with that assessment.  Nor did everyone agree with his analysis of the sponsorship scandal as the result of a “rogue public servant” working with private sector crooks. Or the cancelling of a contract for search and rescue helicopters as a signal that un-needed spending was going to stop. 

But this was an evening for listening, rather than debate.  The audience greatly appreciated having someone with Goldenberg’s insight and experience tell them stories from behind the closed doors.


The Old Ottawa East series will conclude on Monday, March 26, with Bob Plamondon, author of Blue Thunder; the Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.  Bob will speak about Prime Ministers Bennett, Clark, and Campbell.