Jean Chrétien was the 20th Prime Minister of Canada from 1993-2003.
Chrétien was born in 1934 in Shawinigan, Quebec, to Wellie Chrétien and Marie Boisvert-Chrétien. A birth defect left Chrétien with a misshapen mouth and without hearing in his right ear. He was the 18th of 19 children, although only 8 survive into adulthood. Chrétien had a difficult youth and was kicked out of the Boy Scouts and in his 20's yelled at a parish priest outside a church using a loudspeaker because he was upset about the political leanings of the clergyman. Chretien married Aline Chaîné of Shawinigan in 1957 and together they have three children: France, Hubert and Michel. Chretien was named Le petit gars de Shawinigan (the little guy from Shawinigan) because of his unassuming and low key manner, and first elected to the House of Commons in 1963, serving the citizens of Saint-Maurice-Laflèche. The name would stick throughout his career.
In 1984 he ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada following Pierre Trudeau, but lost to John Turner. He would quit the party and politics in 1986, only to return to win the leadership in 1990, winning the Canadian General election in 1993. He would win two more elections, in 1997 and 2000.
Chretien had an easier time winning elections because of the split of the conservative vote in Canada between the new, western based Reform Party and older, unpopular Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (this unpopularity was due in large part to an earlier Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's tough economic reforms and a slowing economy). Chretien also made a number of election promises that he promptly broke, including eliminating the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST). Chretien also kept a promise to stop the purchase of much needed military helicopters, and the Canadian Forces were forced to fly 30 year old Sea King Helicopters until 2008. The Canadian Taxpayers had to pay $500 million in cancellation charges. In the 1995 Quebec Referendum for Sovereignty, Chretien was ineffective in countering Lucien Bouchard, instead giving a major role to Jean Charest, the then leader of the Federal Progressive Conservative Party. Although the No side won the referendum, Chretien did put in place a number of things to prevent a referendum like that from happening again (including starting the Sponsorship Scandal, a policy where money to put the Canadian name in Quebec would also put millions of dollars into the pockets of Liberal Party supporters)
Ever the political opportunist, Chretien sensed continued weakness in opposition and called his third general election 2 years before he was required to, and this also allowed him to retire before the Sponsorship Scandal was widely know. Chretien would also ratify the Kyoto Protocol for Canada, although he and his successor Paul Martin would do little to ensure that Canada could meet the CO2 reduction targets. Chretien also committed Canadian soldiers to the fight against Islamic Extremism in Afghanistan.
Jean Chretien enjoyed a populist, working-class appeal, enjoying the rough and tumble of politics. However he could often be aggressive with his political opponents and people in his way. In 1996, a protestor got a little too close to Chretien and he responded by applying a choke-hold on the man until the RCMP could take the man away. The Newspaper the National Post reported in 2003 Chretien made 47 appointments to judges and other top spots within government boards and agencies. His legacy may have him tied to the Sponsorship Scandal, something he denied in public, he also applied conservative economic thinking and was able to presided over a period of sustained economic growth in Canada. When the Liberals took office in 1993, the government was saddled with record deficits. Chrétien appointed Paul Martin as finance minister and within four years, government coffers had gone from deficit to surplus. Much of that was accomplished by cutting social programs and transfer payments to the provinces. His government came under fire for building huge surpluses in the Employment Insurance fund, which the opposition said helped pad the government books. When Chretien left the Office of Prime Minister in 2003, Canada had trimmed $50 billion from a total government debt of more than $550 billion and start to balance the budget.