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Image, Vision Are Challenges for Chretien : Politics: Canada's prime minister-elect may have endeared himself to English-speakers, but he has turned off Quebecers.

October 27, 1993|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH and CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SHAWINIGAN, Canada — When 59-year-old Jean Chretien is sworn in next month as Canada's 20th prime minister, it will be the last leg in a venerable politician's rise to the top: Since 1963, the French-speaking lawyer has held nine Cabinet posts, including the powerful portfolios of finance, justice and commerce.

No one in Canada argues that Chretien lacks the experience to serve as a credible prime minister. The standard question about him is, rather, whether he has the vision and flexibility to find innovative solutions to Canada's many pressing problems.

"Chretien is someone from a tired party that has run out of ideas," said Peter Morici, an economist and chairman of Canadian studies at the University of Maine. "He is not going to be a bold type."

As it happens, Chretien came of age as a politician in Quebec in the early 1960s, a place and time when the Liberals were crusaders. Through the 1950s, Canada's French-speaking province was notably poor, politically repressed and dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. It was a Liberal Party victory in 1960 that sent the winds of change blowing there.

Over the next six years, Quebec's Liberals set about reviewing and overhauling everything from campaign financing to Catholic school education. Midway through that heady time, known today as the Quiet Revolution, Chretien won his first parliamentary election. He was made a Cabinet minister by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and later by Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

But despite his close association with the urbane and dashing Trudeau, Chretien--born to working-class parents in the pulp-mill town of Shawinigan--never bothered cultivating a similar air of erudition.

On the contrary, Chretien developed an amusing country-bumpkin shtick that he evinces even today.

Across Canada, he is instantly recognizable by his raspy voice--he has been deaf in one ear and partly paralyzed in the mouth since infancy--and for the way he blithely roughs up the grammar of both English and French.

He is masterful at warming up a crowd with a well-timed joke or a telling anecdote--though detractors say they wish he was nearly as quick with policy specifics--and he has long been known as le p'tit gars de Shawinigan , or "the little guy from Shawinigan." To the dismay of proud Quebecers, he has even referred to himself as a "pea-souper," meaning a son of working-class Quebec (pea soup is traditional blue-collar fare in the Francophone province).

Indeed, however much Chretien has endeared himself to English-speaking voters with his Chaplinesque little-guy-surrounded-by-big-shots routine, he has thoroughly turned off Quebec French-speakers with it, as Monday's election returns show. While Chretien swept the mostly English-speaking Atlantic provinces and Ontario, he finished well behind the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec.

Quebecers tend to view their province's recent history of poverty and backwardness with anger and shame, and think it unseemly to revel in it or joke about it the way Chretien does.

"Basically, Quebecers feel that Chretien is a '50s politician," said Jean-Francois Lisee, a Montreal author and political columnist. "He has the style of the populist, rural, old-fashioned politician, and Quebecers like to think of themselves as being very modern. They don't like the idea that someone who represents their past would be representing them . . . ."

Chretien's problems with Quebec do not stop with image. The Quiet Revolution gave rise to Quebec nationalist tendencies that remain strong to this day, and Chretien built his political career on fighting these.

As Trudeau's justice minister in 1980, for instance, Chretien worked to defeat the pro-sovereignty proposition in a historic referendum on whether Quebec should seek independence from Canada.

And two years later, he devised and implemented the Trudeau government's strategy for "patriating" the Canadian constitution. But the document angered and alienated many Quebecers, because it fails to provide the special means that Quebecers sought for protecting their province's unique language and culture.

Chretien and his wife of 36 years, Aline, have a daughter, France, a son, Hubert, and an adopted son, Michel.

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