Aline Chrétien was born into poverty but was possessed of a sharp mind and a refined elegance that made her the adored wife and most trusted confidante of Canada’s 20th prime minister.
Ms. Chrétien stayed largely out of the limelight that followed Jean Chrétien, her politician husband. Even so, she was strong-minded and fiercely protective of her family. And she was part of a love story that lasted nearly seven decades.
Ms. Chrétien, who was known simply as “Madame” to scores of Liberal politicians and party members, died Saturday morning after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years. She was 84.
She was born on May 14, 1936, in Shawinigan, Que., the oldest child of Yvonne Chainé, a hairdresser, and Albert Chainé, a labourer who worked at the local power plant.
Even in grade school, she developed methods for rising above her family’s lack of wealth.
Isabel Metcalfe, a lobbyist who worked in the offices of three Liberal prime ministers, including Mr. Chrétien, recalls Ms. Chrétien taking her on a tour of Shawinigan and pointing to the aging apartment block in which her family had lived.
It was “a tenement building right across the road from the power dam, outside Shawinigan,” Ms. Metcalfe said in a telephone interview. With no extra money to spare, “she didn’t get into town until she was 16.”
Once, when Ms. Metcalfe was running for a seat in Parliament, she asked Ms. Chrétien for advice about how to keep her facial expressions from giving away her thoughts. “And she said, ‘Oh, I learned how to do that as a young girl because I was always the poorest in the class and had to learn how to walk into the room with the shabbiest dress,’” Ms. Metcalfe said.
As a child, Ms. Chrétien would visit the local convent, where the nuns taught her the proper etiquette of pouring tea and holding utensils. She loved those classes, Ms. Metcalfe said. “But her father said, ‘Why are you going to that? You will never amount to anything.’ She told me that.”
Ms. Chrétien also dreamed of playing piano. But, she told Maclean’s magazine in 1994, her family could never afford such an instrument. It wasn’t until she was middle aged that she began seriously taking lessons and eventually gained the confidence to perform classical pieces and traditional Quebec folk songs at family parties and for the pleasure of guests.
Ms. Chrétien was highly intelligent. In the first volume of his biography of Jean Chrétien, Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin says she graduated as a bilingual secretary at the top of her class of 35 at the Shawinigan Business College. She later became fluent in Spanish and Italian.
Ms. Chrétien was also a great beauty, with short dark hair and large, round eyes. Other boys in Shawinigan, including Jean’s older brother, took notice of her. But it was on a bus in the summer of 1951, when she was 15, that Jean, who was three years her senior, first struck up a conversation.
“He asked: ‘Are you la petite Chainé?’” she told Maclean’s. That led to an invitation to a dance, which she turned down because he had already invited someone else. But they went to a movie a short time later and a romance blossomed that lasted a lifetime.
“I think the love affair that they had defined them. They were lucky in love,” Ms. Metcalfe said. “He was kind of wild, but she could handle him. … She guided him and disciplined him and loved him.”
The Chrétiens were married in September, 1957, and had just marked their 63rd anniversary two days before she died.
She worked as a secretary and a payroll manager and did some modelling for Shawinigan clothing stores. He became a lawyer and president of the Young Liberals of Quebec.
In 1963, he was elected MP for Saint-Maurice-Laflèche and his political career took off.
In the meantime, the Chrétiens were starting a family. First came France, their daughter, and then a son, Hubert. And in 1970, they adopted a baby boy named Michel from an orphanage in Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories.
Sheila Gervais, a former national director of the Liberal Party, describes Ms. Chrétien as being one of the warmest people she has ever met.
“She was very private, but completely different when she was comfortable with people,” Ms. Gervais said. “When she was comfortable, she was not shy at all.”
Ms. Gervais recalls having lunch with the Chrétiens when Mr. Chrétien was Opposition leader. Ms. Chrétien excused herself from the table, went upstairs and returned with a beautiful handmade paper box which she gave to Ms. Gervais. Inside was a brooch of chambray blue shot with green that exactly matched a dress Ms. Gervais had worn on a previous occasion. “She said ‘I know that you have a dress this colour and I thought of you when I saw this brooch.’”
Mr. Martin says that the people he interviewed while writing his books about Mr. Chrétien had only complimentary things to say about Ms. Chrétien.
“She had a very strong hand in his career,” Mr. Martin said. “She could be tough and stern. She wasn’t a pushover as a wife. She was strong-willed. She held her own and made her points of view and gave very intelligent advice.”
She was also defensive of her husband. Reporters who travelled with them to other countries when he was prime minister recount the icy stares she gave them on mornings when the headlines were unflattering of Mr. Chrétien.
And it was Ms. Chrétien, Mr. Martin said, who convinced her husband that he had to lead his Liberal Party into a third election in 2000, after winning two majority governments in the 1990s. Mr. Chrétien had been facing pressure from party members loyal to Paul Martin, who was then finance minister, to step aside and allow Mr. Martin to take over.
“He didn’t want to run again because he was under so much pressure,” Mr. Martin said. “But the Martin people got so heavy-handed in trying to push him out that he was starting to change his mind. And she is the one who convinced him to run again. She basically said, ‘You don’t have to take that crap from those people.’ It was her support that he said was the final straw in getting him to run again. And, of course, he won another majority.”
Throughout the Chrétiens’ married life, Ms. Chrétien was a “solid rock” for her husband, Mr. Martin said. She was discreet and knew how to stay out of the way, he said. “There was the old-fashioned sense of partnership and old-school Quebec.”
Mr. Chrétien always worried about being looked down upon by members of the Quebec intelligentsia, who regarded him as peasant stock, according to Mr. Martin. “That drove him to say, ‘I’m going to show those bastards I am as smart as they are,’” the columnist said. “She brought him a sense of culture and an appreciation of classical music and the finer cultural things.”
She also famously saved him from a knife-wielding intruder who broke into the Prime Minister’s Ottawa residence in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 1995.
Ms. Chrétien heard what sounded like the footsteps of somebody wandering around the home, so she got out of bed to check it out. When she peered into the hallway outside the bedroom, “she saw a person in front of her and she closed back the door very rapidly, came back into the room and locked the other door,” Mr. Chrétien told reporters after the incident.
It took several minutes for the RCMP officers who were supposed to be guarding the house to arrive and apprehend André Dallaire, a man suffering from schizophrenia, who was found guilty a year later of trying to kill the prime minister.
Through Mr. Chrétien’s years in office, his wife was known for her good taste. Always perfectly attired, and often wearing her signature headband, she would stand smiling behind him at public events.
She worked her whole life at being refined, Ms. Metcalfe said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described her as a strong mother and devoted wife, but also noted her contribution to all Canadians. "We owe a great debt to Aline, who faithfully served Quebeckers and all Canadians, championed multiculturalism and bilingualism, and helped bring us closer together,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Authentic and honest, she taught us the importance of persevering, even when things get tough.”
Laureen Harper, the wife of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, says: “I always thought she carried off her duties with a quiet dignity and thought her a great role model.”
Former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, also noted Ms. Chrétien’s grace in extending their condolences on Sunday. “She was a wise counsel and able defender of her family and of the former prime minister,” the Mulroneys said in a written statement. “An elegant, eloquent and loyal friend to many, she was also a highly trusted adviser, inside politics and beyond.”
Ms. Chrétien did take on some causes of her own.
Ms. Metcalfe says Ms. Chrétien was instrumental in getting approval for the Parliament Hill statue that honours the “Famous Five” Alberta women who brought the 1927 case that declared women to be persons under the law.
But her main job was to be the partner of the man she fell in love with as a teenager.
Ms. Chrétien, said Ms. Metcalfe, told her about the opening of an art gallery at the old power plant in Shawinigan. “And on the day of the opening, Madame Chrétien said there she was standing as the wife of the prime minister accepting a Picasso for the art gallery in Shawinigan and her father had stoked the fires below many years before when he was so poor.”
She leaves her husband; daughter, France Chrétien Desmarais; sons, Hubert and Michel Chrétien; and several grandchildren.
When Mr. Chrétien left politics in 2003, he stood in the House of Commons to pay tribute to his wife.
“She has been by my side since 1963, through very difficult political battles and tense moments in this life, which we love so much but which is so fraught with pitfalls,” he told the members of Parliament.
“I benefited from her incredibly good advice and very sound judgment on political situations and on people. I thank her for everything she has done for me, the party and the country.”