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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II presents the Order of Merit to former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, at Buckingham Palace, London, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009

Ian Nicholson

The Queen and Jean Chrétien spoke today of the Canadian clown who went into space, just after she awarded the former prime minister one of her most prestigious honours, the Order of Merit.

In a telephone interview from London, Mr. Chrétien said that the 83-year-old monarch was relaxed during the simple but elegant ceremony, saying, too, that she was anxious to come to Canada next year for her state visit. They also spoke about her son, Prince Charles's, upcoming visit to the former colony.

But there was another topic of conversation: "We talked about Guy Laliberté, who went into orbit," Mr. Chrétien said, speaking about the Cirque du Soleil founder, who blasted off to space last month.

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"She said she would not have done it. And she found it a bit expensive," he said, laughing as he recalled the conversation.

Mr. Laliberte paid $35-million to be a space tourist.

The Queen awarded Mr. Chrétien the honour for 40 years of service. Only 24 people are in the order; vacancies are created when a member dies.

Since it was founded in 1902 by King Edward VII, there have been only 169 members. Mr. Chrétien joins former South African leader Nelson Mandela and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who are current members. Florence Nightingale was a member, as were T.S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The former prime minister said he was also able to make the Queen laugh as he recalled some stories from their trips together in Canada over the years.

And she was interested, he said, to meet his four grandchildren, two of whom speak Mandarin.

In addition to his grandchildren, Mr. Chrétien was accompanied by his wife, Aline, his son Hubert, his daughter, France Desmarais and her husband, André.

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He said that the evening before, on Monday, he had dinner at the House of Lords. The House was in session so he went to watch, sitting in the gallery in the very same seat he occupied when the Lords voted on the Canadian constitution.

"I was here to see the last vote about Canada," he said, noting it was part of his job as Minister of Justice to travel to London to brief the Queen and parliamentarians as to the progress of the constitutional issue.

"I had a few arguments with some of them [the British politicians] Some still thought they were in the Empire and wanted to tell us what to do. And I had few arguments with some of them," he said. "It was nostalgia about the repatriation of the constitution and the Charter of Rights."

Meanwhile, he described the Order of Merit medal as "beautiful." The former Liberal prime minister said that he will proudly wear it around his neck at special events in Canada.

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