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Former prime minister Jean Chretien stands next to his official portrait at the unveiling ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 25, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Former prime minister Jean Chretien stands next to his official portrait at the unveiling ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 25, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jean Chrétien defends political class Add to ...

Jean Chrétien thinks politicians are getting a bum rap from ungrateful and cynical Canadians.

He's using today's unveiling of his official prime ministerial portrait to defend the honour and achievements of Canada's political class.

"They work hard, these guys," the self-described "little guy from Shawinigan" said in an interview shortly before the portrait ceremony.

"And you know, they are an honest crowd and everybody pictures them as a bunch of crooks. It's very unfair."

Public cynicism has mounted recently amid outrage over controversies like the Guergis-Jaffer affair and MPs' refusal to allow the auditor general to scrutinize their expenses.

Mr. Chrétien blamed "gotcha" journalism for the cynicism.

"Trivia is what attract the attention. The debate is very rarely now on policies, it's always on all sorts of gotcha politics because the media need gotcha politics. They need blood."

But he conceded politicians share the blame for bringing themselves into disrepute.

"Members too, they're stupid because they play the game. You know, they attack each other for nothing."

Mr. Chrétien suggested Canadians need a dose of perspective. He compared Canada's progress over the last 70 years with that of Argentina, a country of similar population and potential as Canada in 1940.

Whereas Argentina has weathered "all sort of dictatorships and coups and what not," since then, Canada has become a stable, prosperous democracy with a standard of living six times higher.

And all that occurred "with these terrible politicians," he noted dryly.

"Imagine if they had been good."

Mr. Chrétien said having his official portrait hung alongside those of the "great and not-so-great" prime ministers since Confederation is the "crowning of my career." And he makes no apologies for having devoted most of his adult life to politics.

"In spite of all the bad stories about politicians, I'm very proud of my career because we feel that we made a lot of changes during the 40 years I was on the Hill," he said.

"It's 47 years ago that I arrived on the Hill and I never expected to be hung in there. I had no commitment with destiny. I never told my professor or my mother that I would be prime minister."

Mr. Chrétien was known as a "happy warrior," who used humour and his trademark, lop-sided grin to disarm opponents and charm voters.

His portrait, however, shows the serious side of the 76-year-old. Ottawa artist Christian Nicholson has portrayed an unsmiling Mr. Chrétien, holding his spectacles in one hand.

"I wanted to have a picture that is very simple, minimalist type of thing," Mr. Chrétien said.

"You know, me . . . What you see is what you get."

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