Jean Chrétien, full of pep at 86, put his tee in the ground at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club last week. In keeping with his straight-shooter reputation, he got set to drive one right down the middle.
“It’s a par four, Mr. Chrétien,” I facetiously remarked. “That’s about the same number of times you got kicked out of school.”
He laughed. It was true, so he couldn’t deny it. He didn’t mind mention of his hell-raising days, his classroom expulsions, his brawling in the streets of Shawinigan. He was a little guy back then but he took on the big toughs and flattened a few of them. “I watched the fights in the pool hall and learned how to do it.”
Soon we were talking about how he used that same so-what-if-they’re-bigger approach in politics, especially with the Americans. “But you were lucky,” I said after he rolled a 10-footer. “You had Bill Clinton to deal with, not Donald Trump.”
“Ah, but I also had three years with George Bush,” he countered. He’s always pleased to provide, speaking of being tough, a reminder of how he stood up to Mr. Bush, with whom he now gets along well, on the Iraq war.
But lamentably, Mr. Chrétien hasn’t been able to take on Donald Trump. When Canada got caught in what he calls the “Trump trap” in having to do Washington’s bidding in its case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, Mr. Chrétien offered to serve as Ottawa’s special envoy to China.
There was no one better suited. Even Brian Mulroney, no great friend of his, suggested that Mr. Chrétien was an ideal choice. Beginning with his Team Canada trade missions to China in the 1990s, Mr. Chrétien spent three decades trying to enhance relations. Successors Paul Martin and Stephen Harper continued the courtship he began. While out of office, Mr. Chrétien visited China repeatedly, building more contacts with the Chinese leadership, as he noted, than anyone.
But the Trudeau government rejected his offer and down went any chances of his softening or ending antagonisms. Rebuffed for the envoy role, Mr. Chrétien then proposed, this being a year ago, that Ottawa cancel the extradition process, allowing Ms. Meng to return home with the understanding that Beijing end its reprisals against Canada.
That display of Canadian hardball would have enraged Mr. Trump, who is enraged on a daily basis. But the “unspeakable Mr. Trump,” as Mr. Chrétien has called him, is the last president to deserve any kind of special treatment from Canadians. White House retaliation would have come as it did when Canada stayed out of the Iraq war. But so be it.
By co-operating with Mr. Trump on the Meng case, the Trudeau government has gained next to nothing. The President, as an example, is currently threatening to reimpose aluminum tariffs with no sound justification. Besides, his presidency is likely to end soon anyway, his replacement being a strong Canadian ally in Joe Biden.
But Mr. Chrétien’s idea of ending the extradition proceeding was flatly rejected by then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, who said it would set a dangerous legal precedent.
Allan Rock, Mr. Chrétien’s justice minister, and renowned jurist Louise Arbour have now reproposed the Chrétien idea, noting that Canada is within its legal rights to make the move.
They’re unlikely to get much of a hearing. A year ago, conditions were more conducive to such a gambit. Given China’s deplorable conduct since that time, it would look like Ottawa was submitting to blackmail. The Xi regime’s actions have made Canadian governments look starry-eyed if not naive for thinking China has been on an enlightened reform path.
Mr. Trump has said he could use the Meng case as a bargaining chip if necessary in trade negotiations with China. I got the impression from Mr. Chrétien, who is busy writing another book on his experiences, that he would rather have Canada be the one to use the Meng case as a bargaining chip than Washington or Beijing.
He looks forward to a Biden presidency. The two men have similarities. But after being a proponent of engagement with China, the former vice-president has badly soured on Beijing’s leadership. A U.S.-China cold war is beginning with the likelihood Canada will be a pawn in the game.
Ottawa’s deepening and costly conflict with Beijing might have been avoided if, shortly after it began, the Canadian most qualified to deal with the Middle Kingdom’s leadership was given the assignment. It didn’t happen and it’s too late now.
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