Skip to main content

Bob Plamondon is the author of The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada.

Twenty years ago – and a mere six weeks after the launch of the Iraq War – U.S. president George Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Canada would have been fighting with the United States, Britain, Australia and others but for one man: the prime minister, Jean Chrétien. What did he know that others did not? And what were the qualities of leadership that put Mr. Chrétien and Canada on the right side of history?

Mr. Chrétien told Mr. Bush that Canada would join the war provided there was proof Iraq held weapons of mass destruction sufficient to convince the United Nations that military action was justified. Mr. Chrétien added that the evidence he had seen was so shaky it would not have convinced a municipal court judge in Shawinigan, Que.

When pressed by reporters about the kind of evidence he needed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Chrétien responded: “A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It’s a proof. A proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven.” The quote was the subject of ridicule, but it has aged well.

Mr. Bush offered to send his experts to Ottawa, but Mr. Chrétien declined, believing the CIA evidence was biased. Besides, he preferred to rely on the views of Canadian intelligence agencies. Mr. Chrétien also thought that Canada should not be in the business of removing dictators, especially in a turbulent, non-democratic part of the world. “If we’re getting into the business of replacing leaders we don’t like,” Mr. Chrétien asked British prime minister Tony Blair, “who’s next?”

Several of Mr. Chrétien’s cabinet ministers wanted Canada on the front lines, as did a significant number of Liberal MPs who thought it was time for the prime minister to make way for another leader. According to senior federal bureaucrats, the three key departments – defence, foreign affairs and finance – assumed that Canada would send troops to Iraq.

Business leaders warned Mr. Chrétien of economic reprisals for rejecting a war that was sanctioned by the U.S. Congress. “Give me a list,” Mr. Chrétien challenged them, “of all the goods and services that the Americans buy from us just because they love us.”

When a deadline given by the British Foreign Office for Canada to declare its final position on Iraq loomed, Mr. Chrétien responded not in a diplomatic communiqué, but in Parliament. Moments before he rose in the House of Commons, he summoned his ministers of foreign affairs and defence to seek their views, not on the decision, but on the wording of his statement. The decision on Iraq was Mr. Chrétien’s alone.

Mr. Chrétien did not have better information about the existence of weapons of mass destruction than any other world leader. The difference was that Mr. Chrétien was more objective and independent-minded. Drawing upon his nearly 40 years of political experience, his instincts were to challenge rather than simply accept what he was told. He did not believe in groupthink and had no need or desire to impress the powerful or join a club. He could not be intimidated, even when pressed by our most important allies.

Having made the decision, Mr. Chrétien did not admonish or criticize Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. Instead he used the United Nations as Canada’s armour against criticism and possible retaliation from the American and British governments. Mr. Chrétien had suggested to Mr. Blair he could play a role at the UN in seeking a resolution. But the wily Mr. Chrétien knew that even if a resolution passed in plenary, it would be vetoed at the Security Council. His offer to mediate an agreement was, at best, gratuitous.

LAWRENCE MARTIN: On the 20th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion, Canada’s record on war and peace stands firm

In retirement, people Mr. Chrétien meets on the street thank him for keeping Canada out of the Iraq war. Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are shunned in public. The leaders of Mexico and Chile thanked Mr. Chrétien in 2003 for giving them cover for staying out of Iraq, and have many times thereafter. In 2019, the former prime minister of Singapore publicly expressed his regret that he did not have Mr. Chretien’s guts to say no to Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair on Iraq. Mr. Chrétien’s instincts have been validated over time. As he suspected, the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was distorted, if not fabricated. Regime change did not produce greater political stability in Iraq or the region.

To say that the choice was easy ignores the condemnation Mr. Chrétien faced in 2003. According to The Globe and Mail, he used pretzel-like logic to make the wrong choice. The Sudbury Star saw Mr. Chrétien as aligning Canada with nations more concerned about their financial interests than saving the Iraqi people from torture, murder, rape and oppression. The Ottawa Citizen accused Mr. Chrétien of surrendering Canada’s sovereignty to China and Russia. The Windsor Star called Mr. Chretien an embarrassment.

The Conservative opposition supported the Americans, a case Stephen Harper ultimately made in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. The business community was near-unanimous in siding with the Americans. And then Mr. Chrétien needed to contend with those in the Liberal caucus who thought it was a mistake to keep our troops at home.

Mr. Chrétien kept Canada out of a war that today has almost no defenders. He followed his instincts, confounded the experts, asserted Canadian independence and saved lives. Before he became prime minister, we were told le petits gars de Shawinigan would embarrass Canada on the world stage. In the final analysis, it was Mr. Chrétien who gave the master class on leadership and foreign policy.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe