Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Chretien upbeat about his legacy

FOLKSY HERO The Canadian prime minister is retiring after ten years in office. During this time his wide-ranging reforms have helped define the country's character


The departing prime minister, Jean Chretien, defended keeping Canadian troops out of Iraq, pushing for gay marriage and liberalizing drug laws in an interview this week that made clear his lasting differences with the Bush administration.

"I don't think a kid of 17 years old who has a joint should have a criminal record," he said flatly on Monday in the broad-ranging interview in his elegant official residence as he prepared to retire after 10 years in office.

While careful not to gloat about his decision not to send Canadian troops to Iraq, Chretien, who is 69, was not apologetic either. "Of course he was not happy," he said, recalling President Bush's obvious displeasure. "I did not expect him to send me flowers."

Democracy would "take time to penetrate in the spirit of the people" in Iraq, he said. In the meantime, he advised giving a larger role to the UN, similar to that in Afghanistan, where Canada has 2,000 troops.

Chretien insisted that "relations are not bad at all" with the US, and he still keeps a photograph of himself and Bush in the foyer of his residence on the Ottawa River. But his positions left him clearly at odds with Washington on issues defining the core values of the two nations, ranging from Iraq and his support for the Kyoto climate treaty, to his proposed bills to expand marriage rights and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Such stances may well mark Chretien in history as a social activist and a leader who helped define the Canadian character as separate from that of its powerful southern neighbor, a place that even he seemed surprised to inhabit.

"If you told me I would do that, I would not have believed you," he said of his decision on gay marriage, which he arrived at after two provincial courts ruled that the federal definition of marriage as union between a man and a woman was discriminatory. "I'm a practicing Roman Catholic."

At the same time, Chretien seemed comfortable with Canada's social liberalism. His government has authorized the opening of a supervised heroin injection clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the distribution of methadone and heroin in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver to hard-core drug users beginning in January in an effort at curbing overdoses, crime and the spread of AIDS.

"I'm happy we are experimenting," he said. "I'd like to find out if there is not a better way than to fill the jails with people involved with drugs. It's not solving the problem."

In his time in office, Chretien brought a near bankrupt federal government back to solvency, doubled the size of the national park system, reformed campaign financing and championed increased international aid to Africa.

When he kept the army out of Iraq, he broke historical precedent by becoming the first Canadian leader to refuse to send troops to a war being fought by this country's two closest traditional allies, the US and Britain. The decision has been popular, even with Chretien's successor and political nemesis, former Finance Minister Paul Martin, who took over leadership of the Liberal Party yesterday.

But it is Chretien's decisions on social issues that may define his tenure, and Canada's future. Martin said he, too, would support the marijuana reform with amendments to raise monetary penalties, and agree to follow court rulings to legalize same-sex marriage that have made Canada only the third country behind the Netherlands and Belgium to do so.

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