Aline Chretien, wife of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, pauses for a moment as she is questioned about the past ten years as she makes her way to listen to Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Aline Chretien, wife of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, pauses for a moment as she is questioned about the past ten years as she makes her way to listen to Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Aline Chretien, wife of former PM, dead at 84

Aline Chretien shunned limelight but played influential role in private

Aline Chretien may have been the most influential political figure Canadians never knew.

She was often seen at political events — a petite, elegant figure standing demurely at the side of her gregarious husband, former prime minister Jean Chretien — but was seldom heard. At least not publicly.

Behind the scenes though, she was Chretien’s confidante and most trusted adviser, his “Rock of Gibraltar,” as he always called her.

Aline Chretien died surrounded by family Saturday morning at her home in Shawinigan, Que., a family spokesman said Sunday. She was 84. A cause of death was not specified.

“Prime Minister Chretien, I think, would be the first to say that without her he never would have been prime minister,” says long-time Chretien aide Eddie Goldenberg.

“She knew very well that she had not been elected herself so she didn’t try to take the limelight. She felt that would be the wrong thing to do. She felt her role was to be supportive and … to be very candid with advice and she could do that best in private.”

Aline was instrumental in all Chretien’s seminal political decisions: to stay in the federal arena despite appeals in the 1960s to run for a seat in Quebec’s National Assembly to quit politics in 1986 after losing the Liberal leadership to John Turner to return to the fray in 1990 and to go for a third consecutive mandate in 2000.

She even arguably saved Chretien’s life on Nov. 5, 1995, when a jackknife-wielding, mentally unstable intruder broke into the prime minister’s official residence in the middle of the night. After encountering him in the hall outside their bedroom, Aline Chretien slammed and locked the door before calling the RCMP guardhouse and waking her husband, who then famously armed himself with a soapstone carving of a loon.

It was Aline who advised Chretien to recruit academic and future Liberal leader Stephane Dion to his cabinet after Canada’s near-death experience in the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.

And throughout his 40 years in federal politics, it was Aline who warned him when she thought he was too loud or too aggressive or embarking on what she considered the wrong course of action.

“Those of us who worked for prime minister Chretien knew sometimes, if there was a problem, that she was, (as) I called it, the last court of appeal,” recalls Goldenberg.

“We could call her and say, ‘I’d like it if you could talk to your husband about something because he’s not listening to anybody else.’ And he sure listened to her — always.”

Aline Chaine and Chretien grew up in blue-collar families, just a few blocks apart in the Quebec pulp-and-paper town of Shawinigan. But their love affair began with a chance encounter on a bus when Aline Chaine was 16, two years younger than her eventual husband.

Chretien credits Aline with restraining some of his more boisterous youthful impulses and instilling him with self-discipline.

Aline had dreamed of studying languages at university but went instead to secretarial school at 16 so she could help support the Chaine family.

She adopted a similar support role once married to Chretien, staying home to raise daughter France and sons Hubert and Michel. During Jean Chretien’s early years in federal politics, she stayed in Shawinigan, where she was his eyes and ears in the riding.

But she never stopped her education. She became quadralingual, learning as an adult to speak English, Italian and Spanish in addition to French. She became an accomplished pianist, studying with the Royal Conservatory of Music.

And she did eventually make it to university in 2010 — as the first chancellor of Laurentian University in Sudbury.

In her autobiography, former U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton described Aline as “intelligent, sharply observant and elegant.”

But despite travelling the world with her husband and rubbing shoulders with some of the planet’s most powerful leaders, Aline always maintained close contact with family and lifelong friends in Shawinigan. The couple kept a home at nearby Lac des Piles, where Aline spent her final days.

In a rare interview with Maclean’s magazine in 1994, Aline described herself as “Madame Tout le Monde” — Mrs. Everybody.

She recounted calling her husband in a fury in 1973 when the federal Liberal government of the day was debating a cut in family allowances.

“I said `Jean, if you touch that, you’ll be in trouble. This is the only money some women in Shawinigan have got for themselves.’ You can have, as I did, a Madame Tout le Monde point of view when you are at home, listening to the radio with your kids.”

Peter Donolo, who was communications director for Chretien when he was Opposition leader and during his first term as prime minister, says Aline had refined taste in art and music but was totally unpretentious and never forgot her roots and, thus, kept her husband “grounded.”

“She was never impressed by wealth or power,” Donolo says. ” She could see through phonies in like a nanosecond.”

The first time he met Aline, Donolo says, she asked him about his young family and then advised him: “Remember, it’s very important that you not ignore your family while you’re working in politics because, after everything is done, all you have left is your family.”

She was, Donolo says, the love and “mainstay” of Chretien’s life for almost 70 years.

“I can’t think of a stronger bond between husband and wife that’s lasted this long and is as intimate and close.”

Aline and Jean Chretien marked their 63rd wedding anniversary on Sept. 10, just days before she died.

Family spokesman Bruce Hartley said only a private ceremony is being planned for now because of restrictions associated with COVID-19, with a public memorial planned for sometime in the future.

Condolences were flowing to the Chretien family on Sunday, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describing her as “a strong mother, and a devoted wife for over 60 years, who tirelessly supported one of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers during some of the country’s most pivotal moments.

“We owe a great debt to Aline, who faithfully served Quebecers and all Canadians, championed multiculturalism and bilingualism, and helped bring us closer together,” Trudeau said. “Authentic and honest, she taught us the importance of persevering, even when things get tough.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet also offered their condolences on Twitter to Jean Chretien and the rest of the Chretien family.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CanadaJean Chretien

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross has been named critic for Environment and Climate Change Strategy for the BC Liberals. (Black Press file photo)
Skeena MLA Ellis Ross named critic for Environment and Climate Change Strategy

Previously, Ross was the critic for LNG, Resource Opportunities, and Responsible Development

Red sky in morning: an early-morning sunrise on May 16, 2020, captured just north of Kitimat. (Eric Roy photo)
Clare’s Corner: Hello, darkness, my old friend

Why does the after-work darkness affect you so much more as an adult than as a child?

(Corrado Colombo photo)
Corrado Colombo, with his wife, Lucy. Colombo is from Italy, but met Kitimat born-and-raised Lucy on one of his annual fishing trips to Kitimat in the early 2000s.
In Our Valley: Corrado Colombo

Corrado Colombo never expected that an annual fishing trip to Kitimat would change his life

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Kettle bells sit aligned in an indoor fitness studio. (PIxabay.com)
1 COVID-19 case at a B.C. fitness studio leads to 104 more infections, 6 school exposures

According to case data released by Fraser Health, one case of the novel coronavirus carries a big impact

Vehicles drive past a display thanking essential workers in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
B.C. changing COVID-19 case reporting as virus spread continues

Manual counting takes more time, leads to errors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Co-author of residential schools book condemns controversial Abbotsford class assignment

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
B.C. man defends his family against intruder, saves neighbour while wielding hockey stick

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

Most Read