Aline Chrétien, wife of former PM Jean Chrétien, has died at age 84

By all accounts, Aline Chrétien was the quiet strength behind her husband, Jean.

An astute political partner whom former prime minister Jean Chrétien called his most trusted adviser and his “rock of Gibraltar,” Aline Chrétien died peacefully Saturday morning at the age of 84. 

“She was surrounded by family as the sun rose at her Lac des Piles residence, near Shawinigan,” said Bruce Hartley, a former executive assistant and long-time adviser to the former prime minister.

The two met on a bus in the summer of 1951, when Jean Chrétien was 17 and Aline was 15.  The two married in 1957 in a ceremony that was squeezed in between Jean’s shifts working at the local mill and his university classes.

From the very beginning, Aline Chrétien said she knew the man who would go on to serve as prime minister for a decade was the one for her. The couple had three children together.

The Chrétiens await the start of an Order of Canada ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in 2011. Their daughter, France Chrétien Desmarais, was among the 44 Canadians to receive the honour. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Aline dropped out of school at 16 to help support her family through secretarial work, but her dreams were much grander. She longed to travel overseas and learn multiple languages.

Those aspirations became possible in part because of her husband’s political success — but Aline never felt entirely comfortable in the spotlight. 

“If I hadn’t married Jean, no one would have seen me, ever,” she told Maclean’s magazine in 1994. “I like people, but I don’t like to be out in front.”

Aline wanted to keep her family life private and out of the public eye, especially when her children were young.

In Jean Chrétien’s best-selling 1985 memoir, Straight from the Heart, their daughter France was mentioned only briefly and their son Hubert and adopted son Michel were not mentioned at all.

Frequent adviser to former PM

Throughout his time in office, Aline remained close to her husband’s work and frequently offered him advice.

“We are always talking, when I have lunch, breakfast, at night, sometimes I sit in his office and he says, ‘You know what, today I have a cabinet meeting to do,'” she said. “It’s like I’m a part of the team too and sometimes the team is there and I’m there so he will say, ‘Well what do you think about that?’ And I give him my advice. But since a long time it’s always been like that.”

In 1995, after the referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord in 1992, André Dallaire — who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was upset over the referendum result — broke into the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa and came face to face with Aline just outside her bedroom.

Aline went back into the bedroom, locked the door and woke her husband, who grabbed an Inuit carving of a loon to defend the couple as they waited behind the locked door for the RCMP to respond.

Dallaire was arrested by the RCMP — he never entered the Chrétiens’ bedroom. He was later convicted of attempted murder but found not to be criminally responsible due to diminished mental capacity.

“He had a jackknife, open, right at the door of our room. And I would like to say that my wife did not panic. She just locked the door and rushed to lock the other door and called the police and I think that I’m lucky that she was there and I’m grateful,” Chrétien told reporters afterward.

Known for treating staffers and volunteers like family

Aline dedicated herself to both women’s causes and the arts, especially music. A pianist, Aline enjoyed playing for herself as much as she did for family and friends.

Known for her kind and welcoming nature, she treated Liberal staffers and volunteers as members of her own family and supported her husband through difficult times.

After internecine squabbling in the Liberal Party between supporters of Chrétien and his finance minister, Paul Martin, culminated in Chrétien stepping down sooner than he had planned, Aline told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge in 2003 how she approaches conflict.

Aline, centre, is congratulated by Haiti’s First Lady Geri Benoit-Preval, left, and Chile’s Marta Larracechea de Frei, right, after the signing of the Ottawa declaration at the closing of the Ninth Conference of Spouses of Heads of State and Government of the Americas at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa in 1999. (Reuters)

“If somebody has a chip on their shoulder, who has something against somebody, it shows,” she told Mansbridge. “Life is too short and I forgive, and in politics there’s a lot to forgive so I would be very miserable. I see people who don’t forgive and it’s not nice.

“Jean is the guy [who] forgives easily and I like him for that, too, because in life, if you are just a thing about the past, it’s no good. You just go forward and you’re happy.”

As much as Jean Chrétien was gregarious and hot-tempered, Aline was the calm and collected political partner who was happy to stick to the sidelines. But she took great pride in what they accomplished together in public life and believed Canadians would come to miss her husband and value his legacy when he left office.

“I would be just happy if they say he was working hard for his people and he was a good prime minister,” she told Mansbridge in 2003.

The success of their political partnership was surpassed only by their personal one. Aline and Jean Chretien celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary on Sept. 10.

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