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Chretien spends his last day in Commons fighting same battle as 1963
( 2003-11-07 11:34) (CP)

A street-fighting politician with no greater thrill in his professional life than beating back separatists ended his career in the House of Commons on Thursday just as it began 40 years ago.

On May 23, 1963, a young lawyer from Shawinigan devoted his maiden speech in Parliament to battling the then-fledgling cause of Quebec independence.

And after four decades on the Liberal benches, Prime Minister Jean Chretien finished his last day in the House in a final, unexpected dustup with his lifelong foes.

Tributes flowed from political opponents who lauded Chretien's devotion to Canada and his political instincts and jokingly lamented his string of successes at their expense.

Then his devotion to federalism was pressed into service one last time.

When Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe rose to speak, a hush fell over the chamber as he accused the prime minister of turning his back on the aspirations of his home province.

And he warned Chretien not to enter retirement feeling like he'd beaten the independence movement.

"He's on a long list of prophets who predicted the death of the sovereignty movement. Like them, he is mistaken," Duceppe told the Commons.

"He will always be welcome in a sovereign Quebec - in his home, in Shawinigan."

But the same prime minister who fought two referendums, helped patriate the Constitution and laid down tough new rules to thwart sovereignty gave back as good as he got.

Chretien wasn't expecting a debate on this final day. He ad-libbed his farewell speech and led off with a charge against independence.

"I was always convinced of my pride in the French language, for my ancestors and of the best way to preserve those things that were very important for me," Chretien said in French.

"Only I always believed fundamentally that if the French fact has survived in the Americas, it's because there was a Canada."

Most of the other tributes were more light-hearted.

The most touching came from Chretien's longstanding rival, Joe Clark, the former prime minister and Tory leader, who explained why the prime minister never lost an election.

It was because Chretien's commitment to Canada touched the hearts from coast to coast of even those who would never vote for him, Clark said.

"It is palpable and powerful and part of what has made him seem so real, so genuine to ordinary people across the country," Clark said.

"And unfortunately, so popular."

Then he made a prediction that lashed straight out at Paul Martin, the prime minister-in-waiting who was looking on from the backbenches.

"I know that his successor, whatever his strengths might prove to be, will never strike that personal chord for the people of this country."

John Reynolds, the Canadian Alliance House leader, said he often disagreed with the prime minister, but never doubted his intentions.

"I doubt that the little guy from Shawinigan ever regretted anything he ever did," Reynolds said.

"That is not to be taken as criticism but simply recognition that he probably retired most evenings knowing in the morning both his desk and his conscience would be clear."

All the opposition speakers crossed the Commons floor to exchange warm handshakes and pats on the shoulder with the prime minister.

Chretien said later he was "pretty moved" by all the tributes. He avoided blaming his sovereigntist rival for mixing business with what had been just pleasure until then.

"It's the House of Commons and there are situations like that one which can seem surprising," he said.

"I answered."

Duceppe said he did the right thing by speaking up.

"I did it in a respectful way," he said. "We have differences of opinion and we must respect each other."

And he dismissed a common suggestion that Chretien can walk off into the sunset thinking the sovereignty movement is defeated.

Duceppe noted that there were no sovereigntists in the Commons when Chretien first arrived, and now there are dozens of Bloc MPs.

In 1963, Chretien himself, a unilingual MP struggling to learn English, didn't seem too worried about a separatist cause which eventually came within a hair of triumph in a referendum 30 years later.

He scoffed then at the sovereigntists' chances of success. And he said the way to defeat them was by advancing the cause of francophones in Canada.

"I am confident that the present separatist movement is not serious," the 29-year-old rookie told the Commons.

"However, the Canadian people in general, and more particularly the English-speaking Canadians should . . . give French-Canadians the same possibilities of progress so that there would be no such discrimination as has been noted in the past."

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