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Chretien uses farewell address to Liberals to patch up old wounds
( 2003-11-14 14:08) (CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien extended an olive branch Thursday to the man who shoved him into retirement, in a bid to heal old wounds on his last full day as Liberal leader.

The prime minister even managed to speak the name of Paul Martin - something he has avoided doing since a bitter and public feud erupted between the two last year. In a farewell speech to party members, Chretien declared himself ready to turn over his leadership to a man he called "a great Liberal." "(He is) a great Liberal who has been a big part of our record," he said in a farewell address to his party. "Paul Martin will need our support, the support of all of us. And I can assure Paul that you have my support."

That praise brought to its feet the crowd of 10,000 supporters, including a beaming and waving Martin.

As Chretien worked to repair the rift between the two men, there was still plenty of evidence that the divide between his supporters and those of his successor has yet to be bridged.

An elderly supporter walked by Martin, stuck out her tongue and delivered a Bronx cheer when she saw the incoming leader standing at a microphone at the party's leadership convention.

And when Chretien's name came up in a room packed with young Liberals, about three people clapped in a crowd that just moments earlier had wildly chanted, "We want Paul!"

Any rancour was submerged during a splashy Chretien tribute at the Air Canada Centre that featured a gospel choir, a performance by jazz virtuoso Oscar Peterson, the Cirque du Soleil and a specially worded version of My Way sung by Paul Anka.

Chretien used his speech to declare his leadership a victory for Canadian sovereignty.

He said the country's clout and confidence have improved since he took office, painting a dire portrait of the nation he inherited in 1993.

The country's fiscal sovereignty was threatened by a $42-billion deficit and its territorial sovereignty imperiled by a national-unity crisis in Quebec.

"We were clearly in a crisis. The worst crisis Canada had seen in more than half a century. ... We were virtually broke. Almost bankrupt. Against the wall," Chretien said.

"And Canada was on the brink of disaster. Of falling apart. In Quebec, separation was at its highest point in history."

Ten years later, the books are balanced and a federalist government is in place in Quebec.

Chretien said he was deeply hurt when he was vilified by nationalists for taking a hard line on Quebec independence, but added that it was the right thing to do.

"(It was) because I believe so profoundly, as I still believe today, that being part of Canada is best for Quebec," he said.

"Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than the knowledge that we have prevailed in Quebec."

Canada was strengthened by its decision to stand apart from the United States on the war in Iraq and in favour of the Kyoto accord on curbing greenhouse gases, he said.

"We have never been more confident. We have never been more proud. We have never been more united. We have never been more sure of who we are," he said.

"Are Canadians better off today than we were 10 years ago? The answer is clear, very clear - yes, yes and yes."

The Liberals' Chretien tribute was co-hosted by Justin Trudeau, eldest son of one of the men the prime minister cited as mentors.

Chretien singled out former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson, and ex-finance minister Mitchell Sharp as guiding influences.

Then he offered some advice to his successor.

He urged Liberals to hold on to small-l liberal beliefs. Martin, who is expected to trounce Heritage Minister Sheila Copps in Friday's leadership vote, is seen as a more right-leaning Liberal than the current prime minister.

But Chretien urged him to remember left-leaning values.

"Canadians should beware of those on the right who would reduce taxes ... (and) weaken the national government because they do not believe in the role of government as an agent of good," he said.

"My friends, my fellow Canadians, my fellow Liberals, if you remember only one thing that I say tonight, remember this: We must never ever lose our social conscience."

Martin received that advice by standing and clapping along with the crowd.

Chretien ended his speech with his trademark Vive le Canada.

But the prime minister did not address one pressing issue during his farewell speech: his retirement date.

Chretien has taken mischievous pleasure in keeping everyone guessing about when he will transfer power to Martin - keeping even Martin in the dark.

He said he doesn't intend to break that silence until Tuesday, when the men will sit down for a rare meeting to discuss transition details.

"You will know Tuesday ... probably," Chretien said in an interview Thursday.

"The only suspense you have is me ... you don't know when I will go and so on."

In that interview, he said he would work part-time in a law firm and would avoid making public statements about domestic issues.

He said he didn't want to burden his successor.

"I think that the prime minister after he left, should not come back . . . he should not make speeches, (that) destabilizes the prime minister who is there."

An excerpt from the prepared text of a speech by Prime Minister Jean Chretien for delivery Thursday during his farewell tribute at the Liberal leadership convention:

The rest of the world looks to us as a model, as a beacon. Look at the people in this great hall. You see in this one location all the faces, all the races, and the colours, and religions that make up this planet. This is the Canada of today.

And this is our mission to the world. To show how it is possible to live together in diversity and in harmony. But to fulfill this mission, we have a solemn responsibility to speak to the world in our own voice - an independent voice.

It is not something to barter or give away, not for economic gain, commercial advantage or anything else.

My friends, we cannot be complacent, at a time when the opposition is getting together. When in a country of the centre, the opposition is moving to the right.

Canadians should beware of those on the right who put profit ahead of community ... beware of those on the right who put the narrow bottom line ahead of everything else.

Canadians should beware of those on the right who would reduce taxes at the expense of necessary public services ..n. beware of those on the right who do not care about reducing social and environmental deficits.

Canadians should beware of those on the right who would weaken the national government because they do not believe in the role of government.

My friends, my fellow Canadians, my fellow Liberals, if you remember only one thing that I say tonight, remember this ... we must never lose our social conscience.

My final message to you is simple. Trust Canadians. They are wise. They are generous. They care.

And above all, trust the young generation of Canadians that is coming up. I have a lot of faith in young Canadians today. There has never been a generation in history more sure of itself and its Canadian identity, and yet more in touch and involved in every corner of the world. They care. And they understand.

My friends, I am passing on the leadership of our party to a new leader. A new prime minister.

A great Liberal. Who has been a big part of our record. Of the Liberal record we are so proud of.

Although we have accomplished so much, there is still so much more to do. Paul Martin will need all our support, the support of all of us. And I can assure Paul that he has my support.

And when he has some lonely moments, as I know he will, he should remember, as I have, how each successive leader has been strengthened by our Liberal values. He should remember Laurier, remember King, remember St-Laurent, remember Pearson, remember Trudeau, remember Turner.

There is no greater privilege than to be able to serve your country. To be the prime minister of the most wonderful country in the world. I have always felt a special love of this country. With all my fellow citizens. Regardless of their political views.

So from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the people of Canada for the confidence they have shown in me over so many years. I will be forever grateful.

I want to thank the Liberal party for the great confidence you have shown in me since you chose me as your leader 13 years ago.

And for the privilege I have had in leading the greatest political party in the world.

When I first announced my candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal party back in 1984, I said: "Fasten your seat belts - it's going to be a hell of a ride."

Well my friends, it has been a hell of a ride.

Now I finish my career as I began, as an ordinary Liberal. I will be there to support our new team. I wil be there to encourage young Canadians to continue to be engaged. And I will be there to support our new leader.

I want to thank tonight the people of St. Maurice who have shown their confidence in me for the last 40 years, as well as the people of Beausejour for three years. Without them, I would not be here tonight.

And, my friends, I will be there side-by-side with Aline, my rock of Gibraltar for almost the last 50 years ...

Vive le Canada!

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