The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada by Bob Plamondon

The Hyphenated Liberal Era

Bob Plamondon

The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada. Ottawa, Great River Media, 2017.

Review by Susan Delacourt


On the day that he won the leadership of his party in 2013, Justin Trudeau made a historic declaration. “The era of hyphenated Liberals ends right here,” he said.

Trudeau was talking about what he saw as the bad old days of the party, when Liberals identified themselves by their loyalty to either Jean Chrétien or Paul Martin.

Are those days over? Yes. But do the grudges linger? Definitely, judging by the some of the startling tales unearthed by Bob Plamondon for his fascinating, new book on Chrétien, The Shawinigan Fox.

It’s been billed as a tale of how Chrétien may have been the most conservative prime minister Canada has ever had—an intriguing premise, certainly backed up in this meticulously researched book.

But The Shawinigan Fox is much more than that—it is a sustained attack on Martin’s legacy and especially his takeover of the Liberal party, told from the point of view of Chrétien and a number of his allies from those years. Chrétien gave Plamondon an extensive interview and access during the writing of this book and was present at the book launch. Martin did not co-operate; nor did most of his former supporters. It shows.

Still, even for those of us who have written extensively on those battles (this reviewer, full disclosure, wrote a book on that subject) there is a lot of new information here; evidence of just how deep, angry and wide the divisions ran in the days of hyphenated Liberalism.

The book features a new play-by-play account of those days in June 2002, for instance, when Martin finally ended up out of Chrétien’s cabinet. It takes us to the very cabinet table when Chrétien ordered all leadership aspirants to stand down. Allan Rock, then the justice minister, makes a joke at his own expense. Martin, in this account, flatly denies that he’s raising money for a leadership bid.

This moment seemed to be some kind of turning point for former deputy prime minister John Manley, who is extensively quoted in The Shawinigan Fox and obviously one of Plamondon’s major sources for the book.

“For me, it was a fundamental point where I knew I could never support Martin,” Manley is quoted as saying. “He flat-out lied to cabinet.” A few days later, Manley recalls a phone conversation he had with Martin, as he was getting ready to take over the finance job. He was telling Martin that things were getting out of control and “you aren’t looking good in this.”

T hat warning could well apply
to The Shawinigan Fox too—Martin most certainly does not look good in this book. What we have here, essentially, is the history that Chrétien and some of his allies have been waiting years to tell—a counter-narrative, served icy cold.

Manley, who attempted a leadership run against Martin, but stood down months before the 2003 coronation, talks repeatedly in the book of Martin’s alleged lying.  Rock, who also tried but abandoned a leadership run, talks about the “unhealthy” climate of unchecked ambition among the Martin team. Another former deputy prime minister, Sheila Copps, gives a withering rundown of Martin’s efforts to rid the Liberals of all of Chrétien’s loyalists after he took power in late 2003. (Copps herself was pushed out in a nomination challenge for her long-time Hamilton riding.)

Eddie Goldenberg, Chrétien’s former principal secretary and longtime confidant, is very much present in this book, too—at his old boss’s side still, but a little more candid about his feelings about the former finance minister. “Martin was iffy on many issues. If he was in a room with one hundred people and 98 people agreed with him he would spend his time trying to bring the other two onside,” Goldenberg is quoted as saying.

This is Plamondon’s fifth book. Up until this one, his work has focused mainly on conservative politicians throughout Canadian history. The Shawinigan Fox may actually be consistent with that theme—certainly Plamondon makes the case for Chrétien as an ideological conservative.

Some reviewers have criticized the book as too friendly to Chrétien and, as a corollary, too unfriendly to Martin. But as Plamondon himself illustrates in the book, that’s kind of what happened in the days of hyphenated Liberalism—if you liked Chrétien, you didn’t like Martin, and vice versa. Internal party feuds will do that to people.

For those who tried to stay in the middle, this book adds a significant amount of detail and never-before-told tales from behind the scenes of one of the biggest family feuds in Canadian political history.

It’s the history that Trudeau has been keen to put behind the Liberals—understandably, you’ll agree, after reading The Shawinigan Fox.

Contributing writer Susan Delacourt is the author of the bestselling Shopping For Votes as well as Juggernaut: Paul Martin”s Campaign for Jean Chrétien’s Crown.