Chrétien's Throat Hold

By the standards he set during his street-brawling youth in Shawinigan, it was not much of a rout.

Chrétien's Throat Hold

By the standards he set during his street-brawling youth in Shawinigan, it was not much of a rout. But in the space of four seconds last Thursday, the time it took to wrap his bare hands around the neck and chin of a noisy Quebec demonstrator and brusquely flip him aside, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien re-established his credentials as a formidable combatant. The bizarre incident that marred the 31st birthday celebration of the Canadian flag in Hull, Que., on Feb. 15 was certainly not in the prime ministerial script. In fact, even a bolstered RCMP security team that knew in advance of the plan by a small group of protesters to crash the event, was caught flat-footed when Bill Clennett, a 44-year-old social activist, confronted Chrétien as he strode through a crowd of schoolchildren. Chrétien's astonishing reaction startled Canadians, drawing everything from harsh charges that he had lost control to joking references of "True Grit" and "Get A Grip." Even Finance Minister Paul Martin could not resist a joke when he briefed Chrétien about his budget 24 hours later. "Before you do anything," Martin told the Prime Minister, "I want to tell you, 'I'll do what you want.' "

Despite the jokes, Chrétien's distinctly un-prime ministerial behavior is anything but a laughing matter for the Liberal government. The Flag Day ceremony, which Chrétien only decided to attend in midweek, was intended to evoke Canadians' pride in their country and their Maple Leaf symbol. Chrétien was to be Captain Canada, bravely rallying the federalist forces against the separatist threat. Instead, the public got photographs and slow-motion videos of Chrétien, his sunglasses askew, his face contorted in an angry grimace. Overnight, the Liberals' plan to revive their reputation as the saviors of Canadian unity was in tatters. Worse, to many observers, it appeared as if the stress of the unity campaign was simply too much for Chrétien to bear. Said Conservative Leader Jean Charest: "If there is any benefit to this episode, it is that everyone should give themselves a solid shake and remember that we have a responsibility that is more important than letting off steam."

The incident began as a photo opportunity in a routine day. Chrétien handed out awards for excellence to students in his Parliament Hill office. Then he popped into his limousine for the short ride over the bridge across the Ottawa River to Jacques Cartier park. As the Prime Minister launched into his speech, a small knot of protesters, brandishing battery-operated bullhorns and cowbells, began to heckle and denounce him for recent cuts to Employment Insurance. As the din mounted, drowning out his words, Chrétien gave up. But instead of going directly to his car, he broke away from his security guards, marching through the crowd, shaking hands and extending greetings. He firmly guided a small boy out of his way. Nine seconds later, he grabbed Clennett's face just as the protester opened his mouth to repeat his chant, "Chrétien, au chomage." ["Chrétien, you should be unemployed."] Clennett did not resist. Nor did he struggle when RCMP security officers threw him to the ground and held him down.

Clennett's surprising calm threw the Prime Minister's conduct into an even starker light. A social activist who supported the Yes side during the referendum, Clennett is almost a professional protester, so adept at hammering home his message that he broke through security in 1992 to confront former prime minister Brian Mulroney over cuts to social housing funding. In his world, the rules of the game are well-known. So when the Prime Minister asked Solicitor General Herb Gray to report on the RCMP's performance, Clennett expressed shock. "It's incredible that people are querying that question," he told Maclean's, "when the person who was the victim was not the Prime Minister but the person who was manhandled by the Prime Minister." Last weekend, he had not yet decided whether to press charges.

Clennett may yet be forgiving - but Quebecers are likely to be harder to appease. In the wake of the incident, radio and television hotline shows were flooded with calls condemning the Prime Minister's actions. The callers were especially outraged that Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, who accompanied Chrétien, blamed the incident on "separatists disguised as unemployed people." One caller complained: "The deputy prime minister's message to the rest of Canada and the world is that you can rough up separatists, throw them on the ground, twist their necks because they are dangerous and violent people."

The reaction of Canadians elsewhere was uncomfortably mixed. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said that he understood Chrétien's frustration: "A couple of years ago, someone came up behind me and shot me with a water pistol," he recollected. "My immediate inclination was to go after the culprit, and I was reminded very firmly that that's not my job." Others tacitly applauded Chrétien's deed: The Ottawa Sun christened him "Hull Hogan" while its sister paper, The Toronto Sun, trumpeted, "Now Bring On Bouchard."

The incident could not have come at a worse time for the federalist forces. On March 25, two cabinet ministers, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew, face byelections in Quebec to win seats in the House of Commons. Their prospects now appear dimmer than a week ago. In his defence, Chrétien supporters argue that the Prime Minister is still rattled from an incident last fall when a prowler armed with a jackknife broke into his official residence. They also argue that Chrétien would never have come close to the protesters if his security guards had been doing their job. Copps, for one, said that the RCMP "should have been in front, as well as around" the Prime Minister. Whether or not Canadians approved of Chrétien's actions, many were left with lingering doubts about their political leadership. "As far as the Prime Minister is concerned, it's case closed," a senior Liberal adviser told Maclean's. Others may not be so quick to forget.

Maclean's February 26, 1996