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Jean Chretien

Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Chretien recounts his work in preserving the environment

By Jamie Proulx

Published on September 17, 2004

Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's thick French-Canadian accent resonated throughout Northrop Auditorium Wednesday afternoon (September 16) as he gave the main address at the Humphrey Institute's annual Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series. Chretien shared his experiences in public service as they related to preserving the environment, but often strayed to give additional comments on some serious--and some not-so-serious--global issues.

Chretien stepped down in December 2003 as Canada's 20th prime minister and ended his 40-year career in public service. During his career, he held nearly every cabinet post possible, and his 10 years as prime minister brought much success. Minnesotans might be flattered to know that someone of his stature still remembers the inspiration he received as a young man to pursue a life in public service.

"In 1964, I was in the beginning of my political career. I was driving home and turned the radio on. I heard someone giving a speech and realized I was hearing Hubert Humphrey accepting the 1964 political nomination for president," Chretien says. He proceeded to pull over his car and listen to Humphrey's entire address. He considered it one of the best speeches he's ever heard and to this day quotes part of that speech.

"The new parks we created ended up doubling the entire amount of parks in existence at the time," Chretien says. "We did that at a time when there wasn't much interest in preserving our wilderness."

The environment quickly became one of Chretien's true passions, and he shared the first moment he realized how important it was to preserve it for future generations. While on a small plane with his wife over northern Canada near Baffin Island, he looked down and observed the ice- and snow-capped mountains. He was so taken by how beautiful it was that he told his wife he'd make it into a public park for her.

He was successful. In fact, from 1968 to 1971 alone he created 10 new national parks. "The new parks we created ended up doubling the entire amount of parks in existence at the time," Chretien says. "We did that at a time when there wasn't much interest in preserving our wilderness."

In total, he was involved in creating 31 new parks across Canada. "We put aside enough land to fill Great Britain and Ireland together," he notes.

He encouraged the audience to take out a canoe on one of our lakes, walk in a park, and enjoy the birds. "In the long run in 200 or 300 years from now," Chretien says, "the people will say we have been wise to put so much land aside." He added a plug for all of his hard work: "You Americans can enjoy [the Canadian wilderness]. Bring your car up to Canada, enjoy our lands, and spend your money!"

Perhaps one of Chretien's most controversial decisions as prime minister was to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Created to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement signed by Canada but not by the United States. Canadians feared the regulations in the agreement would create a tougher marketplace for Canadian businesses, driving them to the United States.

Chretien defended his position, and sees our environmental challenges on a global level. "I always remind people that what one country does, what one continent does affects everyone. Now, more than 80 percent of Canadians support this move."

He urged people to be involved in their world and take action not only on environmental issues, but on other global issues as well. "I prefer concerned citizens and not [complainers] who stay home," he says.

Chretien's address comes near the 40th anniversary of the national Wilderness Act, which was originally authored by University of Minnesota graduate and U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey. For more information on Minnesota's environmental advocacy and the Wilderness Act, visit a new exhibit opening at the Humphrey Forum on Friday, Sept. 17-- "Forty Years and Forever: The Wilderness Act of 1964."