All is forgiven: Despite Adscam, Jean Chrétien the most popular modern PM, poll finds

While Stephen Harper is popular in Alberta, with 51 per cent having a favourable view, his popularity collapses elsewhere

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When it comes to modern former prime ministers, Jean Chrétien reigns as the most popular among Canadians, beating out Prairie favourite Stephen Harper and Ontario’s beloved Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

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A new poll done by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies found that 41 per cent of Canadians had a positive view of Chrétien, who served from 1993 to 2003 as prime minister. This, despite his government having its own share of scandals.

Broadly speaking, Chrétien, who served as a parliamentarian beginning in 1963 and held senior positions under Trudeau Sr. and John Turner’s Liberal governments, simply isn’t that polarizing around the country, said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies

“I don’t think he’s offended a lot of people,” he said.

Unlike some other prime ministers — Trudeau wore a cape to the Grey Cup in 1970, Stephen Harper was pictured shaking his son’s hand when dropping him off at school — Chrétien cultivated something of an everyman image, Jedwab said.

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“We’re not retaining a lot about these these prime ministers. We’re retaining certain things about them,” said Jedwab. “I think Chrétien, more than any other of these prime ministers, cultivated that image, that he wasn’t an elitist. He was more a person of the people, so to speak.”

It is also “significant,” Jedwab said, that Chrétien was last prime minister nearly 20 years ago, and therefore the memory of his scandals or bad political moves, are less well-remembered.

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The allegations that Chrétien profited off real estate sales in his hometown of Shawinigan, Que., have their origins in the 1980s. And Adscam, the sponsorship scandal that helped bring down Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, had its roots in a program that ran under Chrétien, during which the Liberal party absconded with tens of millions of dollars in government money. (At the inquiry into the scandal, Chrétien famously showed up with a briefcase of golf balls, which he talked about extensively.)

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In terms of regional disparities, Chrétien is most popular in Ontario, at 45 per cent, followed by Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada, at 42 per cent, then Quebec at 39 per cent, Alberta at 38 per cent and British Columbia coming in last at 32 per cent.

There is an element of Chrétien being coated in Teflon here, Jedwab said, but, even so, 31 per cent of Canadians have a negative view of him.

Still, he is a more popular — and far less polarizing — figure than other prime ministers of the last few decades, including Harper.

The passage of time also seems to have benefitted Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister between 1983 and 1993, said Jedwab. Mulroney presided over the controversial initial free-trade negotiations with the United States, failed constitutional negotiations at Meech Lake, the deeply unpopular introduction of the GST, and the Airbus affair — an alleged kickback scheme between members of Mulroney’s government and the airplane manufacturer.

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“Brian Mulroney has taken a significant share of hits … and yet over time I think people begin to forget the sort of scandals he encountered,” Jedwab said. “It’s what we retain about them.”

Mulroney still comes out with 36 per cent holding a positive view, which is highest, at 45 per cent, in Quebec, and lowest, at 20 per cent, in British Columbia.

While Harper, who governed for roughly a decade between 2006 and 2015, is popular in Alberta, with 51 per cent having a favourable view, his popularity collapses elsewhere: Just 25 per cent of those in British Columbia, 24 per cent in Atlantic Canada and 32 per cent in Quebec have a positive view, followed by 37 per cent in Ontario and 43 per cent in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010. Photo by Andre Forget/Postmedia/File

All told, just 35 per cent of Canadians have a positive view of Harper, while 45 per cent have a negative view.

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“A lot of people … see him as a real polarizing figure, not someone who was able to really unify the country,” said Jedwab. “I also think they see him as someone who’s ideologically on the right, and the country is — that’s not where the country is.”

Trudeau Sr. has a 37 per cent positive view and a 19 per cent negative view. He’s much loved (44 per cent positive) in Ontario, and despised — the National Energy Program still looms large — in Alberta, (27 per cent have a positive view). In Quebec, where the constitutional negotiations left a sour taste among many Quebecers, only 31 per cent have a positive view of him.

“I was a bit surprised about Pierre Elliott Trudeau,” said Jedwab. Possibly, he posited, frustration with Justin Trudeau is skewing views of the elder Trudeau, in an ironic quirk of fate, since Trudeau Jr. likely benefited from his father’s legacy, Jedwab noted.

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John Turner, Joe Clark, Kim Campbell and Paul Martin were not included in the poll, since they served so little time in office, comparatively.

For those aspiring to be prime minister, or contemplating their legacies, there may be “some comfort” in the poll results.

“Over time their legacy risks doing better, right? Because people will tend to forget who they are,” said Jedwab. “Sometimes not remembering who they are is going to create something more positive.”

The results are from an online Leger survey of 2,118 Canadians between June 10 and June 12. While no margin of error can be calculated, a comparable probability sample of 2,118 people would have a margin of error of +/- 1.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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