Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chretien receives Order of Merit from the Queen at Buckingham Palace

LONDON — Former prime minister Jean Chretien has been awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Seventy-five-year-old Chretien is only the fourth Canadian to be presented with the order.

The others were neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and former prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester B. Pearson.

The award, called a "gift from the sovereign," is given to those who show "exceptional distinction" in the arts, learning, sciences and public service.

Only 24 living members can hold the order. It places Chretien's name alongside figures like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Chretien was Canada's 20th prime minister, leading three majority governments between November 1993 and December 2003.

When he first heard he was to be awarded the order, Chretien had said he was surprised, honoured and grateful.

"I did my job as best I could and Her Majesty was gracious enough to recognize that," he said.

The order is considered a special honour as it is given by the Queen herself and not on ministerial advice.

Entry into the order was marked by the Queen presenting him Tuesday with an eight-pointed cross, finished in red-and-blue enamel. The imperial crown is in the centre and the words "For Merit" are etched in gold surrounded by a laurel wreath.

First elected to Parliament in 1963, Chretien became Liberal leader in 1990. As prime minister, he was responsible for ending federal deficit financing which had reached $42 billion annually by the time he took office.

Chretien spent much of his time and effort in office fighting Quebec separatists and the Parti Quebecois. The federal side narrowly defeated a proposal on Quebec sovereignty in a bitterly contested 1995 referendum.

Also significant was Chretien's commitment to the war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Later, he refused to join the invasion of Iraq without the UN's backing.

His exit from office was marked by a divisive feud with his successor and longtime finance minister, Paul Martin, and by the Quebec sponsorship scandal - over which Martin struck a federal inquiry.

The scandal, involving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to Quebec ad agencies, contributed to the Liberal government's defeat in 2006.

Last year, a federal judge dismissed the inquiry's conclusion that Chretien and his top aide bore responsibility for the scandal, ruling that public comments by the commissioner, Justice John Gomery, showed bias and that he prejudged the issues.

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