Former prime minister Jean Chrétien doesn't think that the government he led for 10 years is responsible for Vancouver's growing homelessness problem. In a wide-ranging phone interview with the Georgia Straight to coincide with the release of his new book, My Years as Prime Minister (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, $39.95), Chrétien said that the federal government has "some limited responsibility" for homelessness.
"Homelessness is a problem of housing," Chrétien told the Straight on November 27 from his Ottawa office. "It's a problem of health, very often, because the people who are trapped out there are very often people who are not in hospital anymore because they [the medical system] gave them pills. They are not able to manage their affairs very well. Others, it's because they are alcoholic and drug addicts and so on. These are social problems that have to be dealt at the local level, not necessarily by the national government. These programs are provincial responsibilities."
During the Chrétien era, from 1993 to 2003, the federal government did not invest federal funds in new social housing across Canada, apart from an $89-million one-time program in 2001, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In the mid 1990s, the Chrétien government also scrapped the Canada Assistance Plan, which required the provinces to meet national standards for welfare. Those standards included the right to an income that took into account a person's budgetary requirements, a ban on discrimination based on the recipient's province of origin, an appeal mechanism, and a ban on forcing a social-assistance recipient to work in return for benefits.
In previous interviews with the Straight, several Vancouver antipoverty campaigners and researchers–such as Jean Swanson, Gwen Brodsky, and Seth Klein–have linked the Chrétien government's elimination of national welfare standards in the mid 1990s to sharp rises in poverty across the country.
"That allowed the provinces to do what B.C. is doing now: deny welfare to people in need, and keep rates so low that people can't live on it," Swanson told the Straight earlier this year at the Carnegie Centre.
Chrétien, however, defended his government's 1995 budget–with its block funding for federal transfer payments to the provinces, and its elimination of national welfare standards–as a necessary measure to deal with the growing national debt. Chrétien said it was "very tough", because ministers had often appealed to him if they did not like the decisions made by then-finance minister Paul Martin and by Marcel Massé, who chaired a cabinet committee that reviewed spending on federal programs.
Chrétien said the government had to make cuts to turn the country around. "We were spending 37 cents of every dollar on tax to pay the interest on the debt," he said. "If you were trapped like that in your household, you would not buy a Christmas gift, my book, for your mother-in-law."
He also claimed that as prime minister, he restored the provinces' ability to pay for social programs in later years by granting "tax credits", which gave them a greater capacity to raise money. "Nobody remembers that," Chrétien said. "So we changed some of the system. If there is a need for more social money at this moment, it's not because we don't have enough money."
When the Straight pointed out that homelessness in Vancouver has doubled in recent years, Chrétien replied, "But the population has increased, too."
After the Chrétien government eliminated national welfare standards in 1995, the B.C. government under then-premier Mike Harcourt banned welfare to people who hadn't lived in this province for three months. That was later struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. In the same year, then-provincial Liberal leader Gordon Campbell announced that if his party were elected, it would require all "employable" welfare recipients to sign "job-preparation contracts" in return for receiving income assistance.
During his interview with the Straight, Chrétien sidestepped direct criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying that he didn't want to be a "Monday-morning quarterback to the government". However, Chrétien noted that the Harper government "has a lot of money" but has cut programs for women, aboriginal people, arts and culture, and literacy. "It was kind of surprising," Chrétien said. "They had money in the kitty."
Chrétien also took a shot at supporters of former prime minister Paul Martin for taking over former B.C. cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal's riding association in 2002, while Dhaliwal was on a trip to India and his wife was ill. This incident isn't mentioned in My Years as Prime Minister. "Herb is a good friend of mine," Chrétien said. "It was very unpleasant what they did to him.”¦You know, when I talk about the way some of my ministers were treated–Herb was one, Sheila Copps was another–that's why I use some words. There were some goons around."
Chrétien noted that while he was prime minister, Canada was a close friend of China. "Today, apparently, it is not the same," he said. "You know, remember my speech in December a year ago at the [Liberal] convention, when I said I didn't have to wait at the door of the toilet to speak with the president of China. You know, they respected Canada. There are some problems in China. I don't deny it."
However, he also said that he understands why the Chinese government has a problem with the Dalai Lama, who has met with Harper and U.S. President George Bush, but not with Chrétien as prime minister. "I respect him as a great religious leader, but for the Chinese, he is a separatist leader," Chrétien said. "A guy like Chrétien don't like separatists very much, whoever they are."
Jean Chrétien appears at Chapters Robson on Tuesday (December 4), beginning at 7 p.m.