The online comment boards lit up yesterday with news the Queen was bestowing the highly prestigious Order of Merit on Jean Chrétien.

Many wondered how the monarch could do such a thing? You’re getting senile, Queenie, they said. The guy was a political Soprano. Got lucky because he had no opposition.

As someone who has written a couple books on Jean Chrétien, I found it surprising, given his controversy-laden denouement, that such an exalted honour came. Surprising, but not overly so.

As with so many political careers, you can fashion your rating for Chrétien by selectively choosing either the negative or positive.

The negative? The sponsorship scandal, Shawinigate, GST flip-flopping, the gun registry fiasco, military helicopters, the APEC controversy, his pedestrian manner, his overcentralizing of power, his being hounded out of office by his own party. Fixate on these‚ and you’ve got a loser. Yep, the Queen has gone batty.

The positive? Balancing the terribly-red books, leaving the economy in great shape, pushing back separatism with the Clarity Act, telling George W. Bush where to get off on Iraq, defending the ordinary people against corporate interests, winning three straight majority governments. Fixate on these — and it’s a different story.

Chrétien was a narcissistic politician who viewed politics as sport. For him, it wasn’t about ideals so much as the ego-gratification of winning.

At the same time, he was a leader of conviction with rock-hard Canadian values. He hated ideology because “when you’re doctrinaire, you’re always looking to justify your doctrine.” He never liked the rich because the rich, he said, always wanted more. “It’s very dangerous,” he said once, “when you find comfort with the big shots.”

He was a consolidator, not an innovator, a pragmatist, not an intellectual. He mingled with the elites but down deep was never one of them.

He bore grudges. Offend him and he would take you down. But Jean Chrétien loved the country and wasn’t dour or mean-spirited. At root he was a bullish champion of salt-of-the-earth Canadian values.

Despite all his shortcomings, this is where his significance lies. Through four decades in the political maelstrom, he stood up for what this country means like few others ever have. For that he is deserving of high honours.

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