Known as the little guy from Shawinigan, Jean Chretien was educated at Laval University in Quebec City and practiced law before entering politics.
He was elected to Parliament before he was thirty years old and began his political career in the Liberal cabinet of Lester Pearson cabinet in 1963.
After Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister in 1968, Chretien held many cabinet positions including Justice and Indian Affairs. He was also the first French Canadian to served as Minister of Finance.
Before the first Quebec referendum in 1980, Chretien helped rally the federalist forces (the Non side). He was also closely involved with Trudeau's plans to patriate the Constitution and put the written Charter of Rights and Freedoms in place.
After being beaten to the leadership of the Liberal Party by John Turner in 1984, Chretien did not stay long in Parliament; instead he resigned his seat and went back to practicing law.
In 1990, after John Turner had lost two elections to the Conservatives, Chretien beat Paul Martin past the leadership post and got the Liberals elected with a big majority in 1993, even though his support of Conservative PM Mulroney's Charlottetown Accord cost him considerable support in Quebec.
Although Chretien had promised to abolish the hated GST, his government failed to do so. However, with the help of the strong Minister of Finance, Paul Martin, the Liberals cut the deficit left by the previous government and received public approval for doing so.
Meanwhile, in May 1995, Quebec held a second separatist referendum and the results were scary: less than 1% divided the oui and non sides. Chretien was blamed for not having done a better job of inspiring federalist forces in his home province. Then the sponsorship scandal came to light. According to Robert Bothwell, this attempt to secretly use ad agencies in Montreal to sell Canada to Quebec hurt the federalist cause, and of course, damaged Chretien's political reputation.
Nevertheless, in 1997, the Liberals were elected once more, though with a minority government. This lasted a couple of years, and then in 2000, while the Reform and Alliance parties were trying to "unite the right," Chretien sprang an election on them and took a majority of seats for his third consecutive mandate as PM. In Quebec, the Liberals did better than the Bloc Quebecois, a positive change for Chretien.
During this third term, Chretien supported America's war in Afghanistan in 2002 but refused to involve Canada in the war in Iraq, a move that was very popular among Canadians, particularly in Quebec.
Chretien's long stint as Prime Minister ended in 2003, when he went out not with a bang but a whimper. He was replaced at last by Paul Martin.
In 2008 Chretien was involved in an attempt to form coalition between the Liberals and NDP to push the Harper Conservatives from power, but this effort did not succeed.