Chrétien’s ‘Shawinigan handshake’ marks 20th anniversary


[Screenshot of former prime minister Jean Chretien in the infamous Shawinigan Handshake on Feb. 15, 1996/explorerchess]]

No one saw it coming — least of all protester Bill Clennett who was blocking then-prime minister Jean Chrétien on Flag Day 20 years ago.

In a single decisive move, the then 66-year-old leader grasped the back of Clennett’s head, twisted it around and shoved him aside. The RCMP detail then wrestled the protester to the ground and dislodged a crown in the 44-year-old’s mouth.

“I just moved him, and I wish I had not to do that,” said Chrétien after the incident. “Some people were in my way. I had to go. I had to keep walking.”

Yahoo Canada News reached out to Clennett and Chrétien and neither returned requests for comment about the 1996 incident.

Clennett was there in Hull, Que., across the river from Ottawa, with other demonstrators upset about cuts to unemployment insurance. At the time, he was a researcher for the Quebec Federation of Labour. Chrétien was in Hull at a ceremony declaring Feb. 15 Flag Day.

Headlines followed: “Hull Hogan” (Ottawa Sun) and “Chrétien Loses It” declared Le Journal de Montréal. The incident was also given its own moniker: the Shawinigan Handshake (after Chrétien’s hometown).

Chrétien cemented his image as a scrapper that day, as he had often referred to himself as a street fighter — always fighting for the little guy.

Clennett seemed nonplussed at the time.

“I kept my ground and then he came and threw me on the ground,” he told CBC News.


[Bill Clennett being down held by a Mountie on Feb. 15, 1996. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson]

In a 2010 interview, though, he called the ex-prime minister a “buffoon” and told The Canadian Press that the RCMP appeared at his door a few months after offering $560 for his dental work. He took the money and used it to place an ad in the Le Droit newspaper criticizing Chrétien’s administration.

It is reportedly the first time any Canadian leader has had to manhandle a protester. At a news conference, an RCMP spokesman said the prime minister had been “adequately protected” at the event.

[YouTube video courtesy explorerchess]

But Chrétien bemoaned his lax security detail, deeming it “deplorable.”

Indeed he had reason to complain. Only four months earlier, a knife-wielding man was roaming the halls of the prime minister’s residence. Chrétien’s wife Aline heard noises, checked out where they came from and then locked their bedroom doors and called for help. It took seven minutes for the Mounties to arrive. The man was a schizophrenic and later found not criminally responsible for his actions that night.

More than a week after the Flag Day incident the Mounties had to admit their failure to protect the leader. Philip Murray, the RCMP commissioner at the time, said Chrétien’s safety was at risk.

“We will in the future insure a more controlled access to the prime minister,” he said in a statement.

But the damage had been done. Clement Godbout, head of the Quebec Federation of Labour, said the prime minister had reacted with “brutality and…savagery.”

Clennett did consider assault charges but declined to press any. Then in May that year, a New Brunswick man, Kenneth Russell, brought an assault charge against Chrétien, which was dismissed the same day by the Quebec justice minister. Russell had invoked an article of the Criminal Code, whereby a private citizen could bring forth an accusation.


PHOTO: Le Trou du diable/Stéphane Daoust

Immortalized in a beer

Little has been said about the Shawinigan Handshake in the proceeding years until 2010 when a microbrewery in Chrétien’s hometown launched a draft utilizing that moniker. A few years later, it became available in a bottle.

Isaac Tremblay, owner of Le Trou du diable microbrewery, told Postmedia that he saw the former prime minister drinking the beer at a bar in 2011 and spoke to him, saying Chrétien found the beer idea “funny” and liked it and encouraged him to expand it into bottles.

Clennett wasn’t laughing telling Postmedia that Chrétien was trivializing the incident.

“There is nothing glorious here to celebrate.”

Clennett remains politically active and ran for the sovereigntist party, Québec solidaire, in Hull in the provincial elections in recent years.

Chrétien, now 88, campaigned for Justin Trudeau in the last federal election.

The Shawinigan Handshake blonde wheat beer, tasting slightly “peachy” and reminiscent of “brioche [and] bananas” according to the brewery, is still available.