Chretien joins exclusive club

OTTAWA — Jean Chretien joined the rarified company of humanitarians Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela on Monday as the Queen appointed the former PM to the exclusive Order of Merit.

OTTAWA — Jean Chretien joined the rarified company of humanitarians Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela on Monday as the Queen appointed the former PM to the exclusive Order of Merit.

The honour, which is restricted to 24 living members, precious few foreigners and only two other Canadians, vaults a name that for many in Canada has long been political mud to an unprecedented level of stature.

Chretien himself said Monday the news left him surprised, honoured and grateful.

“What can I say?” he said. “I take it as a great compliment and I accept it with some humility.”

“I did my job as best I could and Her Majesty was gracious enough to recognize that.”

With the honour, Chretien, 75, joins former prime ministers MacKenzie King, at 21 years the longest-serving prime minister in the Commonwealth, and Lester Pearson, a Nobel laureate who brought universal health care, the flag and a federal pension plan to Canada.

All are Liberals.

The Queen’s website calls the Order of Merit, founded in 1902 by King Edward VII, a “gift from the sovereign.”

It is given to people “of exceptional distinction in the arts, learning, sciences and other areas such as public service.”

Robert Finch, chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, said the announcement is no small potatoes.

“The Order of Merit is an extraordinary honour — given by the Queen herself and not on ministerial advice,” Finch said. “As such, the Queen obviously felt that Mr. Chretien’s long, distinguished political career deserved such recognition.”