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Shawinigan museum to focus on Chrétien bric-a-brac

Gifts presented to Jean Chretien while he was prime minister of Canada are shown at the 'Canada in the World Museum' exhibition site in Shawinigan, Que., Friday, May 27, 2011.

Graham Hughes

The items are stacked in a Shawinigan warehouse like stock ready for a Sunday garage sale: A baseball bat, an old clock, mismatched dishes and some sturdy beer mugs. But this bric-a-brac has some history.

The baseball bat is signed by George W. Bush. A set of clocks comes from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Four champagne flutes come courtesy of former British prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie. And the beer mug? That's from the late Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, a man who had a reputation for having a fondness for drink.

They're gifts given to Jean Chrétien during his 10 years as prime minister. And they'll be ready to go on public display in a $2.6-million museum in Mr. Chrétien's hometown next year, backers of the project say.

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Inspired by the presidential museums of Jacques Chirac in France and Bill Clinton in the United States, Mr. Chrétien's own version, tentatively called the Museum of Canada in the World, is meant to highlight Canada's role on the global stage.

It may look like an unusual bit of legacy-building for a living prime minister, but Mr. Chrétien insists the museum is not about him - and for now, there's no plan to put his name on it. To hear the 77-year-old former Liberal leader say it, the items had nowhere else to go.

"What do you want me to do with it all - there are things that don't fit into my living room," Mr. Chrétien said in an interview. Prime ministers travel more and more, he said, and gifts are part-and-parcel of summit diplomacy. "When you travel everyone gives souvenirs. It's a civility… I have so many of them."

Lots of people accumulate stuff that ends up in storage. Will the public pay to go see it, even if it came from famous hands?

The items offer a portal into the arcane world of diplomatic gift-swapping. The Chrétien collection in Shawinigan, 160 kilometres northeast of Montreal, includes about 700 pieces from dignitaries and heads of state, including a clock from the Queen and a wall hanging from Nelson Mandela, along with offerings from Canadians. They're to be displayed in a restored Alcan factory complex to illustrate Canadian foreign policy primarily during the 1993-2003 Chrétien years.

For example, the baseball bat from Mr. Bush - who once said "I never dreamed about being president, I wanted to be Willie Mays" - was given to Mr. Chrétien at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City (and not, as has been quipped, to bonk Mr. Chrétien over the head for his refusal to send troops into Iraq). Russian President Vladimir Putin, during a Canadian trade mission in 2002, opted for a different form of drinking gift from his predecessor and gave Mr. Chrétien a lavish tea set.

"Sometimes the object itself is extraordinary. Sometimes it's the culture behind the object that makes it extraordinary," said Daniel Amadei, former director of exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada and project director at the Chrétien museum.

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The driving force behind the project is Robert Trudel, a long-time Chrétien friend. "I said, Jean, these are gifts you get because as taxpayers we elected you. They belong to the Canadian people," said Mr. Trudel, head of the Cité de l'énergie, a tourist attraction on Shawinigan's industrial heritage.

"His first reaction was to say no, because people would think he wanted to boast. He doesn't want his name on it," Mr. Trudel said. "This is not a museum on Jean Chrétien."

Other Canadian museums feature gifts to prime ministers - the Diefenbaker Canada Centre in Saskatoon has a collection. But unlike the United States, Canada has no systematic way of dealing with diplomatic gifts. South of the border, they are deemed to be the keepsake of the American public and end up in presidential libraries.

The fate of presents to Canadian prime ministers is far murkier. Federal office holders have to declare gifts over $200 and give those worth $1,000 up to the Crown, but there are no clear rules, or single agency, for how to handle them. Library and Archives Canada keeps things like portraits or political cartoons, and some items wind up in museums. Others, however, seem to gather in out-of-the-way spots. A number of foreign gifts declared by Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended up in the attic at 24 Sussex Drive.

Mr. Chrétien didn't want to discuss other prime ministers' gifts, though he acknowledged there were "no rules" in the past for where they landed. As for his, the public can glimpse them if they want. "You can see them," he said. "You know where they are."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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