Former prime minister Jean Chretien says he's humbled to be the newest member of the Order of Merit, an elite group that has included Mother Theresa and Dwight D. Eisenhower among its ranks.

The order, which can only have 24 living members at a time, is among the highest civil honours in the Commonwealth, and membership can only be granted by a ruling monarch.

Current members include Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher.

"It's a very humbling experience," Chretien told CTV News on Tuesday, a day after the Queen appointed him to the order. "I don't think I'm that exceptional."

The honour recognizes Chretien's four decades of public service, in addition to the warm relationship he and his wife Aline have enjoyed with the Queen.

"I was obviously very happy and proud. I'm very happy for my family -- my wife in particular," Chretien, now 75, said.

The former prime minister first met the Queen in 1967, when he was a junior Liberal minister.

In 1970, Chretien spent five days travelling through Canada's north in a Twin Otter aircraft with the Queen. Chretien, who was the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time, recalled that the pair enjoyed a warm rapport.

"(The Queen) always enjoyed talking in French with me," said Chretien. "She speaks very good French, and so (does) Prince Phillip. So it was kind of amazing having the Queen and the Prince talking with Aline and I in French."

In another royal encounter, Chretien recalled how a curse word made the Queen laugh.

During a ceremony for the repatriation of Canada's constitution in 1982, Chretien attempted to sign an official document as a horde of news cameras captured the historic moment.

"The pen was broken and I used a bad word -- and she laughed. I said 'merde' and she found it very funny," said Chretien.

The Queen's laugh was captured on film and printed on newspapers across the country.

The Order of Merit was established in 1902 by King Edward VII. Since its inception, there have been only 169 members.

Luminaries like T.S. Eliot and Florence Nightingale have also been members.