'Shawinigan handshake' victim not laughing at gag
Former prime minister Jean Chretien demonstrates the 'Shawinigan handshake' on Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, center, as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff looks on in Shawinigan, Que., Thursday, July 22, 2010.
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, July 23, 2010 7:05AM EDT
MONTREAL - Fourteen years later, the original "Shawinigan handshake" victim is still not amused by Jean Chretien's gags.
When Bill Clennett heard that the former prime minister did a parody of his notorious 1996 choke move -- lunging in Thursday for the neck of Michael Ignatieff as a joke during a photo op -- he wasn't laughing.
"He's a buffoon," Clennett said of the former prime minister.
Because when it was Clennett's neck on the other side of that prime ministerial lunge, in 1996, Chretien wasn't joking at all.
The prime minister had just recently been shaken up by a brush with a would-be assassin who broke into his home wielding a knife.
A few months later, while wandering through a crowd, Chretien saw a tuque-clad protester closing in and responded by throttling him.
What ensued was an unforgettable scene of the prime minister, wearing sunglasses and a grimace, putting a choke-hold on Clennett and tossing him to the ground.
"It was just outrageous and it was something that never happened before," Clennett said.
It was, by far, the most memorable moment of Canada's first Flag Day ceremony on Feb. 15, 1996.
The incident broke Clennett's tooth. But it didn't put a single dent in the prime minister's popularity -- and Chretien has been drawing laughs with the story ever since.
"(Chretien) plays this persona," Clennett says of his old foe.
"He's not an idiot, but he doesn't act always intelligently from my perspective. And he thinks this is something funny."
Clennett can't remember if Chretien hurt him with the choke hold because it all happened so fast. But he did end up breaking the crown on a tooth during the scuffle.
A couple of months later, Clennett says the RCMP showed up at his door and offered to pay the $560 dental fee.
While he initially hesitated, Clennett says he took the money in order to buy an ad in the local French newspaper Le Droit, criticizing the Liberal government.
The Feb. 15 incident occurred while Clennett was protesting cuts to Canada's Employment Insurance regime, back in the days when the Liberal government was slashing expenses to erase the deficit.
"I bought publicity saying that we had already been grabbed by the throat and what we needed were jobs," he said.
Clennett says he could have pressed charges against Chretien but decided not to.
A longtime anti-poverty activist, Clennett twice ran unsuccessfully for the tiny left-wing Quebec solidaire party in provincial elections. He is now 58 and semi-retired.
Clennett has continued protesting, though. He recently had a run-in with police in Toronto where, during the G20 summit, he says he was accosted while trying to post bail for a fellow activist. He hopes there's a public inquiry into police behaviour at that summit.
As for the federal Liberals, he urges current leader Michael Ignatieff not to mimic any of Chretien's martial-arts moves.
"The issues that Canadian society is facing today are very important ones and if this is something Jean Chretien thinks is humorous or that's going to help Michael Ignatieff, I don't think it would," he said.
"I think if that's the way Ignatieff wants to advance his cause in Quebec, he's mistaken royally."
Clennett believes things would have turned out very differently if he was the one who'd tried to apply the so-called Shawinigan handshake that day.
"They should react to Jean Chretien the way they would react to me if things were the other way around and I had jumped on the prime minister," he said.
"Obviously they didn't and I can't say I was terribly surprised."