MONTREAL - Social activist Bill Clennett, who once tussled with Jean Chretien, is now trying to wrestle votes away from Premier Jean Charest.

A fighter for housing and welfare reform for more than 20 years, Clennett is switching from "street politics" to mainstream politics to run for little-known Quebec solidaire in Hull in the March 26 provincial election.

Clennett grabbed the national spotlight on Feb. 15, 1996, when then-prime minister Jean Chretien grabbed him.

Clennett was protesting proposed changes to unemployment insurance when the two men bumped into each other after Chretien addressed the first Flag Day rally.

Chretien grabbed Clennett by the neck and roughly shoved him out of the way as he proceeded to his limousine, giving birth to what became known as the Shawinigan Handshake.

The bespectacled Clennett acknowledges the tussle, which grabbed front pages and topped newscasts at the time, got him attention but says he was already well known in his community after 10 years of activism.

"Is that incident a good thing or a bad thing?," he mused in a recent telephone interview from his Gatineau, Que., home during a break in campaigning.

"I'm not sure. I'd like to think that people would be concerned not just about the messenger but about the message, too.

"But I realize that it's probably both, in realistic terms."

Quebec solidaire is a fledgling social-action and pro-sovereignty coalition. The left-wing party isn't seen as a serious threat to the governing provincial Liberals, who currently hold the Hull riding, just across the Ottawa River from Ottawa.

However, it has nipped at the Parti Quebecois, attracting voters dissatisfied with the PQ's level of commitment to social democratic ideals.

Clennett knows victory for him is a longshot.

"I have no pretence to say that we're going to form the next government," he said. He's not giving up, either.

"I'm into electoral politics 101," he said. "There's a lot about the process that I'm learning as I'm going and I think one has to be determined but at the same time not pretentious."

He chose Quebec solidaire because the mainstream parties were "giving in to a submissive form of politics where we have to respond to economic pressures and cut into our social infrastructure and social programs."

A native Montrealer, the avid reader and gardener is one of 12 children. His father was an executive with the Royal Bank of Canada and many of his siblings went into the financial world as chartered accountants. His own children have also followed a more mainstream path.

"I wouldn't define myself as the black sheep but definitely, (I took) a different road than the rest of the folks," he said with a chuckle.

The foreign-film buff became involved in social action when he worked in a mental health facility as a young man.

"My working with these people and my relationship with these people, it taught me a lot about how people can (either) be sort of put apart from society or . . . part and parcel of the society as equal human beings," Clennett said.

He decided to go into politics when he read the manifesto signed by former premier Lucien Bouchard and 12 other prominent Quebecers in 2005 setting out the need for Quebec to reduce its debt and improve its education system.

"It is the question of social equity that has been part of my life, that has been so much a part of everything that I've done, that that's what I would really like to accomplish," Clennett said, adding he thinks it's "disgraceful" that a country as wealthy as Canada should have people living in poverty.

Liberal candidate Roch Cholette, who has held Hull since 1998, says he's not taking anything for granted in the election and pointed to a list of Liberal accomplishments.

"Mr. Clennett is a very good candidate," he said in a telephone interview. "He's well known and obviously if you're a sovereigntist, you have a tough choice because you've got two candidates that are for the separation of Quebec.

"Therefore, if you're a sovereigntist, Mr. Clennett is an option and it should be, I guess, a tough decision. Obviously, if you're a sovereigntist I'm not your man."

Clennett says over and above the issue of Quebec sovereignty, it is clear to him that people want control over their own lives.

"We didn't have it any more," Clennett said.

"I'm going to do the best I can and hopefully I will be a worthy candidate for as many people as possible."