Aline Chrétien said she would have loved to go to university when she was young, but as the eldest child in a large family, she was unable to do so.
Instead, the 74-year-old, who is married to former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, set out to educate herself, taking language courses in their hometown of Shawinigan, Que.
She is now fluent in French, English, Italian and Spanish. Even today, she said she listens to language tapes while making the four-hour trip down the highway between the couple’s two homes in Ottawa and Shawinigan.
“Education was always my goal,” she said, speaking to Northern Life during a phone interview last week. Chrétien will now get a chance to advocate on behalf of an educational institution. On Sept. 22, she was named as the first chancellor of Laurentian University.
As part of her three-year renewable term, she will preside over convocation ceremonies and confer degrees, provide advice to the president and assist with the university’s advocacy efforts. She will work on a volunteer basis.
“I’m very emotional and very, very humbled,” she said. “I think it’s a great honour and responsibility, too. I want to do my best.”
She will be installed as chancellor Oct. 30. Later in the day, she will help to hand out degrees at the university’s fall convocation ceremony. She said her husband plans to attend the ceremony.
Laurentian’s board chair and former Ontario Deputy Premier Floyd Laughren said Chrétien’s appointment as the university’s new chancellor is a “wonderful announcement.”
“Mrs. Chrétien is respected nationally and internationally for her intelligence, charm and commitment to youth,” he said, in a press release.
Laurentian president Dominic Giroux said in the press release that he looks forward to drawing on Chrétien’s life experience: “To have someone like her who I can turn to for advice and feedback will be so immensely valuable.”
Chrétien, who received an honourary degree from Laurentian in 2003, said her husband encouraged her to take on the chancellor position after she was approached.
“I said, ‘Oh, I cannot do that. It’s a big responsibility,’” she said. “Jean said, ‘I think you can do it.’”
Chrétien said she and her husband plan to tout the merits of Laurentian during their frequent travels abroad, and when meeting with influential people. In fact, they’ve already started.
“I said in my speech that (my husband) was in Saudi Arabia recently, and somebody was recruiting students from there,” he said. “My husband saw that, and he made a speech in favour of (Laurentian University).”
Chrétien said her husband’s political career has brought the couple to the Sudbury area on several occasions in the past.
There’s also a family connection to Laurentian. The couple’s daughter, France, is married to André Desmarais, whose grandfather, Jean-Noel Desmarais, was one of the founding governors of Laurentian University.
Chrétien said she’s particularly looking forward to the proposed launch of the Laurentian’s school of architecture in downtown Sudbury in 2012.
“My husband has always been interested in architecture,” she said. “Our first house in Shawinigan, it was a student of architecture who helped to build it. We like all the new things...For me, it’s something very, very important.”