Jean Chretien insists he's still just the little guy from Shawinigan despite receiving one of the world's most prestigious and exclusive honours.
The former prime minister, who once forced news mogul Conrad Black to choose between a British lordship and his Canadian citizenship, was invested Tuesday with the Order of Merit by the Queen.
Chretien is only the fourth Canadian - joining neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and former prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson - to receive the award, which is a "gift from the sovereign."
It places him with the likes of Florence Nightingale, the late Mother Teresa and former South African president Nelson Mandela, along with playwright Tom Stoppard and broadcaster David Attenborough.
The award is given to those who show "exceptional distinction" in the arts, learning, sciences and public service. Only 24 living members hold the order at any given time.
In a telephone interview shortly after the private investiture at Buckingham Palace, Chretien acknowledged he never dreamed he'd be chosen to join such exalted company.
"Yes, it's very amazing. What can I say? It's amazing," he said.
"It is, some say, the most exclusive honour that exists. You know, you get a Nobel Prize, there's hundreds of them."
Still, Chretien noted that he's not entitled to any privileges or title as a result of the honour. Nor does he want any.
"It is an honour. You know, I have the Order of Canada (too). That doesn't make me a different type of Canadian than you. I just have exactly the same rank in society and if I go in the hospital, you know me, if I'm No. 10, I wait to be the tenth to come through the gate."
The absence of title and privileges is important to Chretien, who, as prime minister, blocked onetime newspaper baron Black's appointment to the British House of Lords.
Black, now in a U.S. prison on fraud and obstruction of justice convictions, unsucessfully sued Chretien. He gave up his Canadian citizenship in order to accept the British peerage.
At the time, Chretien invoked the Nickle Resolution, which the Canadian House of Commons approved in 1919 to bar citizens from accepting knighthoods, peerages or other honours deemed inconsistent with an egalitarian, democratic society.
"They did not want to have two classes of citizens in Canada," Chretien said Tuesday.
He said his Order of Merit is "not the same thing."
"It's a gift of Her Majesty."
The only thing the honour entitles him to is a dinner once a year with the Queen and other members of the order, he added.
He can also add the initials O.M. after his surname.
Canada created the Order of Canada as a way to honour outstanding achievement without conferring any privileges. While that was the only honour Chretien ever really wanted, he said the one from the Queen is "special."