Plus ça change: Jean Charest tries to repeat history with Conservative leadership bid

·7 min read

OTTAWA — It's just after 9 a.m. on a Friday morning at Wilfrid's Restaurant in the Château Laurier and guests are helping themselves to a breakfast buffet when Jean Charest takes his seat in the corner of the room.

This iconic hotel down the street from Parliament Hill, the scene of so many political tête-à-têtes and soirees, is about as cliché a meeting place as you can get in official Ottawa. It's somehow entirely appropriate.

Charest, who is vying to become leader of the federal Conservative party in a contest that wraps up Sept. 10, settles down in front of the $24 yogurt parfait his press secretary ordered up before his arrival and opens the top button of his white shirt. Before beginning an interview, he chit-chats: Where are you from? Are you bilingual? After the tape recorder is off, picking at the raspberries: Live nearby? Any kids?

Ever the retail politician, Charest is on a first-name basis with the waiter and treats him just as warmly. He's on a first-name basis with many of Canada's political giants, too, dropping names like "Lucien" into the conversation knowing that there's no need to explain who he's talking about. (That's Lucien Bouchard, a former premier of Quebec and an important figure in its sovereignty movement.)

"I've had to reintroduce myself in this campaign," he says, looking back on his long career in both federal and provincial politics, before a more recent 10-year stint in the private sector. "I did not expect when I started that it would be a 28-year run. I didn't expect all the turns, the events. I had a lot of moments of success and also a lot of moments where there were failures. And moments of elation and moments of disappointment. I've had them all."

He says he's no "choir boy" and "you're not sitting in front of a saint." But he's here to make a case that his experience has more than prepared him to lead, and, in a way, that history can and should repeat itself. It's far from his first rodeo.

It's not even the first time others have convinced Charest to run for leadership of a party.

In 1998, when Charest was leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, he bowed to mounting pressure from other politicians and the public to take over leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party, which is separate from the federal Liberal party.

It was five years later, during the 2003 provincial election, when Conservative MP Alain Rayes encountered him for the first time. "I lost that election because of Jean Charest," he says in an interview in French. He ran for the Action démocratique du Québec and lost to a Liberal. He remains convinced this was "clear proof" of Charest's political magic.

Charest won his party a majority government and remained premier for nine years. If he has been reintroducing himself to voters during the federal leadership campaign, it has been with a careful effort not to reintroduce them to his baggage.

Though Charest's approach to Quebec's fiscal situation was lauded and the province fared better than almost anywhere else during the 2008-09 financial crisis, he was consistently plagued by unproven corruption allegations and several of his ministers had to step aside because of conflict of interest allegations. A lengthy investigation into alleged illegal financing in the provincial Liberal party under his leadership only wrapped up early this year without recommending any charges to police. Charest is suing the province over it.

Though he bristles today at any accusation he hasn't been aligned with the federal Conservative party, he wasn't always a friend to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

During a tighter campaign in the 2007 provincial election, Harper agreed to increase federal transfers to Quebec, which came at a political cost. But Charest used some of that money to make income tax cuts, to the consternation of other premiers.

Asked whether it's possible to draw a straight line from that event to Harper's endorsement of his opponent, Charest said any animosity is on the former prime minister's side. But he couldn't resist quipping: "Now, a Conservative disappointed in reducing income taxes is a novelty."

Marc-André Leclerc was the Conservative party's director of political operations for Quebec during Charest's last couple of years as premier. "We never saw him like an ally," he says. "After his retirement, we did not see him involved in the party." Of course, Leclerc concedes, "it's good politics to fight against Ottawa," especially in Quebec.

Charest left office in 2012 on the heels of massive student demonstrations that sprang up after his government moved to raise tuition fees in Quebec universities, and later introduced a bill that would impose restrictions on protests.

Asked whether he has any regrets, Charest says, "it wouldn’t be honest for anyone to tell you that, 'No, I did everything exactly the way it should’ve been done.'" For a specific example, he said he would have differed in his approach to labour laws.

"I think I changed seven of them in the same year and really made the unions my adversaries," he says. "I would've done that differently."

There's one anecdote that Charest does want to highlight, saying, "it tells a story about me and about this race and who I am."

With popular support rising in Quebec for a policy that would target the wearing of religious symbols, Charest created a commission in 2007 led by philosopher Charles Taylor and historian Gérard Bouchard that would look into the issue of accommodations for religious beliefs.

The commission recommended that people in certain positions — judges, prosecutors, police and prison guards — should not wear religious attire or symbols. Charest wouldn't bite.

"It would’ve been more popular for me to do it than not to do it. I said no because I just didn’t believe in it."

There is a through line to Charest's position today. He says if he were prime minister and Quebec's secularism law -- Bill 21, which bans some civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job -- were to be at issue at the Supreme Court, his government would intervene and argue against the restriction of Charter rights.

Rayes, who thinks Bill 21's importance in the Conservative leadership race is overblown, was the first to approach Charest to come to the rescue of a flailing federal party early this year. He and others worked "very hard" to convince him, he says, and they succeeded. He thinks Quebecers will line up behind Charest.

Not long after decrying how modern politicos are always chasing after "shiny objects," a tacit criticism of social media, Charest is on Sparks Street, a couple of blocks away from the Hill, looking for somewhere to buy a newspaper. Like the meeting at the hotel, except perhaps for the price of the yogurt, it's another moment that feels decoupled from time. A person might have bumped into Charest when he was last a member of Parliament and had the same interaction.

Pollster Philippe Fournier says Charest is a gifted debater and a fearsome campaigner. That much has always been true.

As a prospective prime minister, he may today have a "hard ceiling" in Quebec, where some voters won't forgive Charest for some of his moves as premier or even for his role in the "No" campaign against separation in the 1995 referendum.

But Fournier says he has "no doubt" Charest would win the next federal ;election if he were to eke out a victory now, a result he sees as highly unlikely.

"It would have been a great story, when you think about it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2022.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press