Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest Officially Enters Conservative Leadership Race

Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest Officially Enters Conservative Leadership Race
Jean Charest speaks walks through the halls at the Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on Nov. 13, 2019. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
Noé Chartier

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest on March 10 announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party, more than two decades after leaving federal politics.

“Let’s be proud to be ambitious. Let’s be proud to be united. Let’s be proud to be conservative,” Charest wrote in his first tweet on March 10 after joining the social media platform this month.
Charest has received the public support of some MPs, such as Quebec MPs Gérard Deltell and Alain Rayes, both of whom had leadership positions under former leader Erin O’Toole. But currently more MPs have endorsed the leadership bid of contender Pierre Poilievre, a sitting MP.

Poilievre's campaign team has pointed to Charest's past as a Liberal premier in Quebec, albeit in a province that doesn't have a strong Conservative party, with the Quebec Conservatives currently having one MNA in the legislature.

“We need a leader who wants to lead the CPC not just someone interested in building their own legacy and recycling Liberal policies that are the hallmarks of Mr. Charest’s record,” Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, who is on Poilievre's team, said on March 7 on Twitter.

Beside Poilievre, Charest will be competing with Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis, who finished third behind Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay during the last contest, as well as Ontario independent MPP Roman Baber.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, a former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, who had said he is contemplating a run for leadership, will reportedly formally announce his bid this weekend.

Charest has started to promote his presence on social media, where Poilievre already enjoys wide recognition due to his often widely shared videos in which he has fiery exchanges with government MPs.

Poilievre's video announcing his leadership bid on Feb. 5 has 4.3 million views on Twitter. Charest made his first Twitter post on March 10. His Facebook page had a little over 100 followers as of the morning of March 10.

But the campaign isn't all about social media.

Charest is often called a “bête politique” in Québec (a “political animal”), with great speaking and interpersonal skills, and Poilievre’s campaign has already honed on him as a potent challenger who has vocal support within the party.
Addressing the reason for his leadership bid, Charest told the National Post that he thinks he can make Tories win in the next election.

“At the end of the day, there is a very simple, a very real question, and that’s who can make us win? That’s also part of the equation, and that’s one of the choices that the membership of the party is called upon to make,” he said.

“I look at the country, and we’re badly divided, we’re underperforming. Our fiscal situation, especially coming out of COVID, is far from being in control. The economy is withering, our status in the world has been diminished and we’re badly divided,” Charest added.

Work for Huawei

While away from politics during the last decade, Charest was partner at law firm McCarthy Tétreault’s Montreal office.

In this capacity he has been involved in counselling Chinese telecommunications Huawei in the Meng Wangzhou extradition case and the rolling out of 5G technology, reported The Globe and Mail.

Charest told a business panel at the Empire Club in Toronto in November 2019 that Canada should seek closer ties with China.

He also praised efforts made by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to open diplomatic relationships with China in 1970, independently of the U.S.

China at the time was going through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), with estimates of 2 to 8 million people being killed in the political campaign.

“Our policy toward China has been hijacked by Donald Trump,” Charest said. We should not be kowtowing to another government with regard to our relationship with China.”

This stance and previous work could be perceived in conflict with the Conservative Party’s consistent calls to ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G wireless infrastructure, something Canada has yet to do despite similar moves by key intelligence allies.

Political Career

Charest held cabinet positions in the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP) government of Brian Mulroney and became leader of the PCP from 1993 to 1998.

Support for the Progressive Conservatives was waning in 1993, and Mulroney didn’t run again. Kim Campbell then took the helm but failed to maintain the party's majority status after a devastating loss in the 1993 election reduced the party to only two seats. Charest then took over after Campbell resigned the same year.

As PCP leader, Charest worked to rebuild the party and restored some of the lost seats. In the 1997 general election, the PCP won 20 seats in the House of Commons.

Charest then left federal politics to lead Quebec’s Liberal Party from 1998 to 2012, and became Quebec premier from 2003 to 2012. During those years, the two main political forces in Quebec were the Liberals and the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ).

Straying away from the province’s usual socialistic policies, Charest attempted to rise the cost of university tuition towards the end of his third mandate in 2012, which resulted in a protracted left-wing inspired student movement fighting against the hike.

The movement occurred on the heels of the “Arab Spring” was dubbed “Printemps érable” (“Maple Spring”), with movement supporters donning red felt squares on their clothes or school bag.

Charest suppressed the sometimes violent movement by passing Bill 78, suspending classes in the institutions on strike and curtailing protests. He then lost in his riding and was defeated in the provincial election in September 2012 by Pauline Marois’s PQ, which cancelled the tuition hike and repealed Bill 78.

Charest had also been plagued by allegations of illegal financing in Quebec’s Liberal Party during his time at the helm, but the anti-corruption probe looking into the matter since 2014 announced on Feb. 28 it was stopping its activities.

The evidence gathered was submitted to an expert panel of the prosecutor’s office and the probe was terminated based on the legal advice obtained, indicated the Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit (UPAC).