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Opinion Jean Charest’s preposterous, elitist bid to lead Canada’s Conservatives

Jean Charest launches his bid for the Conservative Party leadership at an event in Calgary, Alberta, on March 10. (Todd Korol/Reuters)
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It seemed inevitable that the race to pick the next head of Canada’s Conservative Party would take the form of a clash between its populist and establishment wings — though perhaps not to this level of caricature.

Former cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre is the populists’ favorite, a man whose flair for rhetorical warfare against the left has made him a darling of the own-the-libs right. Savvy with social media, he has mastered the art of delivering catty, cutting comments from the floor of Parliament engineered to go viral. Always popular with the base, his vicious cross-examination of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2020 WE Charity scandal proved his ambition and credentials for his party’s top job.

Poilievre’s contempt for Trudeau is supplemented by a fiscal hawk persona — the sort of conservative for whom the fight against debt, inflation and taxes is pursued with a crusader’s fervor. More recently, he has cast himself as a champion of antigovernment defiance, embracing the Ottawa truckers who brought Canada’s capital to a standstill opposing covid-19 restrictions.

To contest Poilievre’s coronation, Jean Charest has emerged. He is an insider’s insider who, if elected prime minister, would give President Biden a run for his money as the North American leader with the longest political career. First sent to Parliament in 1984, Charest has been continuously active in the nearly four decades since, including as head of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party from 1993 to 1998, and premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012.

Despite the length of his résumé and 1997 prime ministerial candidacy, Charest is an increasingly obscure character to much of modern Canada — predictably, given how long it has been since he was a figure of national importance and how deeply Quebec-centric his career has subsequently been. As Anthony Furey put it in the Toronto Sun, “nobody under 45 who lives outside of Quebec even knows who he is.”

In contrast to Poilievre’s ideological bona fides, it’s not obvious why Charest even identifies as a conservative. The evidence we do have suggests an origin story more rooted in parochial ’80s-era Quebec debates than anything with broader resonance.

Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, to a father who supported the province’s right-wing Union Nationale party, Charest describes in his 1998 memoir a political awakening supporting Joe Clark over Brian Mulroney in the Progressive Conservative leadership race of 1983. Clark, apparently, “had staunchly defended Quebec’s position at the time of the patriation of the Constitution.” An otherwise sympathetic biography released around the same time, citing friends from that period in his life, described this as the “ideological sugar-coating” of a man who just wanted to get into politics.

Charest became leader of the PCs in 1993 mostly as a fluke — the party’s collapse in that year’s federal election left him one of their two surviving members of Parliament. In the years that followed, a great theme of Canadian politics was which party deserved to carry the banner of Canada’s right — Charest’s moderate PC rump, or the populist Reform Party of Preston Manning. Charest was sharply critical of Reform, calling Manning’s campaign “bigoted” against Quebec, and was an early opponent of the so-called Unite the Right movement that eventually saw the two parties merge.

In any case, after migrating to Quebec provincial politics in 1998, Charest seemed disinterested in right-left issues. Taking control of the Quebec Liberals, he claimed forming a “coalition party” to battle Quebec separatism was his priority.

Whether Conservative voters in 2022 will consider this a valid excuse for Charest’s nearly quarter-century absence from the conservative movement is an open question. Yet even if the latter half of his career is interpreted the way his defenders prefer — a heroic opponent of Quebec separatism — he still invites criticism.

In 2012, Charest lost his bid for a fourth term as Quebec premier and was replaced by a separatist administration. Today, the French province is under the rule of a nationalist demagogue, and the rest of Canada has never felt more indifferent to its fate.

At 63, Charest speaks of his past fights against sovereignists in a nostalgic, even wistful way, reflecting the increasingly dated nature of the cause and the off-putting tendency of sheltered statesmen to sentimentalize politics as some gentlemanly game. In 2019, he shared a stage at a Trudeau Foundation-sponsored summit with ex-separatist premier Lucien Bouchard for the purpose of “reflecting on their political careers.” And when the notorious separatist leader Jacques Parizeau died in 2015, Charest resisted CBC overtures to condemn Parizeau’s infamous comment attributing the failure of a referendum on Quebec sovereignty to “money and the ethnic vote,” instead expressing “deep respect” for his late rival.

Charest may well be a competent administrator. If Canada elected prime ministers directly, one could imagine a scenario in which he could be a viable nonpartisan unity candidate à la Mike Bloomberg or Howard Schultz. The political system Canada actually has, however, requires its prime ministerial candidates to possess some skill at courting one of the two great ideological-cultural tribes that Canadian society, for better or worse, has split into. That Charest seems oblivious to this might be the most damning indictment of all.


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