“I am very proud to be a Quebecer.” With that paraphrase of René Lévesque’s famous line from the night, 32 years ago, that the Parti Québécois won its first majority government, Jean Charest’s turn as English Canada’s designated custodian in Quebec came to an end. It’s taken him three consecutive mandates—the first three-peat since Maurice Duplessis accomplished the feat in 1956—but Charest has finally become a Quebecer.
Since arriving on the province’s political scene in 1998, Charest has been an outsider struggling to overcome the idea he was dispatched by Ottawa to save Quebec from itself. His disastrous first mandate, during which his government’s popularity plunged to record lows, did little to change the impression he just doesn’t get Quebec. But after being reduced to a minority government in March 2007, Charest recognized he needed a political makeover. Quebecers weren’t necessarily ever going to love him—federalist premiers rarely become as mythical as sovereigntist ones—but his political career depended on him finding a way to get them to at least like him.
Over the past 18 months, he has cultivated a new identity: out went the condescending politician whose ambition outstripped his skills; in came the defender of Quebec’s social-democratic consensus. “Quebec is governed from the centre,” says pollster Jean-Marc Léger of Léger Marketing. “Charest only became popular once he became more nationalist and more centrist. The right-wing ultra-federalist gave way to a politician who’s looking more and more like Robert Bourassa.”
Like Bourassa, Charest has positioned himself as both a critic of the federal government and a supporter of the federation. In fact, many credit his stinging rebuke of the Harper government over its arts funding cuts and plan to dramatically stiffen youth prison sentences during October’s federal election campaign with snuffing out the Conservatives’ chances of a breakthrough in Quebec. But quoting Lévesque and channelling Bourassa doesn’t guarantee Charest’s place among the province’s great premiers. For that, he’ll have to go toe-to-toe with Ottawa—and win at least a few rounds.
Charest already knows what he wants. During the federal election campaign, he publicly issued a list of demands to the federal parties, notably calling on them to give Quebec a leading role in the selection of Supreme Court justices and to limit the federal government’s spending powers in provincial jurisdictions. He’s already found some unlikely allies: the Bloc Québécois heartily endorsed the list. What’s more, it nearly succeeded in settling one of the key demands before the federal government had even passed its first budget: in exchange for propping up a Liberal-NDP coalition, the Bloc wanted Quebec’s share of funding for post-secondary education to be increased by $820 million over two years. The Bloc’s house leader, Pierre Paquette, told Maclean’s securing funding for Quebec’s manufacturing and forestry sectors would top his party’s priority list in the short term, but that Charest’s other demands are “entirely coherent” with the Bloc’s platform.
With a first ministers’ meeting scheduled for Jan. 16 and the Tories set to deliver a federal budget 11 days later, sovereigntists in Ottawa will likely link arms with federalists in Quebec City again, says University of Montreal political scientist Bruce Hicks. “Without a doubt, you’ll see the Bloc standing up and quoting Jean Charest, which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,” he says.
Still, Charest’s fiercest fights may take place in Quebec City. The premier spent the past year beating up on an inexperienced and incompetent opposition in the form of Mario Dumont’s ADQ. But the ADQ’s virtual disappearance from the political map—it was reduced to a meagre seven seats in Monday’s election—has left a rejuvenated PQ in its place. Whereas Dumont could never project either himself or his party as a legitimate alternative to the Charest government, PQ Leader Pauline Marois undoubtedly can. “He’s got a slim majority but he’s no better off,” says William Tetley, who served as a cabinet minister under Bourassa in the 1970s. “Is it a victory? I think it’s a pyrrhic victory.”
With an unexpectedly narrow majority in Quebec City and a rapidly sinking economy, Charest may struggle to live up to his new identity as the modern-day Bourassa. But Quebecers are clearly hoping he won’t fall back on the version of him they nearly kicked out of office a year and a half ago.