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Getting Quebec

Charest’s evolution to an Ottawa-spurning centrist is complete


 

Getting Quebec

“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.


 

Getting Quebec

  1. During the recent Federal Election campaign, Harper’s Conservatives initially thought that they had Quebecers eating out of their hands and expected a huge success there; however, knowing Quebecers as I do, I knew that, in the end, they’d send the Bloc back to Ottawa to represent them and their interests. A good thing they did, because Steven Harper is not to be trusted – give him a majority government and he’d pull the rug from under Quebecers feet sooo fast, they wouldn’t know what hit them and he’d trample them out of existence – their (my) language and their (my) culture…..the Bloc will always be necessary in Ottawa to protect the interests of Quebecers. Lorraine Houde

  2. It’s nice to see that Quebec has transcended the left versus right political discourse that has paralyzed the rest of Canada.

    Or maybe I’m oversimplifying?

  3. Lorraine Houde-Lambert ; … all I have to say to you is that is a pretty arrogant statement and one that has helped distroy once vibrant communities in the top 1/3 of the province. Ignorant,arrogant, mental midgits that have helped drive this province’s economy & infastructure to the ground.

    Charest will have do better than that if he expect me to believe his working in my best interest. I’ve heard that bull more often than I’ve seen funerals ( and that’s a lot, just look at the stats.). These we real people I knew, friends,relatives. Heartless bigots !!!!!!!!!!

    Steve Ward – You’re over simplifyng. It’s not as simple as sitting down with a “coalition of idiots” !

    I don’t think it’s out of line to try and reign in spending in those hard ecomic times, considering a fair chunk of that money ends up in the hand of a few, rather than being used as it should be !!

    All of this screaming from the left is just a bunch of “nippled lipped” trough suckers running on empty and realizing what they actually did had no monetary value or worth. If it means that much to those concerned they will learn to sink or swim.

    And from what I’ve seen they had better start taking swimming lessons!!

  4. To Aboriginal Roots in Quebec, otherwise unsigned- It is quite obvious that, “YOU DON’T GET” Quebec” and furthermore, I made no reference to Charret. I was speaking exclusivley on why the Bloc in Ottawa exists and why they will continue to exist.

  5. “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.”
    ———–

    I disagree with this part of Philippe Gohier’s analysis. Yes, this is the way that previous Quebec Premiers have “guaranteed their greatness”, but times have changed and both Canada and Quebec have changed. I think part of the reason for Charest’s recent success has been the blessed peace and quiet on the constitutional front. Yes, Quebec and Ottawa maintain an uneasy, tense relationship but not noticeably more than any other province of late. It, in fact, seems to be a basic requirement for all provincial Premiers to bitch about Ottawa and demand more: more money, more powers, more respect, anything just so long as it’s more…I think everyone in this country, even in Quebec, is getting wise to this game and long for a more constructive relationship between Ottawa and the provinces.

    Charest now has a majority. He has more political capital than he has ever had or, frankly, is ever likely to have again. I have doubts he will run again. In light of all this, I think the real key to Charest’s greatness might be to surprise everyone and signal a desire to reach a long overdue constitutional accommodation with Ottawa, not one however axed on obtaining new powers (they’re unnecessary) but rather simply recognizing the already existing powers that Quebec has and which have already allowed it to be a distinct society in reality if not in formal practice. Of course though, he would need the right partner in Ottawa to pull something like that off. In addition he would need a great deal of political courage. And finally he would need a lot of good will on the part of moderate Canadians and Québecois. Too much to hope for? Maybe, but I can dream.

    Alternately Charest could just do what he has been doing: keep the national unity fires on a slow burn for a while, continue “normalizing” Quebec’s relationship with Ottawa, and let the rest of us enjoy the peace for a little longer. Stephen Harper please take note of that last suggestion.

  6. To Lorraine Houde-Lambert

    You obviously DON’T get it. You still can’t admit that other languages & cultures exist/existed the PROVINCE of quebec. Long before the ‘block’ & p.q. ever existed. Just because some BIGOT in Quebec City or Ottawa puts pen to paper to extinguish my rights doesn’t make it right or ethical.

    I will aso point out the fact that I drew Jean Charest into this thread to point out that it is just more of the same.

    If you are so sure ” YOU GET IT ” why not put your money where you mouth is and come and live up here in this (Nunavik) region of ‘le belle province’ for a couple of years if you think I don’t know what I’m taling about!!

    A**H**e !!!!!

  7. Being a quebecker myself, it’s so obvious that Charest will become more and more centrist. But as you know, even if he was the perfect centrist, half of the province would be unhappy. It’s so unfortunate that the separation movement is still alive… Dumont is out aud Marois, eh, we don’t know yet…

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