Jean Charest makes fiery bid for national unity as he exits political stage

MONTREAL – Former Quebec premier Jean Charest took a final bow on the political stage on Saturday by making a passionate plea for national unity and reminding Canadians how important the province is to Canada.

“Canada is our home, and all those who live outside of Quebec should know that Quebec is also part of their home and their heritage,” Charest told a crowd of Quebec Liberals, who paid tribute to him at a leadership convention to select his successor.

The staunch federalist also took a jab at the Parti Quebecois government, which has made preserving the French language a key issue since taking office. He said that English-speaking Quebecers deserve to be treated with respect.

“You are not strangers in this province and you are not strangers as citizens of Quebec,” he said, speaking in English during what was a mostly French address.

“Every one of us have a right to vote, we have a right to be part of this society and we have a right to be fully accepted as citizens of Quebec. And that’s what this party stands for.”

Charest stepped down as Liberal leader last September after losing his seat as his government was toppled by the Parti Quebecois in the provincial election.

In his final years in office, Charest’s party faced allegations of corruption that ultimately led him to call a public inquiry. But he said he has no regrets about his time in office, particularly his efforts to increase university tuition fees, even if they led to months of street protests.

“There are things that are worth fighting for, ladies and gentlemen, and it was well worth fighting for every student to have access to their schools,” he said, alluding to the emergency law he passed that put limits on the protests.

In his speech, Charest urged the party to unite behind his whoever becomes his replacement on Sunday.

Three former cabinet ministers are vying to take over the job — Philippe Couillard, Raymond Bachand and Pierre Moreau.

There was little discussion of the leadership race, however, as the party focused squarely on the legacy of their longtime leader.

In a series of speeches and video montages, Charest was painted as a visionary who helped reform the province’s health care and grow the economy — all while keeping Canada together while under threat from Quebec separatists.

Tributes poured in from outside the province as well, ranging from Alberta Premier Alison Redford to the former president of Senegal.

Charest was first elected as an MP in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative wave in 1984, and became the youngest federal cabinet minister in 1986 at the age of 28. He gained further national exposure while campaigning for the No side in the 1995 Quebec referendum.

Charest left federal politics in 1998 to take over the Quebec Liberals, who were leaderless and worried about the prospect of another referendum. He would go on to lead the party for the next 14 years, including nine as premier.