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The State of Affairs in Québec: An Interview with the Former Premier of Quebec Jean Charest

By: Luke Montalbano

Jean Charest, the former Premier of Québec, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, Minister of the Environment, and former Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party sits down to speak about the current state of affairs in Québec.

In 2018, the Coalition Avenir Québec won a majority government over the governing Parti Libéral de Québec. This is the first government ever won by the party, having only been founded in 2011. François Legault, the leader of the party and current Premier of Québec has governed in a style very similar to that of the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis and has firmly established his position as one of anti-federalism and staunch interventionism to “defend” the French language and Québec culture. His government has introduced multiple controversial bills surrounding the “laicity of the state,” a strict adherence to the belief in an assimilationist society.

Across Québec, with the exclusion of the island of Montréal, Legault has seen widespread support for his policies, even among regions that have strong anglophone communities such as Estrie. For this reason, the Parti Libéral du Québec—a coalition party of socialists to progressive conservatives united by the belief in Canadian federalism—has seen support drop to lows unseen since the early 90s.

With the Parti Libéral du Québec polling ahead in only two ridings outside of Montréal and at only 8% among francophone voters, the party has been unable to define itself and provide direction for the upcoming general election in the fall of 2022.

To discuss the direction of the party and the current state of the Québec government, I sat down with one of the longest-reigning premiers in recent Québec history, Jean Charest. Mr. Charest was the youngest federal cabinet minister in Canadian history and was elected to represent the riding of Sherbrooke in the Progressive Conservative landslide in 1984. In the early 1990s, he became the Minister of the Environment, shaping a policy which has been unrivalled in its stance against climate change by any government (even the leader of the Green Party of Canada agrees). Subsequent to the resignation of Brian Mulroney in 1993, Jean Charest became Deputy Prime Minister to this first female PM in Canadian history. Despite this, the PCs went to electoral defeat with the only sitting PC being re-elected being Mr. Charest. The PCs had gone from 169 seats to 2 overnight.

Immediately after, Jean Charest became the leader of the PCs and was able to lead the party to a very respectable recovery in the 1997 election, winning 20 seats and 17% of the popular vote.

In 1998, Jean Charest retired from federal politics and was conscripted to lead the Parti Libéral du Québec after running an effective campaign to defeat the independence referendum of 1995. In 2003, Jean Charest was swept into government in a majority government and was able to be re-elected in 2007 and 2008. He served until 2012 managing one of the most effective economic recoveries in Canada after the financial crisis but was defeated in a very tight race in the 2012 general election—he had served 9 years as premier.

Due to his experience and widespread popularity among both the Parti Libéral de Québec and Québec at large, Mr. Charest agreed to discuss the current state of affairs regarding the Parti Libéral du Québec and the Québec government.

The Author, Luke Montalbano, with Premier Jean Charest in Sherbrooke during an internship, August 14th, 2021. Photo Credit: Amine Behacel

On the expansion of support for the PLQ:

After the defeat of PLQ Premier Philippe Couillard in the 2018 general election, Dominique Anglade, the former Deputy Premier and chairwoman of the Coalition Avenir Québec who left the party over identity policies, was acclaimed leader of the PLQ.

LM: I would like to start off with Mme. Anglade. With the growing support for the CAQ across Québec, how can she make a name for herself outside of the Montréal area while still holding onto the traditional strongholds in Montréal and Laval?

JC: She will have to define her issues and get some resonance with the francophones. Her answer up until now has been to do things that allow her to connect to that francophone majority with identity issues being front and center, especially with the CAQ government. On language policy, she has been leaning more heavily on nationalist positions than in the past, on more pro-francophone positions—she is trying to not be too offside with identity issues. Her challenge will be to define herself and the Liberal party relative to the other parties in the National Assembly. Traditionally for the Liberal Party, that has always meant being the party of the economy. But the CAQ has pretty much stolen that thunder. They stole it from the previous leader, Couillard, who abandoned that trademark. So she has to rebuild a brand. Part of it has to be a federalist party as she represents the only avowed federalist party in Québec.

The CAQ is not a federalist party. They say they aren’t a sovereigntist party but they aren’t federalist either.

The Struggling Parti Liberal du Québec Leader, Dominique Anglade. Photo Credit: La Tribune

On sovereignty:

After the 2018 election and massive electoral destruction of the traditional indépendantiste party, the Parti Québécois, rumours abound that the issue of sovereignty was dead. Despite this, the federal indépendantiste party, the Bloc Québécois, saw a massive resurgence in Québec and replaced the NDP as the third party in the House of Commons.

LM: Would you say that sovereignty is becoming less and less important in the Québec landscape or will it see a resurgence in future elections and play a major role in people’s voting choices?

JC: It has not disappeared and I do not think it will ever disappear. Separatist sentiment will go up and down but it will always be there.

Premier François Legault (right) with California Governor Gavin Newsom (left). Legault’s victory in 2018 made many commentators believe that the issue of sovereignty was settled. Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of California

The French Language

Since 2018, the Coalition Avenir Québec government has proposed sweeping legislation with the goal to Francisize Québec industry. Most recently, they proposed Bill 96, a controversial bill among Québec anglophone communities that significantly amends Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language) to promote the use of French in workplaces and among companies located in Québec. Furthermore, the bill has received notoriety across the nation as it deems that crown corporations (state-owned enterprises) must provide service in both French and English—a standard that has not been binding yet still prescribed by law.

LM: With the new Language Laws, do you think they play a role in indirectly promoting sovereignty?

JC: Yes it does. I think Legault is machiavellian in what he’s doing. By the way, I don’t disagree with what he’s doing but he did something that nobody has commented on. He’s sprung this on the rest of the country without preparing anyone or informing his other partners that he was going to do this; including the federal government, including other provinces or premiers. I’ve been there, Luke, I’ve done a number of changes. On these issues, if you want to be successful and you want them to happen, very usually, you inform the other parties; those who are involved, your partners in the federation that you’re going to do this and you explain to them why you’re going to do this. He did not and took them all by surprise. Now, one of the results of that is that they then all question what his intentions are rather than the content and the substance and they’re not wrong to do so. It looks as though he is trying to set himself up to provoke the rest of the country and if he gets it done, he wins, and if he doesn’t get it done, well, then he holds a referendum.

LM: So it’s a win-win situation for Mr. Legault?

JC: Well, that’s it and it reflects his style. You know, he’s had a political and business career where he has done this. Where he consistently has taken people by surprise.

For example, how many people in Canada, even among the best pundits and officials, know that every Canadian province has their own constitution? No one knows that. And it’s not a written constitution, it's an unwritten one. Apparently, the only exception would be British Columbia. British Columbia has its own written constitution. And that’s been the case since 1867. So what Legault is doing is using a section of the Canadian constitution (Section 45, Constitution Act, 1982) that allows a Canadian province to amend their own constitution. That part of it is legally established but what he is trying to accomplish is something that remains unclear to his partners. It creates irritation and some doubt of what he is trying to accomplish. Mr. Legault, because he is not a federalist, has no interest at all in doing anything that would make the Canadian federation work better except if it’s at the advantage of Québec which is a very different position than the one I was in as Premier of Québec. I was a Québecer and a Canadian and part of whatever I did was in the view of trying to make the Canadian federation work more efficiently and better. But he [Legault] has none of that. He just pulls this rabbit out of his hat and the rest of the country says, “Woah, woah, woah, what is this about?”.

Author's Note: All provincial constitutions are included in the federal constitution and, by those means, may become federally binding. What Mr. Legault has proposed is not only an amendment to Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language) but has also proposed two amendments to the British North America Act, 1867 (the original Constitution of Confederation) to recognize Québec as a “nation” as well as to define the legal limits around the French language as the sole official language of the “Québec nation”.

LM: On a similar note, how do you think that the national response to this bill will affect the Québec General Election results in 2022? How will Bill 96 help or hurt the Parti Liberal du Québec? And how could it bolster the CAQ?

JC: Well, I think it will be helpful to the CAQ. In every scenario, they win. Ironically, if it gets done, it will have the same effect on separatism that Bill 101 had for René Levesque’s government in 1977. In other words, it actually works to the detriment of separatism because if he gets it done, it proves that you can do these things (constitutional amendments and autonomism) without separating. Now there’s a pretty subtle line of thought that not everyone can grasp outside of Québec. Legault is a pretty hard-core separatist and always was. He still is. It’s only that his posture is now to say that, “I’m spinning my belief because people don’t want separatism but if that changes, I will just change with it”. Now, if Bill 96 fails, that would pump up public opinion surrounding separatism.

The defining image of the 1995 Referendum: Then-Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke, Jean Charest vigorously campaigned for the “non” side during the 1995 Quebec Referendum on independence. Photo Credit: the CBC

On the future of the CAQ and the dying PQ

JC: The CAQ, right now, is Francois Legault. He is the party and the party is him. If he disappears, what’s left? It’ll be mayhem and that creates space for the PQ. The issue the PQ have, and which the CAQ understood, is that by continuously making separation the centrepiece of their platform and the public sentiment is going in the other direction, they have a platform that the people don’t want.

On the PLQ as a big tent party

LM: With the federalist issue as a unifier for the PLQ, how can they use their traditional big tent status to reclaim regions such as Estrie, Ungava, Mauricie, or Bas St. Laurent?

JC: It is definitely possible if they can identify with a few key issues people care about, and that would start with remaining strongly as a federalist party and make that, once again, part of their branding. They need to hold onto that but they aren’t doing that now. The second thing they should try to do is re-establish their economic credentials and identify a few key economic issues that resonate with voters and to which they need to make an offer, a political offer. One of them, for example, is the great labour shortages in Québec and that is an issue that they should and very well could focus on. The ageing population in the labour market; we have, in Québec, an unusual situation where our labour market is designed for a cycle where people retire between the ages of 60 and 65. Well, that doesn’t make sense anymore. We live longer, we live healthy lives, and people should be encouraged to stay active in the labour market for as long as they want as opposed to being pushed out.

LM: In relation to economic issues, to better reflect the current trajectory of Québec, where should the PLQ position themselves on the political spectrum? Should they stick to the centre-right or shift to the left?

JC: Firstly, shifting to the left would be a mistake. First of all, because the CAQ is not a right-wing party, they are an interventionist party. Legault, by philosophy, is an interventionist in the economy. The Québec Solidaire is an extreme left-wing party, almost communist in their views, and then you have the Parti Québécois who lean left heavily. Though, in the days when I was Premier, the Parti Liberal du Québec, due to the federalist-sovereignist issue, became a coalition party of federalists. When I became leader of the PLQ, I became leader of the federalists, no matter if they were NDP (centre-left to left-wing), Conservative, or otherwise. The PQ became a coalition for separatists. It became a coalition for conservative-leaning people like Lucien Bouchard (former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, Former Leader of the Bloc Québécois, and Former Premier of Québec). Bouchard was undoubtedly a fiscal conservative. Because the separatist issue has waned, that has changed.

As they have evolved, the PQ has chosen to lean left. Québec Solidaire is left and the CAQ is interventionist. Now, I think this opens up an opportunity for the Parti Liberal du Québec to redefine what it is to be an economic party and to position itself for development on taxes, for example. They could very well take a run at the tax issue by saying that, “we are going to reduce taxes”.

One thing, just to give you an example, when the CAQ came into office after 15 years of Liberal government, with a very small tenure for the PQ from 2012 to 2014, they were left with an 8 billion dollar surplus. As a surplus, it’s massive for Québec. You’re never going to see that again in your lifetime.

My government was very much a fiscal conservative government and we weren’t shy about that but we were progressive on social issues. I think that’s where [Dominique Anglade] needs to position herself because there is an appetite for that kind of a political option.

On a future referendum

LM: With the current trajectory of the federalist issue, if Legault is able to get re-elected with a large majority, and Bill 96 does not succeed in the federal parliament, do you think that a referendum could be held on the question of independence in the near future?

JC: I think it could happen. You’ll also see outside events shape public opinion here in Québec, Scotland for example. Let’s say there is a successful referendum for separatism in Scotland, I think it would resonate here. It is a possibility. Yes.

In fact, [the separatist parties in Québec and Scotland] work together a lot. Just to give you a sense, some journalists and politicians say separatism is gone and passing. Excuse me? There are upwards of 30 Bloc MPs in the House of Commons and they could very well increase their headcount. Then you have the Legault government led by a separatist, three separatist leaders leading parties in the National Assembly, and then you have three-quarters of the political staffers in Québec City, it’s widely known, are from the PQ. And now add to that, the Journal de Montréal, and Quebecor (a major Québec media company) promote separatism and constantly demean Canada. You put all the pieces together, separatism is not gone.

Now let’s push ahead, let’s say there’s a provincial election campaign and the Liberals lose seats.

LM: Now that puts the separatist parties in an even better position and gives them a mandate of separatism.

JC: Yes! Now, what is it that the Bloc MPs offer? It’s not visible to the naked eye. What they offer is financial resources and human resources [for the province of Québec]. Every Bloc MP has a multi-million dollar budget and staff and they are spread all over the territory in Québec. What they bring is human and financial resources to the separatist cause. The Bloc Québécois, by the way, has a direct connection to the Parti Québécois. They work together.

Leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec François Legault and then-Premier Jean Charest debate during the heated 2012 General Election. The election saw Jean Charest’s Liberal Party overperform expectations and the CAQ underperform. Ultimately, the Parti Québécois won a minority government, four seats ahead of the Liberals. Photo Credit: The CBC

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