To the uninitiated, it appeared to be routine government business. But the announcement late last month by Minister of State for Youth Jean Charest that a federal government mapping institute would be established in his home riding of Sherbrooke, Que., was the latest indication of Charest’s growing influence and prestige in an often-troubled Conservative cabinet. In a time of fiscal restraint, Charest had won $12 million in new spending and 100 permanent government jobs for his riding. And in establishing the Sherbrooke Institute of Cartography, he was able to claim credit for fulfilling a pledge that other Liberal MPS had been making to voters in the area for 10 years. Declared Charest, when the announcement was made: “It is a big day for Sherbrooke, and it is a big day for me.”
Since being named 14 months ago as the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history, Charest, a lawyer who turned 29 last June, has avoided the problems that many of his older—and more experienced—colleagues have en-
countered. He is still regarded as a rising star by senior Tory strategists, and he is a member of important cabinet committees. The bilingual minister is increasingly in demand as a speaker, not only on youth issues but also on such sensitive matters as free trade
Charest is also being called upon to assume the higher-profíle and sensitive job of spokesman for the government
and the Constitution. And Charest has carved out specific administrative responsibilities for himself in a junior ministry that operates under the aegis of the much larger employment and immigration department, and which, before his appointment, had little direction and no separate budget.
When he became youth minister, Charest himself said that he needed a
“clearer mandate” than was given to Quebec MP Andrée Champagne, who was dropped from cabinet in June, 1986, after a poor performance in the portfolio. Now, the Prime Minister has delineated his duties explicitly: Charest oversees the $180-million Challenge ’87 summer student employment program and is consulted on any other youthrelated job creation programs. As well, he is charged with co-ordinating all federal government programs that have an impact on Canadian youth.
The young minister says that his own youth puts added pressure on him to perform well. But the surest sign of satisfaction in government circles with Charest’s work is his appointment this summer to the powerful Treasury Board committee of cabinet. That committee screens requests for funding from all departments and all ministers, and decides which requests should proceed further up the line of command. The appointment is seen— among Tory officials and among Charest’s staff—as a chance for the freshman minister to gain experience in the inner workings of the bureaucracy.
But Charest is also increasingly being called upon to assume the higher-profile job of spokesman for the government— in the media and in a cross-country schedule of speeches—on a variety of controversial issues. Said one Mulroney
aide: “He’s a quick study, he’s a good speaker, and he looks good on camera.” Those close to Charest say that he has also been helped by the ability to be tough with staff or bureaucrats when required and by a streak of fierce partisan loyalty to the party and to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Still, Charest’s success has exacted a price. The most serious problem: pressures on his family as a result of his fuller schedule and increasing responsibilities. Married to 30year-old Michèle Dionne, a special education teacher, and with a four-year-old daughter, Charest has been forced to put his family through a trying period of adjustment. Dionne quit a teaching job in a Sherbrooke grade school to move to Ottawa after the 1984 election. Then, after the family had adjusted to the rigors of the new lifestyle, Charest’s cabinet appointment demanded new sacrifices. Charest told Maclean’s, “There was some frustration in having just gone through one difficult period and then having to do it all over again.” He added, “In politics, every-
thing seems contrived to destroy family life rather than maintain it.”
Charest also says that he is troubled by the lack of time to see his father, Claude (Red) Charest, 64, a barrel-chested retired real estate broker, former
hockey player with the now-defunct Baltimore Clippers and longtime Quebec Conservative. The minister, who attempts to travel to his home riding every weekend, still tries to have an occasional quiet dinner with his father—his
mother died of leukemia in 1978—but the opportunities are limited. Said one member of his staff: “It’s really important to Jean that his father knows what he is doing, approves of what he is doing.” For his part, Red Charest, who was in the Sherbrooke crowd last month when his son announced the opening of the cartography institute, told Maclean’s: “Jean is a
hard worker. But he knows he is not cemented into politics.”
Still, there appears little to prevent Charest from having a long and distinguished career in politics—if he wants it. The editor of the Sherbrooke Record, Charles Bury, said that even though the Tories were at 5 the bottom of the opinion - polls, Charest would have little trouble getting reelected. Said Bury: “People around here are still proud of having the youngest-ever cabinet minister.” The issue now facing Charest is how long he will want to pay the high price of success.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.