Jean Charest got an early start. In 1984, barely 26, he was elected to the House of Commons to represent his home town of Sherbrooke, Que. Two years later, just six days after his 28th birthday, Charest was appointed minister of youth, making him the youngest person ever to hold a federal cabinet post in Canada. And in March, 1988, the fluently bilingual, curly-haired MP took on additional responsibilities as the minister of state for fitness and amateur sport. But last week, Charest suddenly skidded off the political fast track. In an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment, Charest telephoned Quebec Superior Court Justice Yvan Maceróla on Jan. 23 to discuss evidence in a case before Macerola’s court. The next day, Charest was no longer a member of the federal cabinet.
The crisis erupted while Charest, 31, was in Auckland to represent Canada at the opening of the Commonwealth Games. Confronted with reports of his telephone call, Charest originally insisted that he had done nothing wrong. But within hours, he began to acknowledge his error. “I did nothing morally wrong,” he maintained, “but it is clearly a breach of the code of conduct.” And he faxed his resignation to Ottawa. There, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney accepted it with a promptness that stood in stark contrast to his stubborn defence of other Conservative ministers who have been accused of indiscretions and conflicts of interest since the party took power in 1984. But Mulroney also softened the blow with a clear suggestion that the boyish Quebecer might find his way back into the cabinet after a period of political penance. Mulroney’s letter accepting Charest’s resignation said, in part, “You have been a valued minister, and I know you will have occasion to render great service in the future.”
For the present, however, Charest will be left to contemplate the unlikely chain of events that led to last week’s humiliation. It had its beginning in a legal dispute pitting a track-andfield coach, Daniel St-Hilaire of Montreal, against the Canadian Track and Field Association. St-Hilaire was appealing a CTFA decision to exclude him from the Canadian coaching staff in Auckland in favor of Toronto-based coaches who, he claimed, had less experience. On Jan. 23, Maceróla was presented with two letters that had been written by Charest from his Auckland hotel and sent to Montreal by fax machine. The first, addressed to St-Hilaire’s lawyer, Daniel Caisse, stated that Charest had spoken in favor of St-Hilaire to the Commonwealth Games Association of Canada and that the association had agreed to endorse St-Hilaire if he won in court. But the second letter, addressed to the CTFA’s lawyer, Jean-Laurier Demers, appeared to revise the first, suggesting that even a favorable ruling would not guarantee St-Hilaire a role in Auckland. Then, around lunchtime the same day, and at the request of the CTFA, Charest placed a telephone call to Macerola’s office, apparently to offer a clarification if the judge needed one. Once he realized who was calling—and why— Maceróla abruptly ended the conversation.
But the incident became public when Maceróla, in the course of rendering a decision in favor of St-Hilaire, referred to Charest’s phone call. Reporters in the courtroom quickly passed that information to Liberal MPs Stan Keyes of Hamilton and Jean Lapierre, the former Liberal sports minister from the riding of Shefford, near Sherbrooke. At 7:30 p.m. the same day, the two opposition MPs held a news conference and demanded that Charest resign. In Auckland, Charest initially brushed aside those demands: “What else do you expect from the opposition?” he chided reporters. But by the time the 2 p.m. Question Period began in the House of Commons the next day, Mulroney had spoken to Charest by telephone and had his resignation. And when Liberal Leader John Turner raised the issue, the Prime Minister immediately announced that Charest was out of the cabinet.
In fact, according to one senior Mulroney adviser, the Prime Minister did not agonize long over Charest’s fate. The decisive factor: cabinet guidelines first established by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in March, 1976, after an earlier controversy involving telephone calls to judges by three Liberal cabinet members—Marc Lalonde, Bud Drury and Jean Chrétien, who last week announced his candidacy for the Liberal leadership. In Chrétien’s case, he phoned to ask a judge when he planned to render a court decision regarding one of Chrétien’s constituents. But the most contentious case was that of then-Minister of Public Works Drury. Drury approached a judge on behalf of Quebec MP André Ouellet, then-minister of consumer and corporate affairs. Ouellet had been cited for contempt of court after he questioned the sanity of a judge who acquitted three sugar companies of price-fixing charges. Drury asked the judge handling Ouellet’s case whether an apology might end the matter. When his action became known, Drury offered his resignation, but Trudeau did not accept it. Instead, he outlined a new code of behavior that clearly stated that no cabinet members could communicate with members of the judiciary on matters before the court, except through the minister of justice. Last week, Mulroney applied Trudeau’s guideline to Charest’s actions.
With that, Charest became the 10th Mulroney minister to resign amid controversy. But in Sherbrooke, where he still spends most weekends with his wife and three young children, his supporters remained confident that their young MP’s career would get back on track quickly. On the day of his resignation, callers flooded an open-line radio program to express sympathy for Charest. Observed Charles Bury, editor of the daily Sherbrooke Record: “I’m sure that before the snow is gone, Jean will be back in the cabinet.” And as Chrétien’s example demonstrates, Charest would not be the first politician to recover his momentum after an ill-considered telephone call.
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