The appointment was supposed to be a springboard back into cabinet for a politician whose career had strayed from its rising path. But the chairmanship of the House of Commons committee that last month recommended ways to break the Meech Lake impasse turned into another political nightmare for Sherbrooke, Que., MP Jean Charest. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney put Charest in charge of the 15member committee to come up with recommendations for a companion resolution to the original accord. But that strategy blew apart on May 21 when Lucien Bouchard, Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant, quit the cabinet and shortly after branded the Charest report “an attempt by enemies of Meech Lake to dilute the accord and deal a fatal blow to Quebec.” With that, Bouchard
made Charest’s name synonymous with constitutional treason among Quebec nationalists. And it left Charest, 31, feeling not only personally betrayed by Bouchard, but also vulnerable to attack in his own province.
Behind the closed doors of the Tories’ Quebec caucus, Mulroney praised Charest’s work on the committee. But the government has now distanced itself from the report, with senior advisers calling it “dead.” And few Tories have rushed to defend Charest in public. Within days of Bouchard’s blistering resignation speech, Charest had to endure taunts from nationalist columnists and students that he was not a true Quebecer.
Charest has not replied publicly to his critics. But he complained privately to associates that Bouchard, who encouraged him to take the committee chairmanship, broke a promise to defend the committee’s report. And Charest has privately bristled at critics who question his commitment to Quebec, recalling that his resignation from cabinet last January came after he intervened in a legal dispute to defend a
francophone track-and-field coach who was angry at being left off Canada’s Commonwealth Games team. Indeed, he has complained to friends that, at the time, he was hailed as a Quebec nationalist while now he is accused of selling out Quebec.
Still, advisers to the Prime Minister said that Charest’s return to cabinet is likely. And Quebec Tories argue that Mulroney remains supportive of Charest. Said Gary Ouellet, a Quebec Conservative organizer who runs a consulting business in Ottawa: “Cabinet posts are decided by a one-man jury—the Prime Minister. But the PM’s faith in Jean Charest has not been diminished.” For his part, Sherbrooke businessman and Charest confidant George MacLaren acknowledged that the MP must suffer in silence—for now. Said MacLaren: “Jean may not like it, but he understands the realities of politics.” For Charest, politics has become a test of patience.
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