CLOSING THE GAP
He hesitated, but Jean Charest is glad he’s in the race
In the final 48 hours before announcing one of the most important decisions of his life, Jean Charest, most uncharacteristically, did not know what to do. Even before Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Feb. 24 resignation announcement, the environment minister had been planning his campaign for the Progressive Conservative leadership. But by mid-March, Charest had witnessed a stampede of cabinet colleagues towards the then-undeclared favorite,
Defence Minister Kim Campbell. Stung, Charest reconsidered his plans to run, and on March 14 promised to declare his intentions two days later in his home town of Sherbrooke,
Que. But even as Charest set the date for his announcement he acknowledged last week, “I was changing my mind just about every hour as to what I would actually do.”
During those fateful two days, the 34-year-old Charest made more than two dozen phone calls to potential supporters across the country. He had already talked to Mulroney, who urged him to run for “the good of the party.” But Charest also had to think of his own interests. The night before his announcement, he stayed up until 2 a.m. listening to conflicting views from advisers. Some, including Senator Michael Meighen, a Toronto lawyer and key fund-raiser, told him
bluntly not to run. Like many of Charest’s friends, Meighen worried that the MP would be wounded both personally and politically by a race that he had little apparent chance of winning—and that when it was all over, Charest would be left deeply in debt. Most embarrassingly, Campbell organizers already appeared to control his home province of Quebec. Those factors, Charest recalled last week, “were very real concerns for me.”
Other supporters, including Alberta MP Jack Shields, were equally adamant that Charest should run. At noon on the day that Charest was to announce his decision, he called Shields to tell him that he would not enter the race. But Shields made an im-passioned plea for him to reconsider. “It’s a win-win situation,” Shields said. “If you win, you will be prime minister.
If you finish second, you’ve raised your profile.” Charest promised to think it over.
Meanwhile, a chartered bus was due to leave Ottawa for Sherbrooke in less than three hours, carrying more than a dozen MPs to what they assumed would be Charest’s campaign kickoff. Before they left, another friend told him:
“You have got to decide. If you send those MPs for four hours on a bus just to say you are not running, they will never forgive you.” Charest’s wife, Michèle Dionne, also wanted him to run, although she too was having second thoughts. “In the final week when we saw so much support for Kim Campbell,” she recalls,
“I became uncertain. I just said, ‘Do what feels right.’ ” Charest’s moment of decision came, he now says, when he got into his car to drive the eldest of his three children, 10-year-old Amélie, back to school after lunch. As they drove off, Amélie turned to her father and asked, “So, Daddy, are you going to do it?” Charest, startled by the question, recalls asking what she meant. “Are you going to run for prime minister,” Amélie responded, “because I think you should.” Several hours and about 400 km later, Charest walked into a Sherbrooke hotel ballroom and declared his candidacy. But even then there were nagging doubts. As Charest put it last week, “I remember thinking as I did this just how much would now be riding on my shoulders alone.”
With less than two weeks remaining until the Conservatives choose their new leader on June 13, Jean Charest’s political odyssey is still far from over—but at least now he is far from alone. Although Campbell supporters say that she enjoys a wide lead among the 3,800 voting delegates, Shields’s prediction has come true. Charest is indeed in a win-win situation. If he captures the leadership and becomes prime minister, it will mark a stunning upset—the political equivalent of the fable about the tortoise and the hare that Charest workers have made the symbol of their campaign. If he loses, he will still have greatly enhanced his profde across the country—and his utility to a Campbell government.
Despite Campbell’s early strong showing in Quebec, Charest has convincingly won majority support among elected Tory delegates from that province and four others: Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. As the excitement that initially surrounded Campbell’s candidacy faded, two recent polls have suggested that Charest, rather than his rival, is better positioned to lead the party to victory in a general election. Those are strengths that Charest supporters intend to emphasize repeatedly in the final two weeks.
As well, Charest workers continue to hope that Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark—for whom Charest worked in the 1983 campaign—may yet endorse him, which would lend their campaign an air of increased momentum. But most of their hopes are pinned on their strategy of having the candidate meet as many delegates faceto-face as possible. So far, Charest has visited more than 130 municipalities in all 10 provinces. In the final 10 days, he will concentrate on rural ridings, where many of the candidates have not yet gone. ‘The more people get to know Jean, the more they like him,” says Jodi White, Charest’s campaign manager and a veteran Tory organizer. ‘The question now is whether we can get enough people to meet him before June 13.”
For the personable, impeccably bilingual Charest, being liked has never been a problem. As a politician in the often fiercely partisan House of Commons, he is remarkable for his unwillingness to personally criticize political opponents. That, Charest says, “is not my style, either personally or politically.” One rare exception to that is Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, a former friend who Charest says betrayed him when he quit the Tories and bitterly criticized the report of a constitutional committee that Charest had chaired—and which recommended changes to the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Said Charest: “Here was somebody that I trusted—and who abandoned me without even giving me a warning or an explanation why he was doing it.”
Privately, Charest was also deeply hurt when Justice Minister Pierre Blais and Employment and Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt, whom he considered close friends, abandoned him to support Campbell. Valcourt told Charest that politics is more important than friendship.
"Here was this punk kid, out-organizing the pros’ Charest reflected some of his hurt in a onehour interview with Maclean's last week when he declared: "One of the great benefits of political life is the friendships you make along the way. They will be there for life. Needless to say, I don't agree with those who say politics comes before friendship. That has never been the case for me."
In Sherbrooke, Charest has won praise from almost every quarter—from members of the local English-rights advocacy group, from the Liberal candidate he defeated in the 1988 election and again from members of the local Parti Québécois riding association. Conrad Chapdelaine, a lawyer and local PQ activist, echoes the sentiments of many when he describes Charest as “very hardworking and tenacious.” Political activists and observers
in Sherbrooke already regard his re-election in the riding as a foregone conclusion. “Around here, it would take a combination of the best qualities of the Pope and Madonna to give him a real race,” says Charles Bury, the editor of The Record.
In Ottawa, similar sentiments are voiced by political opponents and many of the environmental activists with whom he occasionally crosses swords. Elizabeth May, a former deputy federal environment minister who is now executive director of the Sierra Club, praises Charest as a “quick study” and “a decent, honorable man.”
Paul Martin Jr., the Liberals’ environment critic, says of Charest: “I like him very much.
He is a person of both charm and great character.”
Still, the near-universal praise cannot obscure the concern in some quarters that
Charest’s rising reputation is based more on his likability than on his list of achievements. At least one colleague dismissed two of his cabinet assignments as “boutique portfolios” of little importance. As an MP since 1984, he has been hardworking, attentive, dedicated and open to new ideas. But there have also been occasional signs that he is, for the most part, willing to put the interests of his party ahead of everything else—including his own beliefs. Still, as environment minister, Charest has taken several tough and difficult stands, such as when he enraged Quebec nationalists by
ordering a federal environmental review of the James Bay Great Whale hydroelectric project. But he has also been unwilling or unable to halt the steady decline in influence of a department which was, three years ago, regarded as one of the government’s most important.
In the Sherbrooke house of Claude and Rita Charest, three boys and two girls grew up immersed in two languages—and one golden rule, whether it came in French from Claude, a devoted father with a deceptively gruff manner, or in English from Rita, the soft-spoken, bookloving mother. ‘We told our kids over and over again,” said Claude recently, “that there are three things you have to do in life to succeed.
No. 1 is work. No. 2 is work. And No. 3 is keep working.”
Both parents made sure to live by their own maxim. Claude played professionally for the Baltimore Clippers of the American Hockey League in the 1940s, ran a hotel in the 1950s, later bought and sold real estate and always worked at other jobs on the side. Rita, who came from Bury, a small village near Sherbrooke, kept a close eye on the five children and the family’s aging but spacious two-storey home on Portland Street. As young children,
Charest and his brother Robert—a year older than Jean—helped their father after school with one of his sidelines, a vending machine business. At home at night,
As a teenager, Charest was remarkable primarily for his work habits.
Rita encouraged the children to embrace her love of reading.
Claude Charest recalls going downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of milk
many times in the early hours of the morning—and finding his son still studying. Charest won praise for his skills as an orator in both languages, and as a conciliator. Recalls his uncle, Henry Leonard, “You would go over by the house and see a bunch of Jean’s friends arguing, and him calming them down and making peace.” But, adds Charest’s father: “It would be wrong to have an image of Jean as some kind of little angel when he was a kid. He was maybe just a little better at talking his way out of trouble at times.” At least once, Charest’s appeal was both immediate and powerful. As a 15-year-old at a local public high school, he met a 16-year-old schoolmate, Michèle Dionne. “I knew right away that this was the man I wanted to spend my life with,” she says now. “I went home and asked my mother, ‘Is it possible to love someone forever whom you have only just met as a teenager?’ ”
Charest’s other defining experience as a teenager came four years later, as he enrolled in law school. His mother, then 47, fell ill with cancer. She was bedridden nine months before dying. Charest, whose face creases with pain when he discusses that time, says that watching his mother die gave him a sense of “what the injustices in life are sometimes.” He adds, “Here was somebody who had devoted her life to her children and who was taken away at a time in her life when she could have hoped to dedicate a little more time to herself.” The experience, Charest says, also made him mature quickly and seek more solace in religion.
During his late teenage years, Charest was also sorting out his political beliefs. Both Claude Charest and his father, Ludovic, had been Conservative sympathizers, and Charest absorbed their beliefs—with one lapse. In the 1976 provincial election, the 18-year-old Charest voted for the Parti Québécois. In an interview with The Financial Post two years ago, he said that he voted PQ because he was “like a lot of young people, very sensitive to the nationalist part of our political life back then—but I never committed myself to the sovereigntist option.” His uncle, Henry Leonard, recalls that Charest did not discuss his decision to vote PQ with the family. “If his father had known that, the explosion would have been heard from here to Quebec City,” he says. In any event, Charest did not cast a ballot in Quebec’s 1980 referendum on sovereigntyassociation; he was out of the province, working for the summer as a crew member on a Great Lakes tanker.
By 1983, married to Michèle—now a special education teacher—and working as a Sherbrooke lawyer, he was ready to begin his political involvement in earnest. Impressed by
then-Conservative Leader Joe Clark’s vision of Canada as a decentralized “community of communities,” Charest became a riding-level organizer for Clark, who was attempting to fend off a challenge from Brian Mulroney during that year’s Tory leadership campaign. To the astonishment of many Tories—and the intense annoyance of Mulroney supporters— the Charest-led Clark faction won the riding. Says editor Bury: “It was an amazing performance. Here was this punk kid, outorganizing the slick pros sent in by Mulroney.”
Several months later, Charest began soliciting support and opinions for his next venture. Recalls his father: “He came in one night, sat down at the kitchen table, and said, ‘Dad, I’m thinking of going for the nomination.’ But he had that look he gets when he’s already made up his mind.” George MacLaren, the Montreal stockbroker and Tory activist whom Charest describes as his political mentor, says that he had been told by Mulroney intimate and chief Quebec organizer Bernard Roy that the ideal candidate would be “a woman, probably in her 40s, first degree from University of Sherbrooke, second degree at Harvard, probably started her own business and ran it for 20 years.” When Charest told MacLaren that he wanted to run, MacLaren responded, “You’re not what they’re looking for.” According to MacLaren, Charest said, “This is a democracy—or at least I thought it was.” He has used the same line to justify why another Quebecer should become prime minister.
In the subsequent battle for the nomination,
Charest signed up close to 300 new members —a rainbow coalition of previously uninvolved friends, law colleagues, former Liberals and some active péquistes. A month before the nomination meeting, he was still regarded as a long shot But a week before the vote, MacLaren became convinced that Charest would win because, as he put it, “by that time, he had even recruited my wife.” Charest won the nomination over Claude Metras, a well-respected, popular local businessman who was the favorite of the local party establish ment. Metras immediately pledged his support to Charest and became one of his key campaign workers—another sign of Charest’s ability to win over opponents.
In the federal election campaign that followed, Charest once again demonstrated his capacity for upsets. The incumbent, Liberal Irenée
Pelletier, had won the riding in 1980 by more than 20,000 votes. The turning point came in a debate in Sherbrooke that is still the basis for a favorite tale in local political lore. Pelletier, seeking to demonstrate Charest’s inexperience, suggested that Charest was unqualified to discuss job creation because he was probably not even aware of the unemployment rate in the riding. Charest let the tension build with a calculated pause, then responded with a detailed rundown of unemployment figures for the riding as well as an analysis of the situation in each municipality within its borders. He also produced the number of people in the area who no longer qualified for unemployment insurance because they had been out of work too long. And then, according to Bernard St. Laurent, at the time a radio reporter covering the meeting, “Charest concluded, That is because of the policies of your government, Mr. Pelletier’— and he brought the house down.”
On Sept. 4, 1984, Charest defeated Pelletier by 34,538 votes to 12,314 votes. He was 26 years old.
In Ottawa, Charest swiftly became known as a Mulroney favorite—and an MP on the fast track. In 1986, at the age of 28, he became youth minister—an appropriate portfolio for the youngest federal cabinet minister in history. Two years later, Mulroney promoted him to Fitness and Amateur Sport, where he faced his first controversy. After the International Olympic Committee revoked track star Ben Johnson’s 1988 gold medal because of drug use, Charest cut Johnson’s funding and suspended him for life from the national team. Several of the minister’s caucus colleagues privately criticized the severity of that penalty.
In January, 1990, Charest faced a more serious crisis. During a Quebec Superior Court hearing involving the Canadian Track and Field Association, Charest—who was then in New Zealand for the Commonwealth Games—breached parliamentary protocol by telephoning the judge presiding over the case. After the judge publicized the phone call, Charest came under harsh criticism—and resigned his portfolio at once.
Charest acknowledged his mistake with grace and humor. In a
conference call from New Zealand to reporters in Sherbrooke, Charest remarked wryly: “Again, I have made history. I was the youngest cabinet minister ever appointed— and now I’m the first ever to send a resignation letter by fax.” Charest now describes the phone call to the judge as “a mistake” from which he has tried to learn.
Charest may indeed have learned—but some critics say that he still has some history to answer for. During the recent leadership debates, he won widespread praise from minority language groups for his condemnation of the Quebec government’s restrictive language policies and for his assertion that linguistic minorities in Canada needed greater protection. But Charest acknowledges that within Quebec some anglophones were upset by his silence during the 1988 debate over the Bourassa government’s Bill-178, which reinforced the province’s ban on bilingual signs.
Looking back, Charest says that he remained silent on the language issue because he did not want to jeopardize efforts to ratify the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Says Charest: “We felt that [within Quebec] we should be doing everything we could to establish bridges rather than burning any of them, so that conditioned our response.” He pointed to his constitutional committee’s recommendation that Ottawa promote minority languages across the country.
Some critics also say that Charest has failed to use his portfolio to influence Ottawa’s environmental policies. The same activists who praise him for his openness also chide him
for his inability to take action. In fact, the federal Green Plan for the environment, announced as a $3-billion initiative just five months before Charest took over the ministry in April, 1991, has so far spent 24 per cent less than originally promised.
If Charest continues his tradition of political upsets, and wins the leadership, he has one notion of how his government’s emphasis would differ from that of Mulroney’s. He would, he says, pursue “a more people-oriented side of the agenda than the one we have had over the last nine years,” one that would focus on job creation as well as deficit reduction. But some critics suggest that Charest’s willingness to discuss reductions in social programs runs counter to that image. Says the Liberals’ Martin: “I suggest that if people look beyond that appealing personality they may find he is much more conservative than he appears.” But there are no guarantees that Charest will even stay in politics if he loses the leadership contest. In that event, Charest says, he would consider “all options”— including not standing for re-election. That could create a serious problem for the Tories as they prepare for the general election. However, Charest is likely to stay on if he loses on June 13. As a loyal party supporter, he would be unwilling to let his side down. As a politician who loves his profession, he would be unlikely to find another that would give him the same amount of satisfaction. And Charest’s track record indicates that he likes being on the victorious side too much to walk away in defeat. At 34, he is young enough to look ahead to new battles—and wise enough to realize that he is too near the top to leave before he reaches his goal.
ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Sherbrooke with
GLEN ALLEN and LUKE FISHER in Ottawa