François Legault, once a sovereigntist in a hurry, now personifies Quebec’s post-referendum view of Canada. Legault, describing himself as a Quebec nationalist with the goal for ever-greater autonomy for his province within Canada, is forthright in tapping into the federal treasury. Without shame, he turns to Ottawa for funding of health care, major infrastructure projects and equalization payments.
Legault is also one of the “comeback kids” of Quebec politics. Foiled in 2001 and again in 2007 in his efforts to assume leadership of the Parti Québécois, Legault left politics in 2009 after six years in Opposition.
“I have given 10 and a half years of my life to politics,” he said then. “So, I have no plans to return.”
Change is the sole constant in politics and two years later Legault re-emerged, creating his new party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).
The CAQ handily won power in 2018, promising it would not call another independence referendum and offering a package of populist policies that as premier have given Legault a 63% satisfaction rating in the most recent Léger Marketing Inc. poll – and 70% among French-speaking voters.
Tom Mulcair’s career as a Quebec Liberal environment minister was over when he disagreed with then-premier Jean Charest’s plan to privatize Mont-Orford National Park for a condo development.
Mulcair then made a comeback in Ottawa. In 2007, he won a Montreal byelection, becoming the only NDP member of Parliament from Quebec. In the 2011 federal election, Mulcair led 59 Quebec NDP members to Ottawa, emerging as the new NDP leader after the death of erstwhile party leader Jack Layton.
Mulcair’s daily pounding of Conservative then-prime minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons gave Mulcair a shot at becoming prime minister in 2015. Alas for Mulcair, voters, in their desire for change, instead chose Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
Now, another Quebec politician is contemplating a comeback.
With the departure of Andrew Scheer as Conservative leader, former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest has confirmed he is considering a run for the federal Conservative leadership.
Charest, now 61, was first elected to Parliament at age 26 in Brian Mulroney’s 1984 landslide victory. When Mulroney stepped down in 1993, Charest made a bid for the Progressive Conservative leadership, losing to Kim Campbell.
Campbell went on to spectacular defeat, with only two Tories, one of them Charest, holding their seats.
Charest became Tory leader then, taking 20 seats in the 1997 federal election before the Quebec Liberals wooed him a year later to become their leader. Charest won three Quebec elections – in 2003, again in 2007 with a minority, and in 2008.
Against the backdrop of massive protests across the province by students opposed to a stiff increase in university tuition fees and a desire for change, Charest lost his own Sherbrooke seat as his Liberals were defeated in 2012.
Charest subsequently retired from politics and now is a partner with Montreal-based law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
Some useful context: in 2003, the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance and came to power under Harper in 2006. Charest recognizes today’s Conservative party is different, but argues that the leftward shift of Trudeau’s Liberals offers Conservatives a chance to attract voters in the centre.
If the Conservatives want to take on Trudeau, they will have to do it in both official languages. While Harper could hold his own debating in French, Scheer’s weak command of French is blamed by Quebec Tories for the party’s poor performance in the province.
So far, none of the other possible contenders can match Charest in his command of both French and English.
As Quebec premier, Charest endorsed the Kyoto Protocol and openly differed with Harper on how to deal with climate change. That could be a problem for Western Tories, who migrated from the Alliance and oppose Ottawa’s carbon tax.
Charest will have to show creative pragmatism to hold the party’s Western base while attracting voters in the centre in Ontario and Quebec who want action on climate change.
But Charest faces another hurdle.
The Unité permanente anticorruption, Quebec’s permanent anti-corruption police force, has been investigating whether Charest was involved in rewarding contractors for their contributions to Quebec Liberals’ coffers, allegations he denies.
Charest needs his name cleared to pursue the Conservative leadership.