The Inside Agenda Blog

Upper Canada Welcomes Jean Charest

by Steve Paikin Monday March 5, 2012

It is an historically unusual time in Upper and Lower Canada. 

Both provinces have Liberal premiers who have won three consecutive elections. No Liberal premier has done that in Quebec in 77 years (Louis-Alexandre Taschereau). No Liberal premier has done that in Ontario in 128 years (Oliver Mowat). And coincidentally, both Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty won their first elections in 2003 and have each won two majorities and one minority government.

Charest, Canada's longest-serving premier by six months over McGuinty, visited Toronto today (March 5, 2012) to speak to the Canadian Club and share his vision for developing northern Quebec. 

"It's twice the size of France with only 120,000 people," the premier said, insisting $80 billion worth of development is on the horizon. 

Charest has to be one of the most impressive speakers of this generation of politicians. He moves effortlessly from French to English, speaking frequently without notes, as he expounds on how well Quebec has done under that province's Liberals. 

He says Quebec's stubbornly low birthrate is finally going up, childcare is still just $7 a day, the deficit will be eliminated in 2014 (fully four years before Ontario), the unemployment rate is also below Ontario's, female participation in the labour force is up, and the province will soon open its first ever diamond mine. 

It's worth remembering that Charest has been in public life for a quarter century, and yet he's only 53 years old. Of course, he started in federal politics as a national Progressive Conservative, was one of just two surviving MPs after the debacle that was the 1993 election, but answered the call to make what must have been an odd shift to the provincial Liberals in 1998. He lost his first election to the Parti Quebecois, but has since won three straight elections, something not done in Quebec politics since Maurice Duplessis did it 60 years ago. 

It's true that Charest is probably more popular in Ontario, where his government's shortcomings aren't a feature of the daily media. Many Ontarians have warm memories of Charest, leading a small PC party federally, yet overshadowing Jean Chretien and other "No" side politicians in the 1995 referendum. 

I spoke with many people in the room at the Royal York who wondered whether Charest still has national aspirations, and if he did, with which party?  He once was a Conservative, but others I've spoken to with a solid knowledge of the Quebec scene say he has now embraced the Liberal Party, both provincially and federally. 

Charest concluded his speech by offering a view of Canada not often heard in central Canada. He said the provinces are equals with the federal government and speak for Canada every bit as much as the national government does. It's one reason why Charest says he was so offended by the federal government's take it or leave it offer on health transfers. While reaffirming Quebec's commitment to Canada (the one line in his speech that did receive sustained applause), he also reminded us of some advice he once gave Stephen Harper. 

He quoted Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who said almost a century and a half ago, treat Quebec like a nation and it will be generous.

If Macdonald said that then, Charest told his audience, how can we do any less today?

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