Charest in former times, shrewd and heavy-hearted

As you wait for the Quebec election results to trickle in tonight, you won’t find more illuminating reading, if you haven’t already discovered the column, than my colleague Paul Wells on the improbable political career of Jean Charest.

Reading his insights, I found myself feeling a bit nostalgic about Charest. When I arrived in Ottawa, during the late, decadent days of Brian Mulroney’s regime, the young Quebecer was among the few Tory cabinet ministers whose best days seemed still to be ahead of them.

So, in 1991, when he was Mulroney’s 33-year-old environment minister, I profiled Charest for the old Financial Post. Looking up that faded clipping  (alright, not so faded in digital form, but you take my meaning), I find a couple of points that still seem telling to me in light of everything that’s happened to him since—and will happen in the next few hours.

For instance, a certain Elizabeth May, then a rising-star environmental lobbyist with the Sierra Club, offered me a sharp comparison of Charest and Lucien Bouchard. She’d had cause to take the measure of both up close: Bouchard preceded Charest as environment minister; and, as veterans of the constitutional wars will recall, it was Charest’s report on the Meech Lake Accord that had precipitated Bouchard’s stormy exit from Mulroney’s cabinet to form the separatist Bloc Québécois. “Bouchard was a true believer,” May told me in ’91, “but I think Charest is politically shrewder.”

She was talking mainly about their approaches on environmental policy, but the observation had broader application. At that time, calling the fresh-faced, disarmingly candid (or so he seemed) Charest “shrewd” was somewhat unexpected. But we’ve long since learned how right May, such a perceptive observer of political life then and now, turned out to be.

Another thing that stands out for me is how Charest, who was consistently upbeat way back then, turned markedly somber on the prospect of another referendum on Quebec’s place in Canada. (It was to come, of course, in 1995, and he played a memorable role on the No side.)

“Referendums are the most divisive instrument,” he said. He recalled that even the 1980 referendum, which had turned out the way he’d hoped as a federalist, opened up such painful rifts among Quebecers that being on the winning side still left him, as he put it, “heavy-hearted.”

In the provincial election campaign that’s just ended, I suppose it was the shrewd Charest who played up the threat of yet another referendum should the Parti Québécois win. However, maybe something of the heavy-hearted Charest was coming through, too.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.