JEAN CHAREST | “An Ally In Ottawa”

Jean Charest is looking to make a big return to national politics, aiming to once again lead the federal Conservatives. On a visit to NL, he shares why it’s time to let ‘ABC’ go and how a former local politician is a role model

Jean Charest is no stranger to politics and he’s no stranger to Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, Charest was one of the influential politicians who made the trip to attend former colleague John Crosbie’s funeral in Jan. 2020.                                       

 Charest begins our chat sharing how simply being in this province brings him joy. When asked how he is on this April day he responds cheerily with, “I’m very well, thank you. How could I not be? I’m in St. John’s.”

 Charest has quite the political resume. First elected to the House of Commons in 1984 under former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative (PC) government, he would serve in several federal cabinet positions between 1986 and 1993. Charest became the leader of the PC Party in 1993, a role he remained in until entering provincial politics in Quebec in 1998 and was premier of that province for three consecutive terms, from 2003 to 2012. The 63-year-old, who is re-entering federal politics after a 30 year absence, officially confirmed his candidacy for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in Calgary, telling those in attendance he was confident in his ability to win the next federal election. Charest, campaigning under the slogan “built to win,” describes himself (via his campaign website) as a “conservative voice that can bring our movement together around common cause issues that champion our values.”

Others vying to lead the party include current party favourite Pierre Poilievre and social conservative Leslyn Lewis.

While voters throughout NL have not been welcoming to the Conservative party through the last three federal elections, Charest admitted that while he knows he has work to do, he’s also determined.  “I intend to be a prime minister for Newfoundland Labrador. And as someone who knows the issues well, I’m very enthusiastic about getting support here and representing the province and working with people here in the province,” he said.

Charest says that part of the reason he has such an affiliation for this place is because of the late John Crosbie, who was both a colleague and a friend.

“I had a great admiration for that man. I worked with John Crosbie in cabinet. I supported a lot of what he put forward for Newfoundland and Labrador and we became friends,” he said.

Crosbie’s impact

In fact, Charest added, he thought highly of him personally, as well. “I just admired the way he led his life. He was a free thinker – an original. He was a staunch defender of Newfoundland  and Labrador. He breathed it. He ate it. It was his life. And I thought that was an example of what all of us should do for the people that we represent.”

But Crosbie’s impact was felt far beyond this province, he continued. “He left a mark on the country. He made an impact.” Charest has many “Crosbie” stories and many examples of the influence the man had. “If you were a member of parliament or a minister and you wanted to do an event in your riding, in Saskatchewan or anywhere, you invited John Crosbie and the room would be packed. No matter where he went, people were fascinated with him and thought he was one of a kind. I thought the world of him, and that’s why I wanted to attend his funeral, to show my respect and to help celebrate an extraordinary life.” 

Crosbie supported his leadership bid in ‘93, something that was “an honour,” Charest added, but most treasured memories revolve around the friendship.

There were fishing trips with Crosbie and the late George H.W. Bush, former president of the United States, as well as the late Craig Dobbin of Universal Helicopters.  The men visited Labrador, fishing at Adlatok River throughout the 1990s. Charest has so many personal tales of times spent with Crosbie. 

“I remember when I was in opposition … he and Jane (Crosbie’s wife) came over for dinner at the house and with our children, and we just had such a great time, but I remember John would say all sorts of provocative things. One time my young daughter got in an argument with him and Jane had to intervene, saying, ‘John! Stop it!’ And then Jane saying to my daughter, ‘don’t listen to him!’ There’ll never be another John Crosbie. He was such an original. I was fortunate to have his support of me in the leadership race and to have him as a friend.”

 Does Charest think NL is ready to welcome the Conservative party back? The ABC campaign (Anything But Conservative) launched by then NL premier Danny Williams against Stephen Harper in the 2008 Canadian federal election, encouraged voters in the province to support any party but the federal Conservatives. However, Charest says with renewed passion, “now’s the time to transition to a new era.”

It’s something Newfoundlanders and Labradorians experienced before, he added, back when John Crosbie was in office. “I was part of that. Big things got done, that’s when the Atlantic Accord was done. That’s when we set the framework that launched this economy. Hibernia came after that. That was a golden period of extraordinary cooperation between the federal government and Newfoundland and Labrador and that’s what we need now, what we’re looking to have in the future.”

He has big plans for the country, and  he feels NL will play a large role in that. 

“Newfoundland and Labrador needs an ally in Ottawa to be able to expand its energy projects and bring them to North America. And I want to do that, I want to be that Prime Minister. I want to write that chapter for Newfoundland and Labrador.”

‘You need a CT scan’

It has to be asked: with such a break from politics, why step back in now? Charest laughed, and in John Crosbie style answered first with: “Well, my wife Michèle told me, ‘I think you need a CT scan.’” 

However, the leadership hopeful insists he loves this country and he cares what happens. 

“It is about the country. I care very deeply about this country, my whole life. That’s why I went to Quebec to push back on the separatists wanting to hold a referendum and then turning that around. But I look at the country now and it’s deeply divided,” he said.

It’s these uncertain times when the country turns to the Conservatives, he added. “We should be the alternative to this [Liberal] government. People say, ‘get your act together and get yourself organized.’ That’s what’s got me in this race. The alternatives are not attractive.

“Either we go down the route of American-style politics or we are going to remain Canadian … I’m running for that reason: to unite the party and deliver a national government to the country and move us out of the divisions.  As someone who’s been a premier and understands how this federal system works inside and out, I want to make the system work to get things done.” 

How has his NL visit gone, we ask. It’s been positive, he said. In fact, he calls his reception “heart warming.”

Leo Power, Eugene Manning and Carol Anstey have been helping his campaign here in this province, he shared. “It’s been fantastic. The people have been great.  It’s a unique part of the world and being here is fantastic before I have to go to Ottawa and react to the budget.”   

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