Jean Charest, lawyer, politician, premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012 (born on 24 June 1958 in Sherbrooke, Qc). As a member of the Progressive Conservative Party, Jean Charest became the youngest person to be appointed to Cabinet. Between 1993 and 1998, he led the party after Kim Campbell resigned. Charest then became the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party and acted as premier of Quebec from 2003 until 2012. In 2022, he joined Historica Canada’s board of directors.
Jean Charest was born in Sherbrooke to parents Rita (née Leonard) and Claude “Red” Charest. With both anglophone and francophone parents, he grew up speaking French and English fluently. Charest received both his undergraduate degree and a degree in law at the Université de Sherbrooke.
Early Political Career
Jean Charest was first elected as the Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke in 1984. He was almost immediately appointed the assistant deputy speaker of the House of Commons, a position he held from November 1984 to June 1986. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney then made Charest the Minister of State (Youth). He became the youngest person ever to serve in the federal Cabinet. Mulroney added the responsibilities of Fitness and Amateur Sport in March 1988 and deputy leader of the House of Commons on 30 January 1989. While in New Zealand for the Commonwealth Games in January 1990, Charest resigned from Cabinet for having spoken to a superior court judge during a case regarding the Canadian Track and Field Association (see Track and Field).
In 1990, Mulroney appointed Charest as chair of a special committee to study a companion resolution to the Meech Lake Accord. The Charest report, with its proposed modifications to the Meech Lake deal, was the pretext for the departure of Lucien Bouchard from the Mulroney Cabinet.
Charest returned to the Cabinet as Minister of the Environment on 21 April 1991. He led the Canadian delegation to the Earth Summit in Brazil. He also sat on the Cabinet Committees on Priorities and Planning and on Canadian Unity and Constitutional Negotiations.
Charest ran for the leadership of the federal Conservatives in 1993. He finished a strong second to Kim Campbell at the June convention in Ottawa. He was deputy prime minister and Minister of Industry and Science in the short-lived Campbell government. He was then one of only two Conservative Members of Parliament elected in the 1993 campaign.
Charest became interim chief of the party on 14 December 1993 and was confirmed as leader in 1995 (the first French Canadian ever to head the Conservatives). He spent the next two years rebuilding the party, fundraising, and creating a consensus for a new platform that heavily emphasized conservative economic themes. In the 1997 election, the Charest Conservatives secured 18 per cent of the national vote and 20 seats overall. The Reform Party, with the same percentage of the vote but concentrated in the West, managed three times the number of seats.
1995 Quebec Referendum
Jean Charest was a powerful and decisive voice in the 1995 Quebec referendum. His popularity in the province increased thereafter with the polls taken in the summer of 1997 showing him ahead of premier Lucien Bouchard. In early 1998, when Daniel Johnson resigned as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Charest was persuaded to accept the leadership. He resigned as Conservative leader on 3 April and became Quebec Liberal leader in May.
Jean Charest, a Quebec nationalist whose agenda asserts Quebec’s interests within Canada rather than separation or sovereignty, defeated the Parti Québécois led by Bernard Landry on 14 April 2003. During his first administration, he sought to effect sweeping reforms to the provision of services by privatizing in some areas.
In the general election of 21 February 2007, the Liberals, campaigning on a platform of tax cuts, health care and educational reforms, were returned with a minority. Charest only narrowly won his own seat in Sherbrooke against his Parti Québécois opponent. In November 2008, Charest called a snap election, arguing that he needed a majority to respond to the economic crisis. The resulting 8 December 2008 election saw the Liberals returned with a majority. Their slogan, L’économie d’abord, oui (the economy first, yes), summarized the party’s platform, which focused on achieving economic stability in Quebec; this resonated with voters during one of the most turbulent economic times in recent memory. (See Recession of 2008–09 in Canada.) Jean Charest’s 2008 win made him the first Quebec premier since Maurice Duplessis to win three successive mandates in the province. On 2 February 2009, Jean Charest was made a commander of the Legion of Honour by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
By the Quebec general election of 2012, public support for Charest and the Liberal party had declined. Several government policies were unpopular, including the proposed tuition increases for post-secondary education. Masses of students protested, boycotting classes in response to the government’s plans to increase tuition by over $300 per year for five years. Hundreds of thousands of students went on strike, joined by members of unions and opposition political parties, among other supporters. In May 2012 the Charest government passed Bill 78, an emergency measure with a stated purpose to ensure that students had access to their educational institutions. The legislation placed significant restrictions on protests. While the bill was praised by some, it was also criticized by many organizations, including the Quebec Human Rights Commission. (See 2012 Quebec Student Strike.)
In the 2012 general election, Charest lost his riding and the Quebec Liberal Party fell to second place. Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, became the first female premier of Quebec, at the head of a minority government. Charest resigned as party leader shortly after the election, ending a 28-year career in politics. In January 2013, Charest returned to the practice of law, joining the firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP as a full equity partner.
2022 Conservative Leadership Race
In March 2022, Jean Charest officially announced that he would run for the Conservative party’s leadership. During the leadership race, he frequently clashed with Pierre Poilievre. For many, Charest represented a moderate and traditional vision of the Conservative party while Poilievre stood for a more right-wing populist approach. In September 2022, Conservative members elected Poilievre as party leader. He received 70 per cent of all votes while Charest came in second with 11.65 per cent of votes. After his defeat, Charest announced that he was returning to work in the private sector.