Former Quebec premier Jean Charest is a lot greyer than I remembered, but that radiant smile is still intact, as is his good nature and outlook on life. I hadn’t seen him in a very long time.
We met recently at his law office in Montreal and instinctively embraced each other. We go back a long way. It was 30 years ago, when he was first elected as a member of Parliament from Sherbrooke, Quebec, in the 1984 Mulroney sweep.
I will always remember him as the first person to make me begin to feel old. I was standing outside the House of Commons, when he introduced himself. He told me that, when he was a young teen and I would be reporting on TV, his father would say, “Pay attention, that Moscovitz guy is good.”
When we met, he was in his early-20s, I was in my early-30s, and we’d both just had our first children. Both baby girls. We hit up a friendship that would last as long as he was only moderately successful in politics. When he became a Mulroney cabinet minister, the active friendship ended. It was not healthy for a minister to be too friendly with a reporter.
But, professionally, we watched and were interested in each other’s careers, and relations were always good. I remember his run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in 1993. He put on a great campaign, but could not beat the establishment-backed Kim Campbell. He was heartbroken, and political fate had a far worse turn for him.
After the 1993 election, Charest, by default, became the Tory leader with a measly two MPs elected from across Canada: himself and another lonely soul from New Brunswick. His dream was to be prime minister of Canada, but, from a base of two, that was impossible.
When we met a few weeks ago, he was 18 months into a law career begun after serving as Quebec premier for nine years. I’d had no contact with him in those years. In fact, he became premier after I had left journalism. We had a lot of history to catch up on.
After the Parti Québécois was beaten seven months ago, a strong consensus developed that Quebec separatism had suffered its worst electoral defeat in four decades and it was a great victory for a united Canada. While Charest was not part of that election campaign, his footprints were all over it.
He left his dream to be prime minister of Canada in 1997 because the federalist side in Quebec was in desperate need of a leader after its near-defeat in the 1995 referendum. He reluctantly took up the call and then spent almost 15 years passionately working to help change the mindset in Quebec.
Sure we talked politics when we met, and I told him that, as legacies go, his will remain intact as a politician who, from start to finish, was true to his own personal brand. Charest always believed in a strong Quebec within Canada and fought for that his whole political life. When his career was over, he could proudly say that mission was accomplished with flying colours.
Now, an interesting question would be whether he would like to renew that other dream of becoming prime minister. My instincts told me not to ask the question, despite knowing politics is a career where dreams never die.
My guess is that he would love to try again. And, while his heart may tell him to go for it, his head tells him the odds would be a few million to one. Although still relatively young, his days in politics are done, and he knows it.
How is it we met after all these years?
Well, I wasn’t alone. My daughter, Hannah, was visiting from Israel. The doctorate thesis she is working on is about national identity, and post-secondary education in Quebec is one of her case studies. She had written to Charest requesting an interview and he replied favourably, with one request: that I would be there to say hello.
Hannah was thrilled to interview a former premier and that I could be there to share her happiness and make her visit from Israel that much more memorable.
An old friend with a good heart made it happen.