Quebec Liberal Party leader Jean Charest

Jean Charest, 54, is a seasoned political scrapper, never more on his game than when on the campaign trail. But it will take more than his wits and instincts to emerge victorious on Sept. 4.
Liberal leader Jean Charest is seeking his fourth consecutive mandate. (The Canadian Press)

Jean Charest is a seasoned political scrapper, never more on his game than when on the campaign trail. But it will take more than his wits and instincts to have the Quebec Liberal Party emerge victorious on Sept. 4.

Charest is taking a gamble that a majority of Quebec voters will stand by his "get tough" approach with striking students and the plan his Liberal government put forward 16 months ago to end the long-standing freeze on university tuition fees. 

The prize — should this roll-of-the-dice pay off — is an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office for the Liberals, a feat not witnessed in Quebec since the era of the Union Nationale’s Maurice Duplessis.

Charest, 54, is the longest-serving premier in Canada, but also the country’s least popular, with an approval rating recently hovering around 25 per cent.

Allegations of political influence-peddling and corruption have dogged Charest and his party, finally forcing the Liberal leader to call a commission of inquiry into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.

Public hearings resume in September, and while Charest has steadfastly maintained his party's innocence, he is undoubtedly eager to go to the polls before the daily televised proceedings recapture Quebecers' attention.

Charest aspires to ‘Plan Nord’ legacy

Charest will campaign on fiscal stewardship, notably how well the province weathered the global recession and his government’s commitment to return to a balanced budget by 2014.

Expect to hear about the Plan Nord at many campaign stops. Charest calls the plan the "project of a generation." 

His dream is to stay in power long enough to kickstart $80-billion in private and public energy and resource projects in northern Quebec over the next quarter century.

Charest would love the Plan Nord to be his legacy — what the James Bay hydro-electric development was to his Liberal predecessor Robert Bourassa.

Organized student strikes while in high school

Jean Charest was born in Sherbrooke on June 24, 1958. 

At 15, he met his wife, Michèle Dionne, the mother of his three children, Amélie, Antoine and Alexandra.

His career in politics began early, when he was elected high school president in his final year at École Montcalm.

"It was the start of the 1970s," he recalled in his 1998 autobiography J’ai choisi le Québec.

"We organized strikes, protests, negotiations with the teachers," Charest wrote. "For me, it was an apprenticeship in public responsibility… learning to resolve conflicts, to listen, to look for solutions… and when need be, to say no."

Charest studied law in Sherbrooke and, at age 26, launched his political career in Ottawa, winning Sherbrooke for the federal Progressive Conservatives in 1984.

At 28, he became the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history, appointed secretary of state for Fitness and Amateur Sport.

Charest lost a bid for the Conservative leadership to Kim Campbell in 1993. But after the Tories were soundly trounced in the federal election, Charest took over as party leader a few months later. He was a pivotal force in efforts to rebuild the shattered party.

Passport moment remembered

He made his mark on the Quebec scene in the 1995 referendum battle, fighting for the No side with charisma and passion. In one memorable moment, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Canadian passport, waving it to the crowd.

"On Oct. 30, Jacques Parizeau will ask you to take your passport and hand it over," Charest exclaimed.

The Quebec Liberal Party remembered that and recruited him to lead a fight against the reigning PQ and its fiery leader, then premier Lucien Bouchard.

Charest rallied the Liberals, who won the popular vote but lost the 1998 election. 

He served as the Opposition leader in the national assembly until 2003, when he steered the Liberals to a solid victory — ending the Parti Québécois’ nine-year reign.

Charest was re-elected to his own Sherbrooke seat by the narrowest of margins in 2007 – hanging on with less than half a percentage point over his closest rival. Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Québec stunned the pundits, sweeping into Opposition with 41 seats, and Charest found himself leading the first minority government in Quebec since 1878.

Eighteen months later, Charest went back to the polls, promising to provide stability in the face of the looming global economic crisis.

He won a third consecutive term – the first for any party in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution.