Former PQ minister Réjean Hébert considering a run for federal Liberals

Réjean Hébert, a former PQ minister of health, is considering a bid for federal office — as a Liberal.

Réjean Hébert was health minister in Pauline Marois' government from 2012 to 2014

Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Réjean Hébert is considering a run for the federal Liberals in the October election. (Radio-Canada)

Réjean Hébert, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister, is ready to turn the page on the sovereignty debate and is seriously considering a run for the federal Liberals in October's federal election.

Hébert, who served as Quebec's minister of health during the brief PQ government of Pauline Marois from 2012 to 2014, told Radio-Canada that he is prepared to return to politics as a Liberal candidate if he is "persuaded" that the party will prioritize home care, the prevention of chronic diseases and fighting climate change in its election platform.

Now a professor and dean of the École de santé publique at the Université de Montréal, Hébert originally was approached by the federal Liberals to provide advice on policy issues. But it was a subsequent approach by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that now has him contemplating a return to the political arena.

In an interview with Radio-Canada's Louis Blouin Monday, Hébert said he told the prime minister that "if I feel that I can advance these issues by getting back into partisan politics, I wouldn't say no.

"But I have to be persuaded that these issues are also a shared preoccupation of the Liberal Party for the upcoming elections.

"I'm not a career politician. I'm a project politician."

The former provincial cabinet minister said he believes the federal government has an important role to play in giving overall direction to the health care system, particularly in the areas of home care and pharmacare.

Hébert said he is mulling a run for the Liberals because it's the only "progressive" party that has a chance of governing.

"We have a window of opportunity right now with a centre-left party and government that can decide to turn these issues into an election platform, and if that happens I will be there," he said. "I will take advantage of this opportunity to advance the country."

Sovereignty 'not on the agenda'

It isn't unheard of for a former sovereigntist to run for a non-sovereigntist federal party. The late Jean Lapierre was one of the original Bloc Québécois MPs before he quit politics and then returned to the Liberal Party.

Andrew Scheer's Conservatives also have wooed former Bloc leader Michel Gauthier to stump for them ahead of this fall's federal election.

Hébert said he is still a "nationalist" but he no longer considers sovereignty an important issue. After he left politics following his defeat in the 2014 provincial election, Hébert said, he recognized that the population was no longer interested in independence and that "if we want to keep advancing Quebec and Canada, then we have to go in another direction.

"For me, sovereignty today is not on the agenda, it isn't a social debate right now. And while that's the case we have to make this country work and it needs to evolve. We need to ensure that Canada adopts policies that represent us, and what's good for Canada will be good for Quebec."

Hébert said he drew a lesson from the 2018 provincial election campaign, when the two sovereignist centre-left parties — the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire — split the progressive vote to the benefit of the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec, which formed a majority government.

Hébert said he wants to focus debate on major societal issues. He said sovereignty isn't one of them — but Pascal Bérubé, interim leader of the PQ, questioned the move.

"I do remember him as a colleague and he was telling us how bad the federal government's intrusion in the health system was for Quebec. It's still the same," he said. "I guess he wanted this job so badly that he didn't remember what he said about the federal government in the health system."

Speaking to reporters in Vancouver on Tuesday, Trudeau said that "although there continues to be people who strongly and passionately believe in an independence option for Quebec, many of those people continue to work very hard alongside us on creating better opportunities for everyone, challenges that will remain regardless of the political system in which we find ourselves.

"So, I am encouraged to see so many people focused on how we can work together to build a better future for everyone, rather than focusing on the divisive debates of the past."

Final decision coming within weeks

Hébert said he will decide whether to take the plunge before the end of the month.

He said he hasn't yet settled on where he would like to run as a candidate. A seat in the Montreal region, where he works, is an option, but the former dean of the faculty of medicine at Université de Sherbrooke also said he has a deep attachment to the Eastern Townships.

Promoted as a star candidate in the 2012 provincial election, Hébert won the riding of Saint-François for the Parti Québécois by a margin of just 65 votes over the Quebec Liberal candidate. Compton–Stanstead, the federal riding that shares much of the same boundaries as Hébert's old provincial seat, is occupied by Liberal MP Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of agriculture. 

Another option in the Eastern Townships for Hébert might be Sherbrooke, held by the NDP's Pierre-Luc Dusseault.

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With files from Cathy Senay and Louis Blouin


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