Charest embraces pipelines and his 'underdog' status as he launches Conservative leadership bid

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest says he has no problem with his "underdog" status in the race to lead the Conservative Party of Canada.

Former Quebec premier is kicking off a national tour in Calgary

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest will meet with supporters in Calgary Thursday evening to kick off his national tour. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest says he has no problem with his "underdog" status in the race to lead the Conservative Party of Canada.

Charest publicly confirmed his leadership bid Thursday morning with a series of media interviews, including a conversation with Radio-Canada.

He kicks off a national tour tonight in Calgary and has been vocal about his willingness to see a new pipeline built.

News of Charest's run has divided opinion within the party. Supporters call him a proven leader who can unite the country. Opponents say his track record on taxation and carbon pricing, and his embrace of the long gun registry, place him outside the party's values.

Charest pushes back against polling

Radio-Canada host Mélanye Boissonnault asked Charest about a new poll that puts him well behind the frontrunner, MP Pierre Poilievre.

Charest pointed out that he hadn't formally entered the race when the poll was conducted. 

"It doesn't bother me to be qualified as an underdog," he said. "We'll have a race on the issues and we'll have a lot of time to debate."

Charest, who is running under the slogan "built to win", is entering the race more than a month after his primary opponent announced his intentions. Poilievre put out a video Feb. 5 saying he wants to be Canada's next prime minister.

Another Ontario MP, Leslyn Lewis, announced Tuesday that she would also be running for the leadership.

Charest's pro-pipeline stance

While Charest is pitching himself as someone who can unite the country, some in the party are asking questions about how the candidacy of a former Quebec premier will play in Western Canada.

Poilievre and his supporters have been quick to attack aspects of Charest's record by accusing him of being too similar to the Liberals.

Launching a national tour in Calgary appears to be part of the plan to push back against some of those attacks. Charest also has been talking up Canadian energy in response to Russia's war on Ukraine.

"I've always been in favour of having pipeline infrastructure," he told Radio-Canada, noting there was a pipeline built between Levis, Que and Montreal while he was premier. He said pipelines get built if they're justified and pass environmental evaluations.

The attack on Ukraine has demonstrated how Europe's dependence on Russian energy makes the continent vulnerable, he said.

Canada providing fuel to Europe, he said, is better than allowing those markets to source oil and gas from countries that "don't share our values."

Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Poilievre also has been vocal about increasing the world's supply of Canadian oil and gas. He even accused some unnamed European nations of a "weak" response to the Ukrainian crisis, claiming they were "cowering" before the threat of Russia cutting off fuel supplies.

Poilievre is widely considered to be the front-runner in the race. He and his team have been slamming Charest for over a week, claiming he is a Liberal and comparing him to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Charest did lead the Quebec Liberal Party while premier from 2003 to 2012. Charest's supporters have argued the provincial party is a coalition and there was no direct equivalent of the federal Conservatives at the provincial level. 

Charest was also a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's government in the 1980s and 1990s and leader of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative party.

Charest and Bill 21

Charest also weighed in on the politically charged issue of Quebec's secularism law, known as Bill 21, which bans some public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.

He seemed to suggest a Charest government would be prepared to challenge the law.

"It's not me who will initiate court challenges, but if the case finds itself before the Supreme Court of Canada, we will have our say," he told Radio-Canada.

He noted that when issues of cultural accommodation came up during his time as premier, he received clear advice about what was and wasn't a violation of the Quebec charter and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Charest and Huawei

The former premier can expect challenges over his policy track record and questions about whether he's the right person for the moment.

While Poilievre enjoys a strong social media following, Charest only launched a Twitter account on Thursday.

Charest left office in 2012 with a cloud over his administration. The Quebec Liberal Party was facing numerous allegations of corruption. Late last month, however, an investigation into the party's financing quietly ended without any charges being laid. 

Charest went on to work in the private sector after his time in politics. His work at McCarthy Tetrault included providing strategic advice to companies to help them lobby governments.

The Globe and Mail has reported that work included advising Chinese telecom company Huawei on the Meng Wanzhou case and 5G networks.

Conservative leadership hopefuls have until April 19 to enter the race. The six-month campaign will wrap up on Sept 10, when the party chooses its next leader.

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