June 1, 2012

The difficult job of leading Quebec


---- — Being the premier of Quebec is not for the faint of heart.

In the past 50 years, three premiers — Maurice Duplessis, Paul Sauve and Daniel Johnson Sr. — have died in office, the latter two in their early 50s. Two died in their early 60s about two years after they left office: Rene Levesque and Robert Bourassa. You might say it’s a killer job.

Those who didn’t die of being premier were push or purged by their own parties: Daniel Johnson Jr., Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. Some who were exiled by their own parties hung around as what they call belles-meres (mothers-in-law) to provide generally unappreciated public advice to their successors as leader or premier.

Jean Charest, the current premier of Quebec, was relatively young when he won the job in April 2003. He was about to turn 44 at the time. Ten years earlier, he came 188 votes short of becoming prime minister of Canada.

In 1984, running as a Progressive Conservative in his hometown Sherbrooke riding, he rode Brian Mulroney’s wave to power and two years later, when he was 28, was named the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history. His first portfolio was for Youth, which seemed fitting since he was young, only three years out of law school when he ran for Parliament.

In 1998, after Charest led the decimated Progressive Conservative Party back from a two-seat oblivion, the Quebec Liberal Party came courting. The Liberals were seeking a credible leader to wage battle against the mercurial Lucien Bouchard, Charest’s former Mulroney cabinet colleague, who, as the new leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois and soon-to-be premier of Quebec, brought Quebec to within a few thousand votes of independence.

Charest finds himself in surely one of the most difficult moments of his 28 years in politics. What started off as a long-anticipated plan to raise Quebec university fees to what would still be the cheapest in Canada, has morphed into a pot-clanging, window-smashing, police-clashing, months-long movement that some foreign media have taken to calling the Maple Spring, which translates much better as the printemps d’erable (pronounced to sound like “arab”).

It’s not as if Charest has never seen a mob in the street before. The one at the parade for the 1990 St. Jean Baptist Day — Quebec’s traditional holiday, which also happens to be Charest’s birthday — probably still sends chills up Charest’s spine.

That mass gathering came in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord constitutional reform package Mulroney hoped would appease Quebec nationalists and heal the rift left over from the 1981 constitutional negotiations (see my April 20 column). When certain premiers squelched the Meech Lake deal, Quebecers were angry and support for sovereignty soared to unseen high levels.

The student protests, financed by the deep pockets of Quebec’s big unions, have been so persistent and so polarizing — not to mention loud, costly and annoying for average citizens — may have taken Charest by surprise.

Oddly enough, Charest’s old rival over the federalist-separatist divide, Lucien Bouchard, has come out in support of, if not Charest personally, the necessity to raise tuition fees to help in a modest way to improve Quebec’s universities, which, for the most part, have little claim to world-class stature.

As of this writing, negotiations between student leaders and government officials appear to be making headway toward resolving the dispute. According to one report, the government was offering a package that would include a reduction in the amount of the annual increase by some $35, to $219. The total hike would be about $1,500 over seven years. Should Charest reach a deal and quell the student unrest — only about a third of Quebec students have been boycotting classes as part of the protest — he would be in a better position to call an election in the fall.

There is some speculation that Charest may be preparing the ground for a successor, given his chronic unpopularity (he was nearly prime minister of Canada, remember?). Which means he would be among the rare Quebec premiers to leave office in relatively good health, both politically and physically.