Jean Charest has confirmed Quebeckers will vote in a provincial election for Sept. 4 — the day after Labour Day.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Charest had gone to the province's lieutenant-governor to dissolve the National Assembly and launch his fifth election campaign as the head of the Quebec Liberals.
At 11:23 a.m. on Wednesday, Mr. Charest emerged from a cabinet meeting, holding hands with his wife, Michèle Dionne.
"It's a very nice day," Mr. Charest said, reserving his comments on the election call for a news conference to be held at the Quebec City airport in the afternoon.
Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois launched her party's election campaign hours earlier with an attack not only against Mr. Charest's government, but also against Ottawa – calling Canada a "risk" to Quebec.
But Ms. Marois refused to make a clear commitment to holding a referendum on sovereignty should the PQ form the next government.
Ms. Marois's ambiguity on holding a referendum has become the main target of attacks by her adversaries and those within her party. The Liberals and the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec party lead by a former prominent PQ minister François Legault have made the issue a central part of their campaign against the PQ.
Ms. Marois was anxious to hit the campaign trail, attacking Mr. Charest's "used" and "corrupt" Liberal government during a press conference ahead of the election call. She said the campaign will be decided by "us" Quebeckers, not by the rest of Canada – or by foreign companies.
"Quebec needs to stand-up against Stephen Harper's government attacks against out economic interests and our values. Canada has become a risk for Quebec. We will eventually have to choose between remaining a province of Canada or become a country," Ms. Marois said in a statement marking the beginning of what is expected to be hard-fought campaign. "in the coming weeks it will be for us to decide. It won't be up to Canada to choose for Quebec. It won't be up to foreign companies to decide for us. It will be up to Quebeckers."
While insisting that sovereignty will be an important part of the campaign, Ms. Marois made it clear that the election will not hinge on whether Quebeckers want another referendum to decide their political future. The decision for voters, she argued, will be about choosing a government that can offer transparency, honesty and integrity after witnessing for several years a Liberal regime that has catered to special interests. For Ms. Marois, the focus of the campaign will be Mr. Charest's record – not the sovereignty agenda.
"We will not be voting for or against a referendum. We will be voting for a government who can offer policies that respond to the needs of Quebeckers. The day we decide to hold a referendum there won't be any surprises and Quebecers will be able to decide," Ms. Marois said.
Ms Marois has also had to fend off attacks over her support of the student protest movement. This will become a central part of the campaign when classes in colleges and universities resume later this month under the threat of further strikes and demonstrations. Ms. Marois was accused by Mr. Charest of siding with the protestors against tuition fee hikes. Rather than defend the interest of all Quebeckers, Mr. Charest said she took to the streets to participate in demonstrations and bearing the red square, the symbol of the student protest movement.
"I like being part of the street movement…being part of peaceful demonstrations," Ms. Marois responded during Wednesday's news conference. "It would do Mr. Charest some good do the same."
During the first day of the campaign, Ms. Marois made several stops to introduce regional candidates and set the tone for what she hopes will generate interest among voters. In Trois-Riviéres attention quickly turned to the new PQ recruit Djemila Benhabib, an Algerian-born 39-year-old who arrived in Quebec 15 years ago. Ms. Benhahib was parachuted into a predominantly francophone riding as a symbol of Quebec's openness to the integration of cultural communities.
"We reject Canadian multiculturalism," which likens Quebec to a cultural community, Ms. Marois said, insisting that Ms. Benhahib's background, which may have once been considered a handicap in a region like Trois-Riviéres, was now an asset.
"I have a different accent, with an odd name for some. But I won't hold it against you," Ms. Benhahib told the small crowd gathered for the campaign launch.
Not far from Trois-Riviéres is the small community of Hérouxville, which a few years ago sparked a debate over cultural accommodation by adopting a bylaw banning certain controversial practices by the Islamic community.