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Charest: He gave Canada a decade of peace and Quebeckers constant turmoil

Quebec Liberal party leader Jean Charest and his wife Michele Dionne take to the stage following the provincial polls closing in Tuesday, Que. September 4, 2012.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This time, there was no dramatic comeback, no ultimate redemption for Jean Charest, only defeat with a bitter side of personal humiliation.

Quebec's Liberal Party is headed for the Official Opposition benches without Mr. Charest, who was defeated in his own riding on the 28th anniversary of his first election, then as a federal MP.

In a farewell speech that lacked only the farewell, Mr. Charest described how the Liberal Party would continue to fight for Quebeckers. He did not say if that work would go on with or without him, but Mr. Charest will meet his cabinet Wednesday and is expected to call a news conference afterward.

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"If one person must assume responsibility, it's me. But I do so with goodwill and a light heart," Mr. Charest said.

As the Liberal Leader emphasized, the 49 seats his party held as he spoke outstripped expectations. His party ran third in several recent polls but finished just one percentage point behind the Parti Québécois. At the same time, the Liberal's 31-per-cent share of the popular vote is a historic low.

"I want to thank the activists of the Liberal Party, who once again proved the pollsters wrong," he said.

It was Mr. Charest's first defeat as leader since the then-youthful Liberal leader was outfoxed by Lucien Bouchard 14 years ago. Mr. Charest had never before lost in the Sherbrooke riding where he has always run, both federally and provincially.

Mr. Charest has always fancied himself the master of the comeback, a man underestimated by friends and foes alike. His voice crackled with laryngitis and his wife, Michèle Dionne, wept as he described her as the best support a man could have.

"Our party will leave a house in good order," he said.

Mr. Charest spoke of how the party would co-operate with the PQ minority government, how the party would contribute to building Quebec.

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Mr. Charest arrived as Quebec premier in 2003 and gave Canadians a decade of tranquility after years of constitutional turmoil. But for Quebeckers looking for some quiet within the borders of their province, peace never came.

In his first year in office, he collided head on with the province's labour unions over plans to diminish their power and cut government jobs. Ten years later, it was students hitting the streets in the biggest social upheaval the province has seen since the 1970s, outside of two referendums.

The students were bolstered by the taint of unethical behaviour and corruption that had seeped into many of the province's biggest cities under Mr. Charest's watch.

Right from that start, on April 14, 2003, the premier governed in a halting fashion; but he had the good fortune of always facing down a succession of weak Parti Québécois leaders.

He promised to "re-engineer" Quebec into a less bureaucratic, more business-friendly province. He backed down after months of union protest. It was only the start of a long line of policy decisions that were quickly abandoned in the face of opposition, from public funding for Jewish schools to the sale of a provincially owned ski resort and the opening of a gas-powered electricity generation station and shale gas exploration.

The many backtracks in the first two-thirds of his rule made his iron stand against protesting students all the more surprising, creating suspicion that it was less about principle and more about finding a wedge issue.

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"I'm not in a state of mind to try to run through the regrets. There are always things you'd like to have differently, to try to communicate. When we started our mandate in 2003, there were certainly things. I've learned from that," Mr. Charest said in the final news conference of his campaign.

Mr. Charest had served for three mandates over nine years, four months and 21 days as Tuesday night's results rolled in.

Mr. Charest did lead Quebec through nine years of reasonable stewardship of public finances, balancing the budget for several years along the way, aided by above-average economic growth.

Mr. Charest also has unfinished business. His Plan Nord to turn Quebec's north into a gold mine of resource exploration is barely underway.

But whatever else Mr. Charest may have accomplished, his greatest gift to Canada is probably 10 years of peace on the national unity file. The legacy he may leave Quebeckers remains unclear.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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