Quebec Premier Jean Charest categorically rejected allegations that the wealthy and powerful Desmarais family exercises influence over his government.
Mr. Charest acknowledged having attended “social events” and even having spent the night at the large Desmarais family estate known as ‘Sagard’ located in the picturesque Charlevoix region just east of Quebec City.
When asked repeatedly at the conclusion of a two-day caucus meeting how many times he had been at Sagard since becoming Premier, Mr. Charest refused to be specific, saying he never conducted any business with the Desmarais family when he was there.
“There were many people who were there. They were social activities,” Mr. Charest said. “They (Desmarais family members) have no particular influence on the government....I’m the Premier of Quebec and I think we have to have confidence in the people who represent us and confidence in their judgment.”
Ethical issues were raised recently involving the Desmarais family ties with public officials after it was reported that Michael Sabia head of the Quebec pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec spent three days last August at the Desmarais mansion.
The Quebec Lobbying Commissioner said it would examine whether the Desmarais’ were in contact with Mr. Sabia in an attempt to influence business decisions and if so whether they complied with the law. Quebec law requires businesses involved in lobbying activities with the government or public bodies must be registered with the Lobbying Commission.
Mr. Charest insisted “there was no lobbying” conducted while he was at Sagard.
The billionaire family members are among Canada’s wealthiest and most influential business leaders with interests in financial services, the media and stakes in major European and Chinese companies.
At least one cabinet minister expressed concerns about close ties businesses have over governments. Health Minister Yves Bolduc was asked how he would react if the head of a large pharmaceutical company invited him to stay the night at his personal residence. Mr. Bolduc said he would decline the invitation for fear that he may found in conflict of interest.
Mr. Charest has maintained close ties with the Desmarais family throughout his tenure in politics especially since becoming Premier in 2003. In a diplomatic dispatch obtained by WikiLeaks and released in May 2011, the United States ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, underscored the “influence” exercised by the Desmarais family’s Power Corporation on the Charest government’s energy policies. Both Mr. Charest and Power Corporation strongly refuted the allegations at the time.
In February 2008 when Power Corporation founder Paul Desmarais Sr. received the Grand-Croix de la légion d’honneur, the highest honour ever bestowed on a Canadian citizen by the French government, Mr. Charest was among the guests invited at the ceremony hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mr. Charest was not the only Quebec politician to maintain ties with the Desmarais family. Former Parti Québécois premier Bernard Landry once boasted in the National Assembly that he met four times with Paul Desmarais Sr. And Mr. Desmarais’ son is married to former Prime Minister jean Chrétien’s daughter.
Mr. Charest went to great lengths to distance himself from the perception by some opposition parties that he was being influenced by powerful business interests. He insisted his personal ties have no bearing on public policy.
The issue will likely be raised again next week by the opposition parties when the National Assembly resumes sitting.
Mr. Charest said his main concern will be the economy adding that the session will be highlighted by the tabling of the budget next month and the promotion of a Northern development plan. The Plan Nord will be the focus of a major public exhibition in Montreal on April 20-21. The Premier said the event will underscore the economic impact major mining projects will have on the Quebec economy. The political impact of the event will also be gauged to determine when next provincial election will be called.
“The election won’t be called before April 20-21,” Mr. Charest said, pointing to the Plan nord as a major component of his pre-election strategy.