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Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to a question during a new conference while visiting a farm Friday, August 24, 2012 in St-Hyacinthe, Que. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to a question during a new conference while visiting a farm Friday, August 24, 2012 in St-Hyacinthe, Que. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

What is Charest’s alternative to PQ’s referendum strategy? Add to ...

"Captain Canada," sovereigntists will sometimes say in order to avoid actually pronouncing Jean Charest’s name.

The Liberal Leader has revelled in the Parti Québécois’s confusion about referendum strategy smack in the middle of the election campaign. But his glee does raise the question: Just what is he proposing as an alternative?

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The answer: Not much. Mr. Charest, who was among the lead campaigners for the No side in the 1995 referendum, believes Quebec will inevitably endorse the Canadian Constitution, some day, by some means.

Just not on his watch.

"Yes, I think that will happen. It’s not on anybody’s radar screen, but I think that will happen," Mr. Charest said, answering as series of Constitutional questions in front of a few dozen farmers in St-Hyacinthe, Que.

Few, if any, Quebec premiers came to office with the deep well of credibility and affection in the rest of Canada that Mr. Charest brought with him. Lucien Bouchard, Jacques Parizeau and René Levesque each took turns as Canadian Public Enemy Number One. Even federalists like Robert Bourassa arrived unknown and departed untrusted.

Few Quebec premiers established the network of allies and personal friendships of the Liberal premier.

So if not Mr. Charest, who, he was asked.

"It’s a matter of working towards that moment when it can happen. I think in the aftermath of what we experienced in the Constitutional debates, building a new base of trust on a number of initiatives is what leads us there," he said.

Mr. Charest rattled off a well-rehearsed list of those initiatives: Creation of the Council of the Federation, Ottawa’s recognition of Quebec as a nation, the recognition of asymetrical federalism.

“My belief is that as we allow the federal system to progress outside the consititonal changes, (we) demonstrate the system works well,” he said.

"The genius of the federal system of government, the real advantage of it is its flexibility. The ability of the system to change, evolve, without having to go through constitutional changes. Once we’re able to establish that base of change and trust, we’ll have created an environment where other constitutional issues will be better addressed."

Whatever the merits of those initiatives, Quebeckers and other Canadians have rarely seemed less interested in reopening any kind of grand national debate, let alone risk reviving constitutional wars. There is also the small matter of the long list of disagreements between Quebec and Stephen Harper's government, including the elimination of the federal gun registry, the plan to create a national securities regulator, and quarrels over bilingualism requirements in key federal posts.

"It’s important we have leaders who speak to what we are as a country, said Mr. Charest, who isn’t always quick to express his love of Canada in francophone crowds. "I believe in Canada. Canada is a great country, this is a great place to live," Mr. Charest said, switching into French so the farmers could better understand.

He described how Canada has so far escaped the worst of the global economic and financial crisis, building on decades of sound management.

"There are years of work behind that, through free trade agreements to balancing our budgets, and there are people who think we should throw that away," he said. "I’m convinced Quebeckers will chose to build on something solid."

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