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Jean Charest, former premier of Quebec, is shown with his wife, Michele Dionne, at the Quebec Liberal leadership convention in Montreal. Mr. Charest was celebrated by his party on March 16, 2013. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Jean Charest, former premier of Quebec, is shown with his wife, Michele Dionne, at the Quebec Liberal leadership convention in Montreal. Mr. Charest was celebrated by his party on March 16, 2013. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Charest makes plea for national unity at Quebec Liberal convention Add to ...

If he had to do it all over again, Jean Charest said he wouldn’t hesitate going into an election again over the Quebec students’ strike, which created such social unrest that it drove him out of office.

In his last hurrah on the eve of the vote that will choose a new Quebec Liberal leader, Mr.Charest called on his successor to stand for his principles and fight for what is right.

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“I have no regrets,” Mr. Charest told close to 3,000 party faithful gathered for the leadership convention. “You stand for office because you stand for principles. And you stand for principles before you either win or lose. There are things worth fighting for and it was well worth fighting for the freedom of every student to have access to their schools.”

The comments may be viewed as criticism towards the front-runner in the leadership race, Philippe Couillard. Mr. Couillard has been critical of the way the former Charest regime handled the student strike last spring. The other two contenders, Raymond Bachand and Pierre Moreau, expressed no regret over the handling of the strike. As the province’s former finance minister, Mr. Bachand was a proponent of a hardline position against the students.

In an unusual move, former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney publicly endorsed Mr. Bachand’s candidacy. Mr. Mulroney was Mr. Charest’s political mentor, and his decision to support Mr. Bachand appeared to some Liberals as a signal that Mr. Charest may also be backing Mr. Bachand.

While delegates vote on Sunday, Saturday evening was dedicated as a tribute to the man who led the party for 14 years and governed the province for nine. During his tenure, Mr. Charest said he often found victory in defeat, as was the case in the 1998 election that followed his crowning as party leader.

Mr. Charest recounted how the Liberals lost the election but received more votes than the Parti Québécois, which blocked the PQ from holding another referendum on sovereignty, coming just three years after the narrow separatist defeat in 1995.

“Canada is our home,” Mr. Charest said in an emotional plea for national unity. “And all those who live outside of Quebec should know that Quebec is also part of their home and their heritage. ... Never let yourself be convinced by a separatist or anyone else that Quebec wants to live outside of Canada.”

During his 30-minute speech, Mr. Charest outlined his achievements and praised his loyal supporters, but also delivered a highly partisan attack against the PQ.

He mocked the PQ for constantly retreating and changing course. “If the PQ had to choose a national anthem it would be beep, beep, beep,” said Mr. Charest, referring to the sound of a commercial vehicle backing-up.

During his speech, Mr. Charest gave the impression he was still on the campaign trail, ready to fight another election. He touted his party’s record on the economy, foreign trade and the development of natural resources in the north. It was also Charest's government that created the Council of the Federation, a forum for provincial and territorial leaders to take a stand on national issues.

Approximately 2,600 delegates will cast their votes Sunday morning to elect a new leader. The suspense was mounting on Saturday evening, with some delegates predicting a second ballot that will either confirm Mr. Couillard as leader or pave the way for a major upset.

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