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All of Canada owes Jean Charest a great deal

Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest smiles as he walks out of his bus while campaigning Monday, August 27, 2012 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

To appreciate Jean Charest's signal achievement, go back to the 1995 referendum, when he was the passionate, uplifting voice for the No side, at a time when all was gloom. He then left Ottawa for Quebec politics (was virtually conscripted to do so) and fought the experienced, charismatic Lucien Bouchard to a standstill in 1998, stopping the sovereigntists' momentum toward yet another referendum. And he maintained power since 2003, through three elections – the most won by a Quebec premier since Maurice Duplessis.

Mr. Charest has helped hold sovereigntists at bay for a period approaching two decades. And he did so as an "unconditional federalist" – to borrow a phrase from his former cabinet colleague Benoît Pelletier, now a law professor at the University of Ottawa. He demonstrated that it can be done, and all of Canada owes him a great deal.

He has been a great defuser. Tensions around language and constitutional reform that once seemed overwhelming have been put on the back burner. Support for sovereignty is dormant. If Mr. Charest did not speak ardently for Canada as premier, he still managed to be an architect of the Council of the Federation, created to promote co-operation among the provinces. When public anger about the accommodation of minority religious groups spilled over, Mr. Charest defused it by handing the problem off to a commission led by two inspired choices – sociologist Gérard Bouchard (Lucien's brother) and the philosopher Charles Taylor.

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He did not achieve the transformation of the Quebec state that he sought in 2003, did not do enough to change the structural forces that have left the province with high taxes and a huge debt. "Quebec politics is very much about vibrations – something you must feel with your heart, first of all," Prof. Pelletier says. Mr. Charest learned to feel the vibrations. How could he not? At times, he was hugely unpopular. He compromised, modified, lost some of his will.

The problem he had most trouble defusing was this year's student protests over proposed tuition hikes that brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Montreal. But even after ushering in a crackdown rejected by much of the province, even after allegations of government corruption were aired in a provincial inquiry, even after the electorate grew tired of his Liberal administration and he, too, seemed to lose some energy, even then he still managed to deny the PQ a majority in Tuesday's provincial election.

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