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Premier Jean Charest speaks to reporters in Quebec City on Nov. 9, 2010.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

What should Captain Canada do now?

In 1998, Jean Charest was pressed to leave Ottawa and leap to Quebec to lead the foundering Quebec Liberal Party. He alone, so the chorus chanted, could save Canada after the fright of the 1995 secession referendum and Lucien Bouchard's accession as Quebec's premier. Mr. Bouchard, after a near-fatal attack from flesh-eating disease, rose from his hospital bed, and it seemed he could walk on water. He threatened to achieve Quebec's independence after Jacques Parizeau's near miss.

Mr. Charest was Canada's last best hope, agreed The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Financial Post and the Montreal Gazette. The call to duty was intoned by Don Martin, Jeffrey Simpson, Richard Gwyn, Paul Wells, Robert Fife, Sean Durkan, Douglas Fisher, David Crane, Don Macpherson … When he actually made the jump, Gazette editorial page editor Jennifer Robinson wrote: "Jean Charest has taken Quebec by storm. … At least for now, thanks to l'effet Charest, separatists are in full retreat." She warned against federalist "extremists": "Over-heated rants and polemics from the [Howard]Galganovs, [Keith]Hendersons and [William]Johnsons of the English community are not needed now that Charest is on the scene."

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That was then. Now? A petition on the National Assembly's website calls for Mr. Charest to resign. A quarter of a million Quebeckers have signed. A Dec. 2 Angus Reid poll pegged him as Canada's most despised premier.

As Quebec's news media daily report suspicions of corruption involving the construction industry, labour unions, municipal politicians and even Canada Revenue Agency officials, Quebeckers have lost trust in their institutions. The call for a commission of inquiry became general, but Mr. Charest refused, insisting on letting the police do their work. The conviction spread that the Premier had something to hide.

When he appeared last Sunday on Radio-Canada's most popular TV program, Tout le monde en parle, host Guy Lepage greeted him: "The most recent polls reveal that three Quebeckers out of four want you gone." Mr. Charest was then upbraided by writer-performer Louis Morissette: "What we perceive is corruption in the Liberal Party. It's only normal that we reach a point where we have lost all respect. I can't understand your stubborn refusal to appoint a commission of inquiry into the construction industry." The studio audience repeatedly applauded.

The problem goes deeper. Although he impressed many during the 1995 referendum campaign, Mr. Charest usually clothed himself in ambiguity, playing to the separatists as well as the federalists. He repeatedly asserted: "Quebec alone has the right to decide its future," thereby subverting the Supreme Court's ruling that secession constitutionally requires the consent of Quebec's partners in the federation.

He constantly undermines the legitimacy of the Constitution as amended in 1982 by claiming Quebec didn't sign it then and he won't sign it now. And he picks fights with Ottawa, demanding Quebec be given control over communications and all cultural expenditures in the province.

Quebeckers now perceive him as a leader with strategies but no firm principles, a man who covets power and will do anything to ensure his survival.

In 1998, he was urged to save Canada by going to Quebec. Now, he undermines not just the Quebec Liberal Party but also, as leader of the province's sole federalist party, the very reputation of Canada. If Jean Charest cares for his country, he will announce his resignation.

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Author William Johnson is a former president of Alliance Quebec.

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