Skip to main content

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest speaks with reporters as he arrives for an event with potential caucus supporters in Ottawa, on March 2.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Jean Charest says he is opposed to Quebec’s controversial religious-symbols law and also favours more oil and gas production, including new pipelines, as he formally entered the race for the Conservative Party leadership.

The former Quebec premier outlined his political vision on Thursday during an interview in Montreal. He later travelled to Calgary to kick off his campaign.

The 63-year-old Mr. Charest, who led Quebec from 2003 to 2012, is a former leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives and cabinet minister under prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. His rivals for the party leadership so far are Ontario MPs Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis and independent Ontario Legislature member Roman Baber.

Who is running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada? Candidates and dates to watch

Bill 21, the three-year-old law in Quebec that bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols at work, is legislation that Mr. Charest said he does not support. The law came under renewed attack late last year after teacher Fatemeh Anvari was removed from her classroom job in Chelsea, Que., for wearing a hijab.

Mr. Charest’s position is in sharp contrast to that of Erin O’Toole. Still party leader at the time, Mr. O’Toole said Bill 21 was an issue to be dealt with by Quebec, even as some members of his caucus called for a more assertive approach. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he has not ruled out federal intervention in a court challenge to the law.

Mr. Charest acknowledged that as premier he initiated a commission that laid the groundwork for Bill 21, enacted by the province’s current Coalition Avenir Québec government. Mr. Charest said the commission authors tabled a recommendation to ban religious symbols that he did not implement based on government legal advice that it was contrary to the Quebec and Canadian charters.

During the interview at a downtown Montreal coffee shop, he said a Charest government would present its views on Bill 21 if it goes to the Supreme Court of Canada, and would work with Quebec on any ruling.

“This bill is very popular in Quebec, and there’s a reason for that: There’s an anxiety in regards to issues of identity in Quebec, and we acknowledge that,” he said.

“We’re not going to try to poke a stick in anyone’s eye about it. That’s not the idea.” Mr. Charest said the issue doesn’t need to be divisive in Quebec if leaders are ready to look at the bigger picture of what needs to be done to create a more inclusive society.

On energy issues, Mr. Charest said, “I’ve always been very pro oil and gas” but that he is also concerned about climate change.

He said there are options for balancing both concerns. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.

“I’ve always been very open to the idea of pipelines, and I’ll continue to be,” said Mr. Charest, adding that the last pipeline project in Quebec was completed between the eastern Quebec city of Lévis and Montreal while he was premier. “We can do this intelligently on a case-by-case basis.”

But Mr. Charest declined to be specific about his stand on a carbon tax, saying he would speak to the issue during the campaign.

Any climate-change approach, he said. “does include pricing. It has always included pricing, but let’s do it in a way that’s smart and equitable.”

Mr. Charest, who, as premier launched a cap-and-trade system in Quebec, said any strategy has to recognize that the realities in urban and rural Canada are different. “That’s what we’ll do,” he said.

“Dealing with the issue is not optional. It’s not as if we have a choice to deal or not deal with it,” he said. “Decarbonization is certainly on the agenda for all of us. Let’s do it in a way that’s smart.”

Speaking late on Thursday at launch event in Calgary, Mr. Charest said the Conservative Party is “fractured,” and needs to ask who and what it represents.

“In this day of the obsessive identity politics – everything becomes hyphenated, between red and blue, and socons and others, when in fact, we are Conservatives. And I’m running as a Conservative,” he said to a gathering of about 100 at a local brewery.

Mr. Charest also said the Conservative Party has a responsibility to be a national political party that can bring the country together on issues such as climate, foreign policy and economic growth, and form a government that has Alberta at the table. That’s why he made the province his first leadership campaign stop, he said.

“If we are balkanized, the way we’re balkanized now, we’re not going to meet our potential.”

He never referred to any other leadership candidates, but said “this is going to be a tough campaign. I have adversaries that spend more time on my campaign than their campaign.”

During the Montreal interview, Mr. Charest said he has been a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party for two years since the leadership issue was last on the table. He said he donated to the party in the most recent campaign.

He said he was not involved in the Conservative effort in last year’s federal election campaign. “I wasn’t invited to get involved in the campaign the last time around.”

There have been reports that former prime minister Stephen Harper would use his influence to try to block Mr. Charest from winning the leadership race.

Asked about his relationship with Mr. Harper, Mr. Charest said he occasionally crosses paths with the former prime minister at forums and recalled last seeing him two years ago.

“Mr. Harper may choose or not to get involved in the campaign. That’s fine with me. I am not running against him. I have a lot of respect for what he’s accomplished. He was a good prime minister,” Mr. Charest said.

But he suggested the federal Conservatives have moved beyond Mr. Harper, noting that leaders are stewards of parties. “They all make a contribution and the party evolves with time, parties are not static.”

He said he is focused on his campaign. “This leadership race is about the future, it is not about the past.”

Mr. Charest, who said he has spoken to party interim leader Candice Bergen, said he had not called Mr. Harper. “But I will,” he said. “I will reach out.”

With a report from Kelly Cryderman

For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.