Jean Charest: The Little Chieftain

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

It's membership time. Cultivate Canada's media. Support Become a member.

Most thought it was over, done with, and good riddance too. What in Quebec was called La Grande Noirceur (The Dark Era), the reign of Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale government was to have ended with the death of le Chef (the Chieftain).

Few doubted the 1960s' Quiet Revolution represented a democratic turn, and a new beginning. Under Premier Jean Lesage, with René Levesque championing nationalized electricity, it was agreed the election of a progressive Quebec Liberal party ensured the old paternalist order was gone, forever.

Except that Quebec is now living through La Petite Noirceur (Dark Era Lite). The choice of a failed federal Conservative leader, Jean Charest, to head the Quebec Liberal party, and the 2003 election which carried him to power, ended up turning back the clock. In today's Quebec, Charest is playing Duplessis, and the Liberals are acting as the Union Nationale, complete with alleged scandals in the construction industry Premier Charest was forced to acknowledge by creating a public commission of inquiry (after resisting for two years).

The Liberals have weakened Quebec's progressive income tax with user-pay schemes, and consumption taxes, gifting the wealthy and soaking everybody else. A $950-million cut in income taxes was announced in May 2007. It was easily funded from a $2.3-billion transfer announced two months earlier by the Harper government, to compensate for a "fiscal imbalance" attributable to previous federal Liberal policies.

A Leger poll found the tax cut was unpopular in Quebec, and opposed by 70 per cent of respondents. Many people must have sensed what was coming next: new charges for public services.

CEGEP and university students, who object to taking on debt to finance their education, have protested for months a proposed 75 per cent tuition increase over five years (since increased to 82 per cent over seven years).

Jean Charest believes that post-secondary students should pay a greater portion of their studies up front, as tuition increases. In effect, his government would move Quebec away from what his own party had introduced when it created the junior college CEGEP system -- more open access to advanced education -- and towards education as a private consumption good to be paid for by students. The Liberals' main rivals, the PQ, at one time supported zero tuition in the name of improved access to post-secondary education, and its public benefits.

Under opposition leader Pauline Marois, the PQ have joined student leaders in opposition to the Charest tuition hikes. The students also have the support of the left-wing Québec Solidaire.

The Charest Liberals were first elected because the PQ government introduced a poorly conceived municipal amalgamation scheme which turned out to be very unpopular. Charest allowed municipalities that wished to remain autonomous to do so. But the Liberal leader failed to grasp that his mandate was to replace the PQ. No one had asked him to bring U.S. Republican economics to Quebec.

One of the first initiatives of the Charest government was to encourage private, for-profit child-care operators. This was rightly seen as a frontal attack on the widely popular $5-a-day child-care program. People took to the streets in large numbers and blocked the government, which had to settle for a $2 increase in the daily fee.

Charest hoped to get away with privatizing the Mount Orford public park, a jewel of the Eastern townships, where his Sherbrooke political base is located. The deal failed in the face of public disgust over turning over a beautiful natural environment to commercial real estate developers looking for a quick return.

Overall, in renewing his mandate twice, Charest had to moderate his policy preferences. In the context of post-1995 referendum trauma, the Quebec population were wary of a return to a PQ regime committed to a third referendum, which gave the Liberals an electoral advantage. Still, a break-away Liberal youth leader by the name of Mario Dumont, managed to mount a challenge, and at the head of his upstart party became leader of the opposition, while Charest headed a minority government in his second term as premier.

In his third mandate, free of minority status, Charest has reverted to the Reaganite policies of his federal Conservative political mentor, Brian Mulroney. Charest tried to introduce extra-billing for health care, but his finance minister Raymond Bachand was forced to withdraw the measures in face of opposition.

Just days before the premier and Education Minister Bachand announced last week the break-off of negotiations with student federation leaders, a CROP Radio-Canada poll showed that only 27 per cent of Quebecers agreed with the Charest tuition hike proposal. Fully 45 per cent thought tuition increases should be limited to the standard of living, while 13 per cent supported a freeze on fee increases, and another 11 per cent wanted free tuition. In short, 68 per cent stand against the Liberals.

Thanks to a poor turnout rate, the Charest Liberals won their legislative majority in the last election with the voting support of only 23 per cent of registered voters, just a few less than the 27 per cent who support their proposed fee hikes.

Charest must go to the polls within 18 months. Most expect him to try to win re-election this fall, giving the recent CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) put together by former PQ minister François Légault less time to raise money, and get itself organized. As well, Charest wants to campaign before too many findings from the corruption inquiry hit the public airwaves.

In the next election, as well as the PQ, Québec Solidaire, and the CAQ, the Liberals will also have to battle the ghost of Duplessis.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.