It was the winter of 1998. The Great Ice Storm had just finished blanketing everything in eastern Ontario and western Quebec with an inch thick of ice, felling trees and our electricity grid with ease. I was living in Montreal at the time, studying communications at Concordia University. I returned to Montréal, having escaped to Ottawa in the interim, once electricity had been restored in NDG.
While it felt like I had just survived a war, life was getting back to normal when news hit the airwaves that Conservative Party leader Jean Charest was considering his future given the Party’s inability to regain its opposition status in the House of Commons. The PCs had been gutted in the 1993 federal election when they won just two seats under new leader Kim Campbell. After her loss, Charest became leader of a depleted party. And, although he was doing an admirable job, the Conservatives were still struggling at that time to overcome the Reform Party, which was primarily based in Alberta.
Although I had never met him, Mr. Charest and I had crossed paths in the Nation’s capital. This is because he and my father shared a love for the same restaurant in Hull where we sometimes saw him chatting away in the corner over lunch or dinner. I was a young man then and didn’t appreciate what I was witnessing—A real Canadian statesman in the making.
Then in 1998, after experiencing discrimination for the first time in my life as an Anglophone living in a Parti Quebecois run province, the opportunity to speak directly to someone I admired from afar presented itself. I decided to write to Mr. Charest to suggest a course of action based on my observations of the situation he and Canada found itself in.
I suggested that he come to Quebec and become leader of the provincial Liberal Party so he could become Premiere and bring Quebec back into the Canadian fold. People who are unfamiliar with Canadian political history may think this strange since they appear to be different and opposing parties at the federal level, but the Liberal Party of Quebec is not a traditional Liberal Party. It has always been aligned with the federal Conservative Party and has always pursued right of centre policies. So, contrary to what his leadership opponents might like you to think, it was a natural transition to move from leader of the federal PCs to leader of the Quebec Liberals.
I also made some suggestions about how to defeat the Reform Party and bring about the re-unification of the Conservative Party.
Looking back now 24 years later, my letter to Jean Charest and his team’s response to me, speaks volumes about Mr. Charest’s character. His openness to accept new ideas from someone he didn’t know and never met is behaviour we rarely see from partisan pollitical leaders. Good advice from any source is still good advice. Being open to listening, understanding and acting upon new information and new ideas is an important part of being a good leader. And, its an important part of becoming a statesman, someone who understands considering all options is the key to finding solutions to serious problems.
Canada is in dire need of a statesman Prime Minister in my opinion. It’s been too long. Perhaps not since Lester B. Pearson have we had a true statesman as Prime Minister. Jean Charest is such a person. He proved it to me long ago.
James O'Grady is the founder of Unpublished Media and a student of history, politics and communications. You can view his profile here: https://unpublishedottawa.com/users/james-ogrady