'Quebec's story is one of survival'

Jean Charest talks about language, reasonable accommodation and federalism in wide-ranging interview

Québec 2008 - autour du 400e

On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, Premier Jean Charest sat down recently with Policy Options magazine editor and Gazette columnist L. Ian MacDonald. Here are excerpts from their wide-ranging discussion. Sections originally in French have been translated by The Gazette. The full interview appears in Policy Option magazine.
POLICY OPTIONS: A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper caused some controversy when he said that the founding of Quebec in 1608 marked the birth of Canada, or at least French Canada. What do you think of that?
JEAN CHAREST: There's been a lot of rhetoric about what he said. But it was just historic fact, because the history of Canada starts at some point. Those who want to present this another way are trying to use history to serve a cause. I understood perfectly what he was saying, and I think Quebecers did, too.
PO: What about the importance of the French language in terms of the survival of Canada as a distinct society, if I can call it that, in North America? The importance of the French language, dating from the foundation of Quebec in 1608, for what (the late premier Robert) Bourassa used to call the cultural security of this island of one language in a sea of English in North America?
CHAREST: To protect our language, to assure and guarantee its future, is a responsibility I feel every day. Our story is a story we're telling of the survival of a language and a culture. It's our story in Quebec, and it's also the story of Canada. And (having two languages) does give Canada a signature internationally; it gives it its personality. It's what allows Canada to have a broader influence in the world, and we underestimate the influence it has and how it allows us to have access to all sorts of forums that otherwise we would not have access to. In that respect, it's something we should never lose.
PO: In October, Quebec will be hosting, for the first time since 1987, Le sommet de la Francophonie. And in a speech in Montreal in June, you said it represented perhaps an alignment of the stars in terms of the opportunities for agreements between Canada, Quebec and France, particularly with regard to recognition of professions. Do you want to elaborate on that?
CHAREST: The summit will be the first time that Nicolas Sarkozy will visit Quebec and Canada as president of the republic. He will hold a bilateral with Quebec, he will do a bilateral with Canada, he will do the Francophone Summit and he will also be, as of July 1, the chair of the European Union. So he will be doing four different meetings in one single visit. And for us, it coincides with the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Quebec City, and so we look at this as a moment in time where we are going to define our relationship for the future.
We want the 400th anniversary to be turned toward the future. I proposed to Mr. Sarkozy that we negotiate a bilateral agreement on the recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications. We would be the first in the world to do this. This is because our future economy is going to depend on brain power and access to the best brains in the world.
The second major project is the negotiation of a transatlantic accord between the European Union and Canada. And here we're being very opportunistic. The European Union established a policy of negotiating bilateral agreements with emerging economies. And we've said to Europe: "Well, why not us ... if you want to reinforce the transatlantic relationship, the place to start if you wanted to get on the fast track is Canada." This is a unique opportunity for them to set foot in North America, and set foot in the richest market in the world, so the two richest markets in the world would have an opportunity to meet.
PO: So Canada as a kind of a platform to Stage 1 of an agreement between the EU and NAFTA?
CHAREST: If that's what the EU wants, and if that's what's the three NAFTA countries want. Mexico already has a transatlantic accord with the European Union, by the way.
PO: What kind of conversations have you had with Mr. Harper about this? Because international trade is clearly a federal responsibility, although there are obviously provincial jurisdictions involved.
CHAREST: Well, as integration evolves, it's more and more penetrating, it falls more and more within areas of provincial jurisdiction. I've had many conversations over this with Mr. Harper and he's been very supportive. We've worked as a team on this. I'm very happy with the leadership the federal government has shown on this. He took it up with Chancellor Merkel a year ago at the Canada-European Union Summit. They ordered the studies that needed to be done before a decision was made on whether we negotiate. And so the federal government has shown and the prime minister personally has shown a great deal of leadership on this.
Provincial governments must be involved because we're going to be discussing areas of provincial jurisdiction, which includes government procurement, the recognition of diplomas, and also harmonization of all sorts of regulations on products. Also investment will be part of it. So the provinces must be on board, and they are on board.
PO: You are the founding father of the Council of the Federation, where the provinces can work together. It's five years old now. How well is it working?
CHAREST: I think it's a big success. It lets the provinces and territories focus on co-operation. We've never talked so much about interprovincial trade and manpower mobility as we're doing now. Alberta and B.C. signed a freer-trade deal, all the western provinces are talking about the same thing, the eastern provinces too, and Ontario and Quebec had their first-ever joint cabinet meeting. We're working on liberalizing market access and manpower mobility for April 1 2009.
And the council also made possible the birth of asymmetrical federalism in the 2004 health-funding agreement. That let us show Quebecers that federalism isn't just Ottawa and Quebec, that we have a lot in common with the rest of Canada.
So the council is a real success; I'm proud of it. We had a nice compliment when the Australian premiers came here to see how it works, and now they've copied it.
PO: And on electricity, you're building a new Quebec-Ontario power connection.
CHAREST: A 1,200 megawatt interconnection. We're going to sell them clean, renewable hydro-electricity. Quebec is a world leader in the area of renewable resources, and we want to share what we have with other provinces and work with them. So we haven't resolved all the issues, but on the other hand, you can see that there's real progress in terms of us working together.
PO: After your joint cabinet meeting with Ontario in early June at the Château Frontenac, is there a kind of compact to declare war on Ottawa over the declaration on the environment?
CHAREST: We want to work together but we're not working against Ottawa. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and I both feel is going to be one of the biggest issues of our generation. The political environment is going to change very rapidly with the election of the new president. We want to prepare for what will be a cap-and-trade system that we're all going to be living under in a very near future.
Now, in our federal system of government, we don't always agree with the federal government. And when we don't agree, I don't think we should be shy about saying it and managing those issues in a mature way, which we do.
PO: How would you describe the state of your relationship with Mr. Harper? In the beginning, one sensed an opening or the possibility of the kind of special relationship that Premier Jean Lesage and PM Lester Pearson had. And then there was this divergence in 2007. There was your campaign promise allocating all the "fiscal imbalance" money to a tax cut, which annoyed Mr. Harper, and then he annoyed you, or at least your party, by being seen on the same stage as Mr. Dumont at Rivière du Loup in December.
CHAREST: We did not allot all of the money of the fiscal imbalance to a tax reduction. It's one-third of it. Two-thirds of it went to health care and education. We did that the same year where nine out of 10 provinces reduced their taxes.
That being said, my relationship with Mr. Harper is a good relationship. I don't personalize the relationship I have with the prime minister. He's the third prime minister I've been dealing with since I've been premier. And there is a whole host of issues on which Mr. Harper and I have been successful, issues like fiscal imbalance, the recognition of Quebec in international affairs and our participation at UNESCO, the recognition of Quebec as a nation. We have a good relationship, but we also live in a federal system of government where on issues on which we do not see eye to eye or agree we should be able to defend our views, and not be seen as being less Canadian because we don't agree on any given issue. I've never seen a contradiction between being a Quebecer and a Canadian.
PO: Can we talk about the political context? You're doing well in the polls, where a year ago a lot of people thought you were finished.
CHAREST: Of the three parties in the National Assembly, we have learned best how to react to what the voters told us. And we have focused on the economy. Our cabinet, just 18 ministers, shows the restraint voters want.
PO: And it's half women. Will that continue?
CHAREST: It will. But it took me 10 years (as leader) to get to parity. And it's not symbolic, it's real. I spent 10 years recruiting female candidates, and to be sure they ran in ridings where they could win.
PO: On the Bouchard-Taylor commission issue: With the two other parties fighting over the so-called identity vote, I thought that your open letter to Quebecers last October was important. And I was hearing traces of the line that you used to use campaigning: "My mother used to say to us, 'Always keep a place at the table for welcome strangers.'"
CHAREST: And that's the story of Quebecers. There should always be a place at our table for those who want to construct Quebec, who want to build this society.
When I speak of opening up a new economic space, what I know and what I'm trying to do is shed light, a different light on that future and I believe that if any given society is given that perspective, a different perspective allows people to rise to that occasion. So the Bouchard-Taylor's report is presented in the environment of the opening up space. And all of the sudden an immigrant isn't someone who's stealing your job, it's someone who's actually here, who's going to work to pay taxes and allow us to build a better society, a society that will be more prosperous, where people will have better jobs. So I feel very good about what we've been able to do, and by the way, you know, what we're doing on building a new economic space with Ontario isn't something that either Madame Marois or Mr. Dumont is going to be proposing any day soon. You know, that's not going to be part of their plan for the future.
PO: Finally, Mr. Harper told Policy Options that he thinks Canada is well-served when a good federalist is premier of Quebec. Do you agree?
CHAREST: Yes. And a good federalist is someone who really believes in Quebec.

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