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Jean Charest launches Conservative leadership bid, saying party is 'fractured'

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest launched his bid for the Conservative leadership Thursday night by saying he wants to unite the party, which he believes has spent the past years "badly distracted" and "fractured.
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest speaks to reporters as he arrives for an event in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest launched his bid for the Conservative leadership Thursday night by saying he wants to unite the party, which he believes has spent the past years "badly distracted" and "fractured."

Charest appeared at a brewery in Calgary to kick off his campaign, which he acknowledged is going to be a tough fight.

The 63-year-old told the crowd that he decided to launch his leadership bid in Calgary to show he believes Alberta needs a better seat at the federal decision-making table and that Canada's prosperity depends on the province.

Charest talked about the importance of the oil and gas industry and his willingness to stand up for pipelines in areas of the country where support for them is more tepid, such as his own.

He also said he believes it's wrong for the federal Liberal government to go ahead with its planned increase of the carbon price on April 1.

"We can do a lot better," he said.

Charest emphasized his experience in both federal and provincial politics as having prepared him for the leadership, promising to deliver Conservative party members a win in the next election

He spent 20 minutes shaking hands and talking with the audience but didn't win everyone over.

Josh Hart, 17, said he really didn't know much about Charest but was impressed with his speech.

"I'm open to supporting Jean. I liked his speech but I want to wait a little longer and see some more concrete proposals," he said.

Margot Aftergood and her husband David have known Charest since 1984 and voted for him in the leadership race against Kim Campbell. But she said she isn't ready to support him until she has seen all the other candidates.

"To be fair, I have not met Pierre Poilievre and I've not met Leslyn Lewis. I'd like to meet everybody first but I don't know where I'm at," she said.

Poilievre supporter Alexandra Carlile said Charest gave a fine speech.

"But he really danced around the carbon tax issue ... Albertans have very out loud said they're against the carbon tax and all conservatives have said they're against the carbon tax," she said.

"He has sort of sabotaged his campaign in his opening speech."

Charest's bid to lead the Tories means he's re-entering federal politics for the first time in more than 20 years and he has hopped onto social media for the occasion.

"Let's be proud to be ambitious. Let's be proud to be united. Let's be proud to be conservative," said a message from a newly launched Jean Charest Twitter account Thursday morning.

Charest is running under the slogan "Built to Win." A campaign website was also launched Thursday highlighting points from his career as both a federal political leader and as Quebec's premier from 2003 to 2012.

Charest was first elected as an MP in 1984 in former prime minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government and became a cabinet minister before he was 30.

He went on to lead the Tories from 1993 until 1998, when he left federal politics to lead the Quebec Liberal Party. Charest served as Quebec's premier until 2012 before he was defeated in an election.

"There is no time for amateur politics," Charest's website reads.

"Our democracy is at stake. We need a leader who understands that winning a national government is built through consensus and unity, not through division and alienation. Jean Charest is a conservative leader who is built to win."

Earlier Thursday, Charest did a series of media interviews, where he expressed his opposition to Bill 21, a controversial secularism law in Quebec that prohibits public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Some Conservatives want the party to sharpen its stance against the legislation. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown has already forcefully rejected the law. He is expected to join the race Sunday.

Poilievre, a high-profile and long-serving Ottawa-area MP who was the first to declare his candidacy for the Conservative leadership, has been dismissing Charest as favouring policies that the Liberals use, such as the federal carbon price that many party members detest.

As Quebec's premier, Charest ushered in a cap-and-trade program. His website calls him "a credible advocate on resource development coupled with strong environmental performance."

The Conservatives hold 30 out of 34 seats in Alberta, considered part of the Tory heartland along with neighbouring Saskatchewan, where the party holds every seat.

By launching in Calgary, Charest also hopes to bring a message of national unity and signal support to party members who are concerned about Western alienation. Some Alberta and Saskatchewan MPs who recently attended a reception for Charest in Ottawa acknowledged the former Quebec premier could be in for a tough fight with the region's grassroots.

Charest is to appear at a meet and greet Friday morning before travelling to Vancouver.

Conservatives will learn who their new leader is on Sept. 10, and candidates have until April 19 to declare they're running and June 3 to submit new membership applications.

The other declared candidate in the Conservative leadership race is Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber.

-- With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2022

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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