With such a brilliant political career spanning federal and political politics, many people are not aware of the private life that Jean Charest and Michèle Dionne have enjoyed outside the political arena. We recently met to discuss their life together before and after politics.

“How did we meet meet? Well… he was fifteen and I was sixteen and we were attending high school in Sherbrooke.” Michèle Dionne takes the lead in answering my first question. “We’ve been together pretty much since then. I knew that Jean was ‘the one’ right from the beginning. I even asked my Mom if it was ok to marry the first man that I loved.”

Jean Charest was already showing his competitive and leadership qualities in high school. “I was playing soccer and was Student President of the school. I came from a middle class family with five children, and we were expected to get jobs and contribute to the household. I had my first summer job when I was fourteen,” notes the man would go on to a brilliant political career and play a pivotal role in Quebec’s 1995 Referendum on Sovereignty.

Jean Charest, his wife Michèle Dionne and I are seated in a meeting room at McCarthy Tétrault, the prestigious pan-Canadian law firm where the former Quebec Premiere now practices as one of the firm’s partners, bringing a lifetime of political savvy along with an impressive array of national and international relationships.

“I shipped out on a Canada Steamship Lines laker in the summer of ’79. I had to earn money to pay for my university schooling. This was the first time that Michele and I had been apart for an extended period. Michèle was in Europe. One day while our ship was in a Welland Canal lock, I called her from a phone booth and asked her to marry me.”

“I said ‘Yes!’” Michèle interjects.

Jean continues; “So the next summer I had to ship out again to earn enough so that we could set up our household. In the summer of 1980, I was in Baie Comeau on another CSL ship. I took three weeks off and took the bus home so that we could be married. We needed to have jobs during the school year to help pay for our educations, me as a law student and Michèle as a Special Education teacher.”

“I was called to the Quebec Bar in 1981, and began as a Legal Aid defense lawyer. The recession of ’81 had been very hard on the Quebec economy, and many small businesses were really hurting. I often tried to help out my clients outside of their legal issues; and my boss said that I should stop acting as a social worker on their behalf. Perhaps that desire to help people, to make a positive difference in someone’s life is what motivated me to go into politics.”

In 1984, Jean won his first election in his hometown riding of Sherbrooke. He was just 28, and became the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history. “Michèle and I were given very good advice by Lionel Beaudoin, who advised that we move to Ottawa as a family, so that we’d be together all week and not just on the weekends. Michèle and I discussed it, and agreed that we’d stay together as a family. I was able to take the kids to school every morning while Michèle went to her special education teaching job in Gatineau. Even thought we were together as a family and I had dinner at home most nights, we’d take a month off every summer to decompress and devote all of our attention to the kids.”

When the Charest family first arrived in Ottawa, Marcel Masse was the leader of the Quebec Progressive Conservative Party caucus, which met every Monday morning at 7:30am. Jean took their youngest child to the day care centre, located in the same building. “I asked Marcel if he could change the meeting to 8 o’clock but he declined. So our youngest joined in the caucus meeting. Two weeks later, Marcel changed the time to 8 o’clock…”

Michèle decided to become more involved in the couple’s political life. In a way, politics was like a family business. Jean states; “Politics actually brought us closer together. Michèle attended all the agenda meetings. That way she could advise us about conflicts with important events for the children like parent-teacher meetings, concerts and other events.” Michèle picks up the narrative; “We were the youngest couple on The Hill. I became the secretary for the French Association des Épouses (Spousal Association). In all our time in Ottawa, I think Jean only missed one event for the three children. As a spouse, you have to define your own role. At the beginning, I thought it was an adventure.”

In many ways it was an adventure for the family. Jean states; “As a family, we took advantage of the stimulating environment in Ottawa. We travelled all over Canada with our three children, making my work a positive experience for the children. We also took them on a tour of Northern Canada.”

Jean Charest’s political life is a matter of public record. After serving in Mulroney cabinets and losing out in the PC leadership race to Kim Campbell; Jean was the only PC to be re-elected, joining the then newly-elected Elsie Wayne to form a two person caucus. “It was awful – I had to criss-cross the country regularly to rebuild the party, give support to riding associations that had been devastated and look for candidates. I was away from the family for extended periods.” states Jean. Adds Michèle; “We decided that I would stop working so that I could be at home for the children.”

As the 1995 sovereignty referendum reached a fever pitch, Jean took on a pivotal role with his charismatic personality and fiery oratorical skills to bring renewed life into a floundering “No” campaign, culminating in the razor-thin win for the Federalist option for Quebec to remain part of Canada.

In a testament to his charisma, credibility and political talents, Jean subsequently was drafted by the Quebec Liberal Party to take the reins in 1998. After winning three elections beginning in 2003; Jean’s political career came to an end in 2012 when the Liberals lost to the Parti Quebecois, and Jean also lost his own seat in Sherbrooke. “Losing my own seat was in fact an opportunity. The people of Sherbrooke had supported me and Michèle for twenty-eight years. We could only feel gratitude for that long-term support.”

No longer representing her husband in the riding, Michèle has had more time to develop to her volunteer work with The Red Cross, who she’s been working with for sixteen years.

Jean quickly was invited to become a full partner in McCarthy Tétrault LLP, one of Canada’s pre-eminent law firms. While he is again a working attorney, Jean remains involved in an important political file.

“CERT enlisted the persuasive Jean Charest, then Premier of Quebec, who in the Council of the Federation and everywhere else became a tireless advocate of the negotiations.”

Roy MacLaren, Former Minister of International Trade

In 2007, former International Trade Minister Roy MacLaren enlisted Jean Charest to assist in the negotiations of the Canada-Europe Round Table towards a trade pact. “The Doha trade discussions had gone off the rails, and we needed to restart a trade agreement with the Europeans. It was unusual for a Provincial Premiere to be involved, but we needed the agreement of all the provinces. After years of negotiations, we are now in the process of ratification. This is the most advanced trade pact in the world. For example, 98% of all tariffs disappear on Day One. I’m still very much involved, and I consider this agreement to be my political legacy.”

“Whoever wins the US election in November, we are surely heading for a more protectionist regime in the US. The discussions between the US and the EU are not going well. With a Canada-EU trade agreement in place, the Europeans could have access to North America through our existing North American Free Trade Agreement. We in Canada are in a pivotal position to leverage our agreements for the benefit of our economy.”

Another assignment that Jean Charest has accepted is to serve as President of the Board of Governors of an organization called L’Idée Fédéral/A Federal Idea; originally started by journalist André Pratte. “I believe that Federalists in Quebec need a forum because Federalism is not a static idea – it’s constantly evolving. While we’re currently in a quiet period, we know that the other side is not going to relent. We need to keep alert and promote the values and benefits of Federalism and Canada.” (www.ideefederale.ca)

Today, Jean Charest and Michele Dionne are soon to be empty nesters. They enjoy travel – especially to visit their daughter, son-in-law and grandchild in Hong Kong.

A new chapter is opening in their lives, notes Jean; “When we were teenagers, we used to drive by a lovely home near North Hatley that overlooks Lake Massawippi.  Michèle adds; “We used to say ‘wouldn’t it be nice if someday we could live there…?’ Jean smiles and says; “Well – it recently came onto the market. Miche and I had a very short discussion and we bought our dream property. It’s a summer-only house and we’re enjoying it this summer. We’re going to build a new house on the land – so that’s a project that’s going to keep us busy for the next year.”

We conclude our conversation and have some fun taking candid photos for this article. In their life before and after politics; Jean Charest and Michèle Dionne have made decisions that were in the best interest of their children and their life together. And the love story continues…

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