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Quebec Politician Rails Against Separatism

By Graeme C. A. wood, Contributing Writer

Canadian politician Jean Charest criticized Quebec separatists in a lecture at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs yesterday.

"Any common sense person will come to the conclusion that [the Canadian] experience has been a good one," Charest said. "It would be extremely difficult to make a case that the people of Quebec have been oppressed to the point that they would have to break away."

Charest, who is currently the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, delivered a lecture on "Federalism: A Question of Leadership" as the latest installment in the Weatherhead Center's series of seminars on constitutional issues in Canada.

The lecture's 50-person audience, which included Canadian Consul General to New England Mary Clancy, packed a Coolidge Hall seminar room. Hopeful participants without seats spilled into the hall.

Charest asserted that "common values" among Quebec and the rest of Canada and a shared history of "tolerance and diversity" will allow it to prosper as a unified country.

"The basic values that we have shared have remained essentially the same," Charest said

Referenda in Quebec--most recently in 1995--have narrowly opposed Quebec's separation from the rest of Canada. Charest's party, the official opposition in the Quebec parliament, has been outspoken in its opposition to Quebec independence.

Pierre Martin, the Mackenzie King visiting associate professor of Canadian studies and director of the Canada seminars, introduced Charest as "an accomplished politician" and an important force in Canadian politics. Martin, whose permanent position is at the University of Montreal, teaches Harvard's only Canadian politics class.

Charest, 41, has served as a member of Quebec's legislative assembly from Sherbrooke since leaving federal politics in 1998. Previously, he served as Federal Minister of Environment, Minister of Youth, and leader of the Progressive Conservative party as a representative of the same constituency.

According to Charest, issues of Quebecois and native Canadian sovereignty will lead to a "painful" era that will "test our values as Canadians."

At several points Charest took opportunities to illustrate humorously the differences between Canada and the United States.

"The common thread of our history is a rejection of the American experience," he said.

Charest pointed to Canada's more centralized political system and more courteous attitudes as major differences between the countries.

"We are the only people in the world who say 'thank you' to the ATM machine," he joked.

Charest has been in Boston for several days speaking with academics and politicians, including former Massachusetts governor and former Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis.

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