MONTREAL - The new leader of the Quebec Liberals says he wants to make strengthening the province’s place in Canada a priority for the party.
Philippe Couillard, who was elected by party delegates Sunday at a convention in Montreal, said he wants to unite Quebecers under the Liberal banner, whether they choose federalism “out of passion, or out of reason.”
“Today a race ends, but today a march begins,” he told party delegates following his victory.
“We start the renewal of our party.”
The former health minister replaces Jean Charest, who stepped down after the Liberals were defeated by the Parti Quebecois in last September's election.
Couillard served as health minister under Charest between 2003 and 2008 and was the presumed front-runner from the outset of the leadership campaign.
He won on the first ballot in a landslide with 58.5 per cent of the vote.
The surprise second-place finisher, former cabinet minister Pierre Moreau, ended up better than expected and has become a more powerful figure in the party.
The last-place finisher, Raymond Bachand, was the finance minister who was the architect of tuition hikes that sparked angry confrontational protests in the months before the Liberals were knocked out of power.
As the new head of the provincial Liberals, Couillard not only must lead the party into the next election, which could come sooner rather than later because the PQ only has a minority.
He also immediately becomes a key for voice for Canadian unity inside Quebec.
Couillard said during the campaign he wanted to go beyond economic ties to build connections between Quebec and Canada.
He promised to work toward Quebec signing the Canadian Constitution, though not necessarily any time soon.
One PQ minister already jumped on the possibility of reopening thorny constitutional talks, offering a hint of the battles to come.
Alexandre Cloutier, the PQ’s point man on sovereignty, criticized Couillard in a tweet, saying Couillard wants to sign the constitution before laying out his demands for Quebec.
Couillard takes over from Charest, who led the party for 14 years, including nine as premier.
The party devoted the first day of its weekend convention to paying tribute to their longtime leader.