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Quebec Liberals set to choose new leader as Charest steps off political stage

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MONTREAL - Quebec Liberals are getting set to choose their new leader at a convention today in Montreal.

Former premier Jean Charest stepped down as Liberal leader last September after losing his seat when his government was toppled by the Parti Quebecois in the provincial election.

Three former cabinet ministers are vying to succeed him — Philippe Couillard, Raymond Bachand and Pierre Moreau.

Couillard, the presumed front-runner, was health minister between 2003 and 2008.

The party used the first day of its weekend convention to pay tribute to Charest, who led the party for 14 years, including nine as premier.

After being greeted with a lengthy standing ovation, Charest made a passionate plea for national unity and reminded Canadians how important Quebec is to Canada.

"Canada is our home, and all those who live outside of Quebec should know that Quebec is also part of their home and their heritage," Charest told the crowd.

The staunch federalist also took a jab at the PQ government, which has made preserving the French language a key issue since taking office. He said that English-speaking Quebecers deserve to be treated with respect.

"You are not strangers in this province and you are not strangers as citizens of Quebec," he said, speaking in English during what was a mostly French address.

"Every one of us have a right to vote, we have a right to be part of this society and we have a right to be fully accepted as citizens of Quebec. And that's what this party stands for."

In his final years in office, Charest's party faced allegations of corruption that ultimately led him to call a public inquiry. But he said he has no regrets about his time in office, particularly his efforts to increase university tuition fees, even if they led to months of street protests.

"There are things that are worth fighting for, ladies and gentlemen, and it was well worth fighting for every student to have access to their schools," he said, alluding to the emergency law he passed that put limits on the protests.

Charest urged the party to unite behind whoever becomes his replacement on Sunday and made a point not to pick a favourite.

There was little discussion of the leadership race, however, as the party focused squarely on building up the legacy of their longtime leader.

In a series of speeches and video montages, Charest was painted as a visionary who helped reform the province's health care and grow the economy — all while keeping Canada together while under threat from Quebec separatists.

Tributes poured in from outside the province as well, ranging from Alberta Premier Alison Redford to the former president of Senegal.

Charest was first elected as an MP in Brian Mulroney's Conservative tidal wave in 1984, and became the youngest federal cabinet minister in 1986 at the age of 28. He gained further national exposure while campaigning for the No side in the 1995 Quebec referendum.

Charest left federal politics in 1998 to take over the Quebec Liberals, who were leaderless and worried about the prospect of another referendum. He remained at the party's helm until last fall.

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