Philippe Couillard leaves politics; makes plea for inclusive Quebec

A premier not known for showing emotion in public couldn't help blinking back a few tears in his farewell address to his party and Quebecers.

Speaking at the National Assembly, Philippe Couillard announced he was stepping down as Liberal leader, and won't take his seat as the newly-re-elected member for Roberval, three days after his crushing election defeat to François Legal and the CAQ.

"The unequivocal general election result, even after a mandate that was marked by a recovery and a historic revival of Quebec, leads me to make this decision," Couillard said. "The desire for change was clearly expressed, so we must accept the consequences."

As he did during his concession speech on Monday night, Couillard defended his government's record, touting his major accomplishments, including in balancing Quebec's books, increasing accessibility to family doctors, and increasing funding for schools.

"I'm leaving Quebec in better condition than it was in in 2014," he said. "The change has been profound. Our finances are balanced, the debt is in decline, the economy is strong. We are better able to finance our public services, especially education."

During his term, Couillard received widespread criticism for the austerity measures his government brought in to balance those books in the early part of his term.

Speaking in English, he also touted his party's creation of the Anglo secretariat.

"English-speaking Quebecers now have a stronger voice and a better connection within the government," he said. "A well-funded secretariat, as well as a minister dedicated to defending and representing their interests because we are all first-class Quebecers. I want them to know, I didn't do this for short-term electoral reasons, but because of a profound belief in a truly inclusive Quebec."

'More quiet and serenity'

With his wife, Suzanne Pilote, by his side, he choked up, pausing at one point as he talked about her.

"Suzanne and I are heading to a new stage of our lives. It's hard to say today where that will take us," he said. "Towards new challenges and passions, I hope," he said. "Certainly, for more quiet and serenity. It's now time to think a little about us."

Couillard then made a plea to Liberals, and to Quebecers as a whole, for inclusion.

"Newcomers who fill a lot of available jobs do not pose a threat to our distinctiveness in America," he said. "On the contrary, each and every one of them is an essential asset for our growth. It's up to all of us to make sure that they integrate well into Quebec society. To that end, every word, every gesture counts, one way or the other.

"Quebec must remain a welcoming place — an inclusive society where everyone is invited to the table, a place where people are judged for what is in their heads, not on them, and in their hearts, for what they and they can bring us."

Couillard's successor, François Legault, tweeted his thanks Thursday morning for his contributions to Quebec society.

"Politics is demanding and requires courage, and that is worthy of respect," Legault wrote. "I wish him the best of luck for the future.

Speaking in Montreal on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also paid tribute to the outgoing premier.

"I thank Philippe Couillard for his service to Quebecers, and to all Canadians, as premier," he said. "We worked very well together, we had a very positive relationship, and I know that service to his community and his country is at the heart of who he is. I thank him very deeply for that."