Pierre Karl Péladeau and the PQ’s stunning coup

How recruiting one of Canada’s most powerful tycoons has given the separatists a real chance
Pierre Karl Peladeau
Christinne Muschi
Christinne Muschi

The Parti Québécois has long been a party of principled losers. The act of losing—elections, referendums, its leaders—is practically ingrained in the party’s DNA. Consider René Lévesque’s humiliating loss of the 1980 referendum and his subsequent shivving by party brass when he dared question the PQ’s sovereignty raison-d’être. Consider how every PQ leader in his wake has left the party under a similar cloud of bitterness and loss. Consider, as current PQ Leader Pauline Marois has clearly done, how the PQ’s stubbornly leftist base has shackled its leader to an equally stubborn (if unofficial) mantra: being ideologically correct is more important than any electoral win.

No more. Over the latter half of her 18 months in power, Premier Marois has done the near-impossible: squelched infighting and silenced dissent within the PQ’s ranks, pivoted away from her own party’s social democratic underpinnings and pushed forward with a contentious campaign on Quebec identity that has nonetheless put her party within reach of a majority government for the first time in more than a decade.

Marois has now punctuated her transformation by recruiting media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau, former Quebecor CEO and arguably Quebec’s best-known, most notorious businessman. Péladeau the businessman has media holdings within and beyond Quebec, and has spent his career being coy on Quebec’s national question—if only to better do business in both official languages. Péladeau the politician put an end to the ambiguity at a news conference announcing his candidacy in the suburban riding of Saint-Jérôme. “My support of the Parti Québécois is a support of my deepest-held and most personal values, and that is to make Quebec a country,” he said, pumping his right fist in the air.

The French call it coup de theatre, a turn of events so spectacular it changes the dynamics of the entire campaign. Péladeau, 52, brings business bona fides and a conservative bent to the Parti Québécois, and serves as example to the success of the party’s quasi-ethnic nationalist electoral platform. All of this makes him (and the PQ) a contender in Saint-Jérôme and the neighbouring ring of suburban ridings around Montreal, home to large swaths of white, francophone conservative voters key to a PQ majority.

Meanwhile, Péladeau the businessman’s pursuit of an NHL franchise in Quebec City makes Péladeau the politician all the more attractive in that hockey-mad burgh, currently the power base of the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec party.

If it was at all ambiguous before, Péladeau’s entry can’t make it any clearer: should Marois win a majority on April 7, Canada will be subject to yet another unity crisis—and some are warning that the federal government is as ill-prepared for such a thing as it was in 1995, when Quebec came within a hair’s breadth of leaving Confederation. Here, too, Péladeau is a boon to the PQ. Along with a suddenly muscular Quebec indépendentiste streak, Péladeau brings a ruthless negotiating approach rivaling that of Lucien Bouchard, the last Péquiste to rally the Yes side to within inches of winning.

There are caveats: the PQ must first win a majority government, and Marois will have to contain Péladeau’s control-freak temperament and infamous restlessness. To say Péladeau cuts a divisive figure in Quebec is an understatement. One of the first things he did after declaring his desire for a separate Quebec was to refuse to sell his Quebecor and Quebecor Media shares, worth in excess of $675 million, should he be elected. A theoretical government minister Péladeau would likely oversee both the province’s financial levers and have a significant interest in one of its largest companies. (Of course, it’s worth remembering that business and government are often joined at the hip in Quebec.)

Already, Péladeau is often viewed with a mixture of awe, fear and antagonism within Quebec’s cloistered media and show business circles. He has invited comparisons to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, that other hardheaded business titan who never relinquished his media titles during his rise to power (and stayed in power for quite a while).

Péladeau is also stridently anti-union, having overseen some 14 lockouts during his tenure at Quebecor, according the FTQ, Quebec’s largest union organization. To many sovereignists, his recruitment to the PQ ranks is a betrayal of the party’s founding principles—though many PQ partisans, who see this election as the sovereignty movement’s mighty last gasp, don’t seem to care.

“There are Péquistes in my family who have closed their eyes to everything the PQ has done in hopes that a majority government will bring independence,” says Paul Cliche, a longtime PQ militant who has since moved to lefty rival Québec solidaire. “They think they see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they’ve lost all good judgment because of it.”

Pierre Karl and then- partner Julie Snyder at the Artis Awards for Quebec television in Montreal last April.
Pierre Karl and then- partner Julie Snyder at the Artis Awards for Quebec television in Montreal last April.

Call it a Faustian bargain for Marois. If Canada is now on its way to another (perhaps final) showdown with the bête noire province, it is thanks to the marathon resolve of Quebec’s first female premier. The 64-year-old has a textbook knowledge of losing: she was with the Parti Québécois through two lost referendums, and twice ran unsuccessfully for party leader before taking the helm in 2007, when barely anyone wanted the job.

Relegated to a third-party rump, Marois brought her party back from the brink in the 2008 election. In 2011, her party a familiar hornet’s nest of infighting, she beat back an attempted leadership coup by Gilles Duceppe. The former Bloc Québécois leader was within biting distance of Marois—until a well-placed media leak detailed the Bloc’s use of parliamentary funds to pay a partisan Bloc staff member under Duceppe.

Was the Marois camp responsible for the leak? No one has ever said as much out loud, though it certainly had the desired effect: Duceppe was cast aside, and Marois formed a minority government following the September 2012 election. She even walked away from an assassination attempt on the night of her victory, giving all the more credence to her moniker, Dame de béton (“concrete lady”).

Still, the first half of her mandate was a bit of a shambles. Then two things happened: first, a tragic rail accident in which a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields exploded in Lac-Mégantic, killing 47. Marois was on the scene within hours, and projected the grace and sympathy of a true head of state. “I feel a profound sense of grief,” Marois said in an unscripted news conference a few hundred yards from the still-smouldering scene of the disaster. During a second visit she promised $60 million in aid to the town. Marois’s Lac-Mégantic appearances did what years of campaigning were unable to do: soften her haughty, haute bourgeoisie image. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, who had yet to win a seat in Quebec’s National Assembly, could hardly keep up.

The second thing was a slight more cynical. Roughly two months after the Lac-Mégantic explosion, the PQ brain trust came up with a plan to ban religious garb from the heads, necks and lapels of its public sector workers. Details of the so-called Quebec values charter were leaked to Péladeau’s Journal de Montréal. “Islamicization is a reality, and it worries us,” declared PQ minister and charter architect Bernard Drainville on a radio call-in show. Creeping political Islam seemingly worries many Quebecers as well; since its introduction, the province has divided nearly equally into pro- and anti-charter camps.

For the Marois government, the beneficial effects of the charter have been twofold: it consolidated PQ support in Quebec’s hinterland beyond Montreal, and served as a surrogate identity issue for sovereignty, of which many Quebecers remain skeptical. “There is still a malaise among Quebecers that their identity is slowly slipping away in Canada,” says constitutionalist and former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Benoît Pelletier. “That fear created the PQ’s charter project.”

Having tackled image and identity, Marois’s last vulnerability has been the economy. Quebec has underperformed under her government. Its population is older, less productive and far more indebted than the Canadian average. Its economy has been sluggish, with 26,000 job losses in February alone, according to Statistics Canada data. After analyzing the province’s financial innards, the Bloom­berg financial news agency recently suggested Quebec’s credit rating might dip should Marois remain in power.

Pierre Karl Péladeau is the perfect salve to this wound—in the short term at least. He is a particularly Québécois take on the self-made businessman. Having inherited the reigns of his father’s company in part by wresting control from his older brother, Érik, Péladeau first had global dreams. Through a decade-long acquisition binge, he made Quebecor World one of the largest printing concerns in the world—before its debt pushed it into bankruptcy in 2008.

The debacle caused Péladeau to refocus his efforts in Quebec, a smaller pond where he could be the biggest fish. “He could have done what the Bronfmans did, to get out of Quebec and play the international game, but he didn’t. He seized the limit of his destiny and that thinking saved the business—unlike the Bronfmans, who played too high and gambled too much on glamour and lost almost all,” author and Péladeau père executive assistant Bernard Bujold told Maclean’s last summer.

With the help of $3.2 billion from the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Quebec’s massive pension fund manager, he acquired Videotron, a moribund cable television interest beset by labour woes and wretched customer service. Under Péladeau, it has become a cable and wireless juggernaut—and a spigot for content produced by Quebecor’s various media properties, including the TVA television station. Some say Quebecor’s editorial bent has dovetailed with the PQ’s identity politics gambit. “If you read the Journal de Montréal and watch TVA, chances are you are pro-charter,” says Jean Dorion, one of the many high-profile Quebec sovereignists who are against the PQ charter.

PQ MNA and long-time strategist Jean-François Lisée has targeted those suburbs surrounding Montreal—home to lapsed nationalists who would be critical to a PQ majority and a winning referendum. For them, Péladeau could be the kind of successful, contemporary sovereignist who could awaken those nationalist fires. “People never want a referendum. But when there is one they will vote, and they will make a choice,” says constitutionalist and former minister Pelletier.

Péladeau’s entry into Quebec’s political realm has caught much of Canada’s political establishment off-guard. As recently as last year, Quebecor board member and former prime minister Brian Mulroney played down the rumours that Péladeau was going to get into partisan politics. “Ideologically, he’s a business-oriented, pro-trade, pro-business centrist,” Mulroney told Maclean’s last summer. “Where does that put him on the spectrum of Quebec politics? Well, I think you’d find a lot of people who’d say, hell, he wouldn’t fit very well into the PQ.” (Mulroney declined a further interview request.)

The federal government, too, seems surprised at Péladeau’s candidacy and the PQ’s sudden surge. As several sources told Maclean’s, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which has all of five Quebec MPs, dismantled much of the federal bureaucratic machinery put in place to monitor the provinces’ (and, specifically, Quebec’s) mood upon taking office in 2006. The Harper Conservatives “haven’t been doing anything,” says veteran Quebec Conservative organizer Peter White. “Quebec simply hasn’t been on the radar. There’s no interest. There’s nothing.”

Upon taking power in 2006, according to critics, the Conservatives limited Ottawa’s ability to analyze the mood in Quebec and the rest of the country. The Centre for Research and Information on Canada, which conducted regular polling on issues of language, culture and Canadian unity, published its last survey in 2005.

The Canadian Unity Council, established to calm jittery federalist nerves during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, was largely defunded in 2006 as part of the Harper government’s plan to “fundamentally change the way in which the federal government interacts with the provinces,” said Heritage Minister Bev Oda at the time.

“It was a fairly sophisticated base of knowledge that’s just disappeared. Nearly a decade ago, we’ve stopped doing real research and public opinion polling on Quebec,” says Matthew Mendelsohn, who worked on the national unity file in the Privy Council Office during prime minister Jean Chrétien’s tenure. Some of the cuts were a result of the sponsorship scandal, in which a bevy of Liberal-friendly Quebec firms bilked the federal government for work that was often not done. “But they threw the baby out with the bathwater,” Mendelsohn says. “It’s valuable research and it’s not expensive. For years there’s been a culture of disregard for national unity issues, and now people are scrambling.”

(The Conservative government wouldn’t comment on Mendelsohn’s and White’s allegations. “Despite the media’s best efforts to get us to interfere with the Quebec election, we have no intention of doing so,” said Conservative spokesperson Carl Vallée.)

The Parti Québécois, meanwhile, never stopped strategizing. In 2007, Lisée published Nous, a book-length essay detailing his vision of getting the party out of the political desert. Chief among his proposals was to instill a sense of pride in Quebec’s francophone majority by reclaiming the “Nous” (“Us”).

The term had become verboten following Jacques Parizeau’s infamous post-referendum speech in 1995, when he beckoned the partisan crowd to speak about nous, then promptly blamed the loss on “money and ethnic votes.” Lisée was a PQ candidate in 2012—the year in which, lo and behold, the party’s election slogan was “C’est à nous de choisir” (“It’s for us to decide.”) Lo and behold the Quebec values charter, which plays on French Quebec’s collective insecurity over a loss of language and culture at the hands of the “other”—be they English or, more likely these days, overtly religious.

And lo and behold the candidacy of Pierre Karl Péladeau. The freshly separated bachelor at once embodies Quebec’s business might and nationalist pride in a very telegenic package. “I am not someone who gives up. Yes, I am pugnacious. Yes, I try to succeed when I’m given objectives,” he said on Radio-Canada hours after he announced his candidacy. Recruiting him so close to the election is a stroke of political genius: the PQ benefits from Péladeau’s star power and brand name in the three-week campaign sprint, while limiting the potential fallout resulting from his rougher edges.

As always, there are clouds on the PQ horizon, even if the party wins a majority. The PQ is hardly short on egos, Lisée and Marois very much included. Péladeau’s arrival makes for a crowded table. Marois et al. may well decide to push for a quick referendum after an electoral win, if only to benefit from momentum and relative cohesion—as well as a ready-made villain in Alberta-based Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In the last eight months, Premier Pauline Marois has exploded many Péquiste clichés. Long a vestige of the union-dominated left, the party has lurched rightward under her watch. Her position in the party, once teetering, is secured—for now. Under her, the Parti Québécois won an election in 2012, and may well do the same on April 7. Should the PQ win a majority, it seems there is only one cliché left: after years of relative peace, Canada and Quebec are in for another inevitable showdown.