The smart political strategist would do the following: put Péladeau on a stage and make him talk strictly about how he transformed Videotron from a Podunk cable company beset by labour troubles into the province’s leading cable and wireless concern. In the vacuum of a month-long election campaign, Péladeau the businessman could easily hide the red-ink-stained legacy of the PQ’s 18 months in power.
Instead, we got Péladeau the Quebec separatist. On a chilly Monday morning three days into the campaign, Péladeau took the stage with Pauline Marois and, after a 13-minute speech vaunting his economic record and the beauty of his riding of St-Jérôme, he uttered 30 words that would overshadow his campaign and that of his newly adopted party. “Finally, I end by telling you that my membership in the Parti Québécois is in line with my most profound and intimate values,” he said in French. “That is to say, make Quebec a country!”
An outsider to Quebec politics would probably shrug at Péladeau’s words; one would expect a declared separatist to declare his desire for separation, after all. Péladeau, who according to a Parti Québécois source, wrote the speech himself, certainly seemed to think as much.
Yet with his fist-bumping cri de coeur, Péladeau fell into the long-widening chasm between the Parti Québécois and its would-be electors. Support for sovereignty has been stagnant for ages, while the desire to exercise the means to get there—a referendum—has regressed. Some 64 per cent of Quebecers don’t want another referendum, according to a recent poll by the CROP polling firm. Even diehard Péquistes thought Péladeau went too far.
“I think he wanted to show his loyalty to the Parti Québécois and be liked by its members and he pushed a little more than he really had to,” said Gilles Gaudrault, a PQ supporter who was at the Marois love-in.
In the immediate aftermath of Péladeau’s declaration, Marois mused that citizens of a separate Quebec would have their own Quebec passport; people and goods would flow freely over the open and undefended borders with Canada. Quebec would use the Canadian dollar, and lobby for a seat with the Bank of Canada. Her strategists quietly put an end to Marois’s flights of fancy within 48 hours, but the damage was already done. And it was irreversible.
In Quebec City, Péladeau’s candidacy should have hearkened a return of the PQ in what has been a bastion for the right-of-centre Action Démocratique du Quebec party and its successor, the CAQ, led by former PQ minister François Legault. Yet Péladeau seemingly did himself in with those 30 words in this surprisingly conservative and federalist region and beyond. “I’m so disappointed in the guy it’s ridiculous,” says Mario Roy, an insurance broker and sometimes radio DJ, who in 2010 worked on a campaign with Péladeau to bring an NHL team to Quebec City. “You want to go into politics to fix public finances and put things in order? Fine. But to pump your fist and say you want a country? Tabarnak.”
It says something about the peculiar state of the sovereignty movement in Quebec that its star attraction couldn’t talk about it without the entire cause suffering politically, yet apparently the message was received. At the Théâtre Telus event, where you’d think a sovereignist leader would speak freely to a room full of the faithful, Marois and the PQ candidates stayed largely clear of the issue of sovereignty. Perhaps it was the lingering sting of Péladeau’s words, or the line of television cameras in front of her as she spoke. Péladeau didn’t even mention the word that night; a vote for the PQ, he said, was “a vote for the economy and jobs.” PQ candidate and former student leader Martine Desjardin was only slightly more direct. “We’ll be there when it comes time to build a country,” she said.
Instead of sovereignty, the Parti Québécois sought to ban religious symbols from the heads, necks and lapels of Quebec’s public sector employees. Introduced by way of a strategic media leak to the populist tabloid Journal de Montréal late last summer, the Quebec values charter sought guarantee for “the secular nature of our institutions,” as PQ minister and charter architect Bernard Drainville said. As a piece of legislation, it was almost certainly doomed to be challenged and defeated in the court, according to the province’s law society and its human rights commission, among others.
As an electoral gambit, though, the charter was seemingly a masterstroke. It allowed the PQ to pitch itself as the defender of Quebec’s francophone majority without having to talk about sovereignty itself. Successive polls suggested the majority of francophone voters liked the idea of a secularism charter, and the PQ saw a bump in its poll numbers in the wake of its introduction.
No surprise, then, that in the second week of the campaign, as Péladeau’s sovereignty sortie had effectively halted the PQ’s campaign, Drainville was tapped to rework his charter magic for the election. No surprise, too, that Drainville himself trotted out a warhorse of his own, a person who could add to the charter issue what Péladeau was meant to bring to the PQ’s economic platform: pioneering Quebec feminist Janette Bertrand.
Drainville introduced Bertrand at the Marois love-in, and the 89-year-old dame of Quebec culture hobbled out on a clear Plexiglas cane, cast aside her prepared speech and gave a fiery five-minute plea for a PQ majority. Anything short, she said, “and we risk pushing the plight of women backwards” in Quebec. Soon after, Drainville sent out a selfie of himself and Bertrand to his roughly 35,000 Twitter followers—one of the nearly 130 pro-charter tweets Drainville published in just over a month.
It took only marginally longer than Péladeau for Bertrand to flame out as a PQ saviour—15 hours, to be exact. The morning after her speech, Bertrand attended a “secular brunch” in the Montreal suburb of Laval with Drainville and local PQ candidate Léo Bureau-Blouin, 22, a former student leader.
Surrounded by reporters, Bertrand again went off the cuff, saying “foreigners, rich McGill students” (nameless Muslim men, apparently) had overtaken the pool in her building because they couldn’t bear the sight of Bertrand and her female friend doing their weekly aqua gym class. “That is what is going to happen if there is no charter,” she said. Bureau-Blouin, in the background, bowed his head and flicked dejectedly at his iPad, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
Hurtful and demonstrably false—the Montreal Gazette quoted the manager of Bertrand’s building calling her claims “completely fictional”—Bertrand’s comments underscored the level to which the debate around the charter had sunk by the campaign’s end.
It’s how a lot of outside of Quebec saw it too.