The smart political strategist would do the following: put PÃ©ladeau on a stage and make him talk strictly about how he transformed Videotron from a Podunk cable company beset by labour troubles into the provinceâ€™s leading cable and wireless concern. In the vacuum of a month-long election campaign, PÃ©ladeau the businessman could easily hide the red-ink-stained legacy of the PQâ€™s 18 months in power.
Instead, we got PÃ©ladeau the Quebec separatist. On a chilly Monday morning three days into the campaign, PÃ©ladeau took the stage with Pauline Marois and, after a 13-minute speech vaunting his economic record and the beauty of his riding of St-JÃ©rÃ´me, he uttered 30 words that would overshadow his campaign and that of his newly adopted party. â€œFinally, I end by telling you that my membership in the Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois is in line with my most profound and intimate values,â€ he said in French. â€œThat is to say, make Quebec a country!â€
An outsider to Quebec politics would probably shrug at PÃ©ladeauâ€™s words; one would expect a declared separatist to declare his desire for separation, after all. PÃ©ladeau, who according to a Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois source, wrote the speech himself, certainly seemed to think as much.
Yet with his fist-bumping cri de coeur, PÃ©ladeau fell into the long-widening chasm between the Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois and its would-be electors. Support for sovereignty has been stagnant for ages, while the desire to exercise the means to get thereâ€”a referendumâ€”has regressed. Some 64 per cent of Quebecers donâ€™t want another referendum, according to a recent poll by the CROP polling firm. Even diehard PÃ©quistes thought PÃ©ladeau went too far.
â€œI think he wanted to show his loyalty to the Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois and be liked by its members and he pushed a little more than he really had to,â€ said Gilles Gaudrault, a PQ supporter who was at the Marois love-in.
In the immediate aftermath of PÃ©ladeauâ€™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 Maroisâ€™s flights of fancy within 48 hours, but the damage was already done. And it was irreversible.
In Quebec City, PÃ©ladeauâ€™s candidacy should have hearkened a return of the PQ in what has been a bastion for the right-of-centre Action DÃ©mocratique du Quebec party and its successor, the CAQ, led by former PQ minister FranÃ§ois Legault. Yet PÃ©ladeau seemingly did himself in with those 30 words in this surprisingly conservative and federalist region and beyond. â€œIâ€™m so disappointed in the guy itâ€™s ridiculous,â€ says Mario Roy, an insurance broker and sometimes radio DJ, who in 2010 worked on a campaign with PÃ©ladeau to bring an NHL team to Quebec City. â€œYou 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.â€
It says something about the peculiar state of the sovereignty movement in Quebec that its star attraction couldnâ€™t talk about it without the entire cause suffering politically, yet apparently the message was received. At the ThÃ©Ã¢tre Telus event, where youâ€™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 PÃ©ladeauâ€™s words, or the line of television cameras in front of her as she spoke. PÃ©ladeau didnâ€™t even mention the word that night; a vote for the PQ, he said, was â€œa vote for the economy and jobs.â€ PQ candidate and former student leader Martine Desjardin was only slightly more direct. â€œWeâ€™ll be there when it comes time to build a country,â€ she said.
Instead of sovereignty, the Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois sought to ban religious symbols from the heads, necks and lapels of Quebecâ€™s public sector employees. Introduced by way of a strategic media leak to the populist tabloid Journal de MontrÃ©al late last summer, the Quebec values charter sought guarantee for â€œthe secular nature of our institutions,â€ 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 provinceâ€™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 Quebecâ€™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 PÃ©ladeauâ€™s sovereignty sortie had effectively halted the PQâ€™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 PÃ©ladeau was meant to bring to the PQâ€™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, â€œand we risk pushing the plight of women backwardsâ€ in Quebec. Soon after, Drainville sent out a selfie of himself and Bertrand to his roughly 35,000 Twitter followersâ€”one of the nearly 130 pro-charter tweets Drainville published in just over a month.
It took only marginally longer than PÃ©ladeau for Bertrand to flame out as a PQ saviourâ€”15 hours, to be exact. The morning after her speech, Bertrand attended a â€œsecular brunchâ€ in the Montreal suburb of Laval with Drainville and local PQ candidate LÃ©o Bureau-Blouin, 22, a former student leader.
Surrounded by reporters, Bertrand again went off the cuff, saying â€œforeigners, rich McGill studentsâ€ (nameless Muslim men, apparently) had overtaken the pool in her building because they couldnâ€™t bear the sight of Bertrand and her female friend doing their weekly aqua gym class. â€œThat is what is going to happen if there is no charter,â€ 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 falseâ€”the Montreal Gazette quoted the manager of Bertrandâ€™s building calling her claims â€œcompletely fictionalâ€â€”Bertrandâ€™s comments underscored the level to which the debate around the charter had sunk by the campaignâ€™s end.
Itâ€™s how a lot of outside of Quebec saw it too.