Candidacy of media baron catalyzes debate on Quebec secession

By Benjamin Shingler  /  AP, MONTREAL

Tue, Mar 18, 2014 - Page 9

He is one of Canada’s most powerful media barons, with an empire that spans newspapers, cable TV and cellphone services.

Now, Quebecor Media owner Pierre Karl Peladeau has become a key figure in the movement to make the French-speaking province an independent country.

Peladeau’s stunning decision to run as a candidate for the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the province’s legislative election on April 7 has fuelled talk of another referendum on secession — if the party wins the required majority of seats.

Peladeau’s candidacy, declared on March 9, has pushed Quebec independence to the forefront of the campaign after Parti Quebecois leader and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois initially avoided the issue when she dissolved the legislature and called the election on March 5.

His entrance has sparked debate everywhere from hockey locker rooms to radio talk shows.

The Canadian weekly magazine Maclean’s asked on its latest cover: “Is this the man who will break up Canada?”

Fueled by her new star candidate, Marois has openly mused about the details of an independent Quebec — such as whether to retain the Canadian dollar or keep the borders open.

Quebec, with a population of 8.1 million, has had referendums on secession twice before — most recently in 1995, when the pro-independence side lost by a razor-thin margin.

It remains to be seen whether the 52-year-old Peladeau, viewed by many as Marois’ potential successor, will help or hinder Quebec’s appetite for another referendum on the issue.

Polls show support for the independence of Quebec remains stuck at about 40 percent and has not changed significantly in 10 years. Quebec, where 80 percent of the population are French-speaking, has plenty of independence already. It sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French speakers, bases its legal code on France’s and has legislation favoring the use of French over English.

However, many Quebecois have long dreamed of an independent Quebec, as they at times have not felt respected and have worried about the survival of their language in English-speaking North America.

They thrilled to then-French president Charles de Gaulle and his cry of “Vive le Quebec libre” — long live free Quebec, during his visit in 1967.

Peladeau was previously considered one of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s closest allies in the business community in Quebec. He also founded Sun News, a populist, right-wing news channel sometimes likened to a “Fox News North.”

However, Peladeau removed any doubt about his political beliefs last week, declaring himself a candidate committed to sovereignty and intending to “make Quebec a country.”

One political analyst said Peladeau’s candidacy has allowed the party to tie together two key issues: The economy and the ultimate goal of independence.

“Mr Peladeau coming into the race was probably on the part of the PQ a way of twinning both those things by saying: ‘Here is someone who believes in sovereignty, but also has economic credentials,’” said Antonia Maioni, a professor of political science at McGill University.

However, his focus on sovereignty has given ammunition to Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard, a staunch defender of Canadian unity, who warned recently that “Mr Peladeau wants to destroy Canada.”

Campbell Clark, the Globe and Mail’s chief political writer, wrote that Peladeau has got people talking about sovereignty, and that was not really the plan.

“The PQ downplayed the whole idea of a referendum, so it was harder for Mr Couillard to get traction when he attacked them for planning to hold one. Now, Mr Peladeau has given the federalists-versus-sovereigntists battle a higher profile,” Clark wrote.

A new survey from the polling firm Leger Marketing suggests support for the Liberals has jumped in the Quebec City area since Peladeau’s candidacy brought the prospect of Quebec independence into focus.

That may be part of the reason why Marois and Peladeau steered away from the issue while campaigning on Thursday last week, and instead focused on plans to revive the province’s slumping economy.

Many political observers, including pollster Eric Grenier, have expected the party’s campaign to center on its proposed secular charter, which includes a ban on public employees wearing religious headgear.

“I think the charter put the PQ back in a position where they could win,” said Grenier, operator of the polling aggregator site ThreeHundredEight.com, adding that the charter is popular with French-speaking Quebecois. “I’m sure they will talk about it more as the campaign continues.”

Peladeau also faces scrutiny from within his own party.

Richard Martineau, writing in the Peladeau-owned Journal de Montreal, said left-leaning members of the traditionally left-of-center party, could be upset about bringing in the powerful anti-union businessman.

Peladeau has also been challenged to sell shares in Quebecor if elected to office to avoid any conflict of interest. The company’s holdings include the province’s largest daily tabloid and a popular French-language TV station.

However, many longtime supporters of sovereignty appear prepared to look past those issues.

A dozen prominent members of the movement, including two former Quebec premiers, came to Peladeau’s defense in an open letter published in Montreal newspapers, saying he should not be required to sell his shares.

In Maioni’s view, there appears to be a sense among many secessionists of Peladeau’s generation that “if there’s going to be a sovereign Quebec, this may be the moment.”