Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois
Three years ago, Pauline Marois’ leadership of the Parti Québécois was so contentious that her own party members were jumping ship.
Today, she’s cemented her position at the top of the province’s sovereignist movement, rallied the faithful and set her sights firmly on a majority government.
Marois’s PQ just barely cleared the Liberals in 2012 to form the party’s first-ever minority government. But Quebec’s Madame de Béton (the Concrete Lady), as she was christened by staunch supporters in her caucus, saw some of her tough edges softened this year as she stood tall with the residents and mayor of Lac-Mégantic in the wake of the rail tragedy in the small town last summer.
Her government’s swift and efficient response to the disaster – setting up financial aid, social services and support for businesses within days of the blasts that levelled the town’s core – shifted thinking about the PQ’s ability to govern in the current climate.
Marois has shown steely political perseverance in her nearly seven years as PQ leader, weathering party infighting, desertions, stagnant popularity in the polls and the spectre of former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.
Before the PQ won its minority, she captained two years of steady opposition pressure on the Liberal government at Quebec’s national assembly in the continuing public works corruption scandal.
Marois appeased nationalist hardliners with her pledge to expand Quebec’s Bill 101 language law and to create a Quebec citizenship charter to promote "common values" and secularism in the province.
While the PQ ultimately had to abandon Bill 14, its controversial revamp of the language law, to focus its efforts on the secular charter, it included a line about the primacy of the French language in the proposed legislation on religious neutrality.
She has refused to budge on one of the central elements of the charter, the ban on religious symbols, despite significant push-back from some municipalities, religious groups and educational institutions.
"It's a basic part of the project," she said outside of the hearings on the proposed charter in January.
While Marois, in her early days as PQ leader, distanced herself from the sovereignty referendum issue, she has come full circle.
With the ascent of Stephen Harper's Conservative government in Ottawa, Marois found a new foil for Quebec's independence: Ottawa's right-wing policies which are unpopular in Quebec.
Sovereignty is once again the PQ's key objective.
"The biggest risk to Quebec isn’t sovereignty," she told supporters in 2012. "It is staying in Canada."
First female premier boasts unequalled experience
Marois, 64, is among the most tenacious and successful Quebec politicians in history and a trailblazer for women in public office.
As the first woman leader of any Quebec political party, and the province’s first female premier, she brought decades of legislative and executive experience to the job.
From her first stint as press secretary in the 1970s to Quebec’s then-finance minister Parizeau, to overseeing the education, health and finance portfolios, Marois has been deeply involved in the province's trademark social programs.
She helped draft Quebec's progressive youth protection legislation in the 1980s and engineered the province’s envied low-cost daycare system.
Her first bid for the PQ leadership failed in 1985.
A second leadership bid in 2006 ended with a brief retirement from politics after party members chose André Boisclair, a young upstart ex-cabinet minister. Following the PQ's disastrous performance in the 2007 elections, Marois returned to public life to take over the party.
She briefly faced a formidable opponent, Gilles Duceppe, who bowed out of the race just 24 hours after declaring his candidacy. Marois was acclaimed.
Controversial student support
But for all of her experience and political will, Marois's political career has not been without its missteps.
Her support for the province's students during the tuition protests was deemed opportunistic by some protesters and political opponents. She eventually dropped the red square she wore in the legislature but continued to press her support of the students' cause, pulling in one of their leaders, Léo Bureau-Blouin as a star candidate.
Her government created the Conseil des Universités to oversee university administrations and to look for ways to cut back on spending and expenses.
Her personal wealth has also been publicly scrutinized. She and her husband Claude Blanchet sued the Montreal Gazette for defamation over a 2007 investigation that raised questions about their former multimillion-dollar home on Île-Bizard.
The case was settled out of court.
More recently, Marois was on the defence again after testimony before the province’s corruption commission alleged her involvement with high-ranking union officials.
In the wiretap evidence, two union executives were overheard talking in 2009, when Marois was leader of the opposition, about applying pressure to the PQ to ensure no corruption inquiry took place.
Then-union president Michel Arsenault reassures Jean Lavallée that they have a deal with "Blanchet," a reference to Marois' husband, a director at the FTQ Solidarity Fund from 1983 to 1997.
"The PQ won't touch this," Arsenault tells Lavallée, ex-president of the labour federation's construction wing. "I'll talk to Pauline."
Marois defiantly denied that her husband ever struck a deal with Quebec's largest labour federation to protect that union's interests and to thwart an inquiry.