Pierre Karl Péladeau's timid reign reflected Parti Québécois's identity crisis

When Pierre Karl Péladeau took the podium at a Montreal press conference Monday to announce he was stepping down as leader of the Parti Québécois, he listed his accomplishments. It was a short list.

Former head of Quebecor media empire failed to take party in any definitive direction during his short reign

Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau's departure leaves the sovereigntist party facing difficult decisions about its identity. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

When Pierre Karl Péladeau took the podium at a Montreal press conference on Monday to announce he was stepping down as leader of the Parti Québécois for family reasons, he listed his accomplishments.

It was a short list.

He spoke vaguely of forcing the Liberal government to "backtrack." And he recalled that the PQ won a byelection last month, though it was in a riding the party has held for decades.

But that was pretty much it.

The only other accomplishment that Péladeau mentioned was having laid the groundwork for a potential alliance of Quebec's fragmented sovereigntist groups.

"It's an important project," he said. "I am trusting our supporters to continue it."

If Péladeau's brief tenure at the head of the PQ is to leave a legacy, it will likely hinge on whatever progress is made uniting sovereigntist forces.

And even then, Péladeau's absence might count as his bigger contribution to that enterprise.

Péladeau the mogul vs. Péladeau the leftist

Péladeau's departure, at a time when he seemed to finally be getting his sea legs as a politician, came as a shock to the party, but his relationship with the PQ base had always been awkward at best. 

Many leftist sovereigntists had difficulty separating Péladeau the business mogul from Péladeau the leader of an ostensibly progressive political party.

To them, he was proof that the movement was selling out its fundamental values.

But Péladeau had nevertheless been making an earnest effort in recent weeks to reach out to the other provincial sovereigntist parties – both the small (Québec Solidaire, which has three seats in the National Assembly) and the microscopic (Option Nationale, which has zero seats).

The PQ leader co-authored an open letter in Le Devoir newspaper that sought to build bridges with these explicitly progressive parties. They have repeatedly criticized the PQ for assuming it has a monopoly on the sovereigntist movement.

"We have rethought and reinvented our whole approach," the letter read.

"More than ever, we are convinced that the diversity within the independence movement constitutes not a weakness but a veritable strength."

Péladeau, till then the wealthy head of the Quebecor media empire, announced his jump into politics in 2014 alongside then Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, left. He won a seat in the riding of Saint-Jérôme and became party leader the following year. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

At a meeting last week, the three provincial parties and their federal counterpart, the Bloc Québécois, agreed to draw up a "common road map" for how to achieve sovereignty. It was a timid consensus, and the question of a possible alliance on the provincial scene was punted into an indefinite future.

Polls have suggested such an alliance could be beneficial for the PQ, which has struggled to catch up with the governing Liberals, even though they have been mired in a number of ethics scandals.

That inability to gain ground on the Liberals likely had many in the PQ second-guessing their decision to hand the party's reins over to Péladeau, which they did in overwhelming numbers last May.

Going left or right? 

Péladeau's ascension to the party's leadership was eyed suspiciously by its leftist base. Many were willing to accept — if not forgive — his months-long lockout of Journal de Montréal employees, which undermined the party's all-important relations with labour, if it meant a revival of the party, which lost 24 seats — and its minority government — in the 2014 election.

​The former president of media giant Quebecor Inc. was meant to bring a sense of business acumen to a party often knocked for its willingness to bankroll ambitious social programs with government revenues.

But Peladeau also represented the conservative nationalist, as opposed to progressive leftist, element of the PQ psyche. He is reported to count among his intellectual influences sociologists Jacques Beauchemin and Mathieu Bock-Côté, known for their wariness of multiculturalism and strident defence of francophone culture.

Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau's gave a tearful resignation. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Taken together, this appeared to be the perfect package that would enable the PQ to recover votes from Coalition Avenir Québec, a centre-right, "third way" party that is neither sovereigntist nor explicitly federalist with which the PQ competes in many suburban ridings around Montreal.

But Péladeau's leadership wasn't marked by a particularly nationalist tone — especially compared with his predecessor Pauline Marois's doomed charter of values. Nor did he double down on the leftist rhetoric.

He also didn't stray too far from the PQ status quo on economic matters — other than perhaps failing to oppose the Liberals' austerity measures as fervently as some party hardliners would have liked.

By making timid nods in all directions, Péladeau in many ways reflected the pervasive latent uncertainty about the party's identity.

His successor will be forced to choose between pursuing convergence on the sovereigntist left or adopting a more conservative brand of nationalism.