Quebec braces for its 'Peladeau moment' as PQ selects new leader

Thirteen months after its disastrous election defeat, the Parti Quebecois chooses a new leader tonight, and it will almost certainly be Pierre Karl Peladeau, the former media mogul sometimes known as 'Citizen Peladeau.'

PQ leadership vote tonight all but certain to crown Quebecor owner

Pierre Karl Peladeau during the final PQ leadership debate in Montreal last week. The first ballot is to be counted tonight and he is almost certain to be the winner. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The race for the leadership of the Parti Quebecois, if a race it ever was, has been a self-fulfilling prophecy that should, mercifully, end tonight when Pierre Karl Péladeau is elected to the position long considered his.

If he doesn't win on the first ballot over his two remaining rivals — former PQ ministers Alexandre Cloutier and Martine Ouellet — Quebec's entire political establishment will be the French equivalent of gobsmacked.

Péladeau is big-league in Quebec's small pond. Always has been. 

Owner of Quebecor, the newspaper company he inherited and transformed into a media empire, and now engaged to his long-time partner, television super-personality and producer Julie Snyder, Péladeau is a celebrity businessman and a living, breathing example of his own model of corporate convergence.

He stepped into politics just over a year ago, introduced as the secret weapon in then-leader Pauline Marois' separatist arsenal as physical proof that independence is an economically viable option.

His first foray in front of the cameras ended with the now-famous fist pump and promise to make Quebec a country, a gesture that backfired so badly, it almost immediately sunk the PQ's electoral fortunes and set the stage for Philippe Couillard's Liberal majority.

And yet despite the PQ trouncing, Péladeau emerged not only unscathed but, almost counterintuitively, as some kind of saviour for the ill-fated party and its cause.

One by one over the course of the three-month leadership campaign, his main rivals — including long-time party strategist Jean-François Lisée and once-prominent minister Bernard Drainville — slipped away.

Lisée, the wordsmith, proclaimed Péladeau's advance too great, the party's desire for its "Péladeau moment" too strong to rival.

The last to leave, long-shot candidate Pierre Céré, one of Péladeau's most critical opponents, dropped out on the weekend, with a few choice words of his own.

Peladeau, centre, makes a face as the organizers explain the rules of a leadership debate at Laval University back in March. He is flanked by then candidates Martine Ouellet and Pierre Céré. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Céré had already tussled with Péladeau in February after calling him "Citizen Péladeau" in reference to the power hungry media mogul Citizen Kane played by Orson Welles.

The label stuck. Péladeau was not amused.

Within days of withdrawing, Céré told two reporters the rest of what happened that day: how Péladeau confronted him at the party convention after Céré had suggested that Péladeau was trying to "buy himself" the PQ.

"From across the room, he calls me over, really loudly, and says, 'What's your price,' something like that. 'If you keep this up, you're going to chase companies and capital away.'

"I'm watching someone who's really mad, furious," Céré went on. "He had fire coming out of his head, his eyes, his ears, everywhere."

All the rage

For a few days last week, Péladeau's temper was all the rage, as more people spilled about past confrontations, adding weight to the idea that the former CEO isn't one for consensus.

Péladeau sloughs off the criticism, sometimes explaining away his past outbursts as a result of his "passion" for Quebec.

In this campaign, though, it has been other outbursts that have caused him problems.

In a rather low-brow moment in Abitibi-Témiscamingue in January, he heckled "en français, s'il vous plait" when the Montreal indie band Groenland performed in English.

Then, questioned about a recent Maclean's article, Péladeau slagged its author, Martin Patriquin, as a mere pamphleteer, making sure to give as English a pronunciation as possible to his French surname.

It reflected the kind of casual contempt for English heritage that PQ ministers in the past used to reserve for Pierre Elliott Trudeau's middle name, but has little to no play now.

Worse was a slight against immigrants made while talking about independence.

"Who's responsible for the immigrants who come and settle in Quebec? It's the federal government," Péladeau said.

"It's true it's a shared jurisdiction, but they swear allegiance to the Queen. So we don't have 25 years before us. It's now that we have to get to work."

With that, Péladeau appeared to confirm the increasingly popular notion that the PQ is a party of one generation — that independence can't be achieved once the province's demographics change.

Whether he meant it or not is unclear. He apologized the next day.

Sailing through

So what will the PQ be getting this evening in the way of a new leader?

Yesterday, the Journal de Montréal, one of Quebecor's newspapers, claimed the party would be getting nothing less than a chef de guerre, which translates generously as a war general, and literally as a warlord.

Rather short of that, if the last few months are any indication, Péladeau remains an awkward political figure and a rather poor public speaker.

He opts instead to communicate mostly via social media, a habit that adds to the impression of an introvert doing an extrovert's job.

And yet, he's mostly sailed through. Cast simply, intimately, as Pierre Karl in his campaign, he's tried to present himself as a social democrat, a suggestion that beggars belief among many in and outside the party, given his union-busting history.

On the outstanding issue of remaining Quebecor's majority shareholder — characterized by Lisée as "a ticking time bomb" — he's agreed only to place his holding in a blind trust if he becomes leader, but with orders not to sell. It is a stance that his opponents at the very least consider insufficient and a clear conflict of interest.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne thanks Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard for addressing the Ontario legislature on Monday. In Couillard, Peladeau will face one of the most openly federalist provincial leaders in a while. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

He's also refused to commit to a referendum agenda, at least until the next election, preferring to leave his options open, a position that has always proved to be a problem for the PQ, the last election being the most immediate example.

But mostly, he's stayed on issue, striving to make independence the dominant issue it once was.

And that, along with a track record of corporate success seem to suffice for PQ party members to take a flyer on this millionaire political rookie.

One year into politics, he's poised to become party leader. In some ways, he's gotten there ahead of himself. Maybe even despite himself.


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.