Before he set his sights on the leadership of the Parti Québécois—even before most people knew for certain that he deeply wished for Quebec to detach itself politically from the rest of the country—Pierre Karl Péladeau was arguably this province’s best-known business personality. He was the just-resigned CEO of Quebecor, the Quebec-based media company founded by his father. Péladeau the younger had ego to spare and a temper to match.
Pierre Rodrigue surely knew as much on April 10, 2013, when he approached Péladeau’s table at a swishy charity event—though Rodrigue, an executive with Astral Media, could hardly have expected what happened when he tried to say hello.
A fundraiser for a Montreal museum, the event attracted former prime minister Jean Chrétien, as well as former Quebec premiers Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. Flanked by his common-law wife, Julie Snyder, and an empty chair (Quebec television personality Marie-France Bazzo had left earlier), Péladeau didn’t take Rodrigue’s outstretched hand. Instead, according to witnesses interviewed by Maclean’s, Péladeau grabbed Rodrigue’s shirt and pulled him closer. “You’ve got a lot of balls coming over here to see me,” Péladeau hissed, according to one witness. “I don’t want anyone from Bell or Astral coming over here to say hello.”
Rodrigue (who declined to comment for this story) seemed surprised, according to witnesses—unsure, perhaps, of whether or not Péladeau was joking. Yet Péladeau became more aggressive, berating Rodrigue with a flurry of religiously themed Quebec swear words. Snyder, according to witnesses, tried to calm her partner down. “Pierre Karl, calme-toi,” witnesses heard Snyder say. “Pierre Karl, ça suffit!”
It is difficult to pinpoint the reason behind Péladeau’s ire towards Rodrigue. (Péladeau did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the incident.) Was Péladeau put off only by Astral’s merger with Quebecor arch-rival Bell, which was roughly 2½ months from being finalized? Or was it also that Rodrigue, a long-time Quebecor executive, had defected to Astral in 2005? Was it Rodrigue’s politics, which are firmly federalist? Or was Péladeau just having a bad day?
Regardless, things were about to get out of hand. Rodrigue, still in the grip of his former boss, didn’t budge. Péladeau himself continued to curse. “I think that if the conversation had continued, Pierre Karl would have become violent,” one witness told Maclean’s. Finally, Péladeau released Rodrigue, who turned and walked back to his own table. “He was rattled and visibly angry,” one of Rodrigue’s table mates said. Snyder, meanwhile, kept trying to calm Péladeau, who remained visibly irritated even as dessert, a fondant à l’érable served with ice cider, arrived at the table.
For his critics and fervent supporters alike, Péladeau’s contretemps with Pierre Rodrigue is as good an anecdote as any to demonstrate how Péladeau, who is likely the next leader of the Parti Québécois, financially and physically dominates the tiny yet roiling ponds that are Quebec’s business and political spheres. Just over a year ago, Péladeau became the star recruit for Parti Québécois in the Montreal exurb of Saint-Jérôme; as the former head of a multi-million-dollar media company (he resigned as Quebecor CEO in March 2013, though remains the company’s largest shareholder), Péladeau was an embodiment of the elusive economic argument for Quebec separation.
Alas, for PQ leader Pauline Marois and her party, Péladeau arguably helped sink the PQ’s electoral fortunes within moments of his unveiling, when he pumped his fist in the air and proclaimed his desire to “make Quebec a country.” The gesture was like political kryptonite to jittery Quebec voters, the lion’s share of whom have grown resolutely indifferent to the cause.
Yet this very gesture also raised hopes amongst a still-formidable swath of nationalists—Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, mostly, along with youthful shoots of eager Generation Y types—who see in Péladeau the right mix of economic savvy, fierce pride and righteous fury to lead the Parti Québécois. His two main leadership rivals, Jean-François Lisée and Bernard Drainville, have bowed out of the race, having realized that the Péladeau juggernaut can’t be slowed before the PQ leadership race, to be held on May 15.
Péladeau’s political supporters and partisan devotees are willing to overlook his many contradictions and notorious temper if only because they believe he can finally catapult the nationalist movement to its ultimate goal, itself a steady (if fading) star on Quebec’s political horizon for half a century: a separate Quebec.
“ ‘Last chance’ might be a bit exaggerated, but it’s a very important turning point,” says former premier Bernard Landry, who led a Parti Québécois government from 2001 to 2003. “We don’t have room for error. With Péladeau, we have the chance to realize our life’s goal.”
Péladeau’s rise to the helm of the Parti Québécois began on the night of the party’s epic defeat in the provincial election last April. The PQ victory party was to take place in a cavernous room at the Westin Hotel* in downtown Montreal. Early returns suggested a crushing majority for Philippe Couillard’s Liberals, so party faithful instead assisted in what felt like a wake.
Arms folded, they watched as results poured in, or sat at the bar tables set up around the banquet hall and stared at nothing, small Quebec flags clutched limply in their hands. A man in a tight white T-shirt and a blue cowboy hat emblazoned with the fleur-de-lys wept as he watched the election results. People started leaving even before Marois was to take the stage.
To stave off a mass exodus, party organizers sent a trifecta of freshly elected PQ MNAs to the stage: Péladeau, Jean-François Lisée, Bernard Drainville. Péladeau spoke first. “I profoundly believe that in the 21st century, Quebecers must make their decisions on their own,” Péladeau said, as though Quebecers hadn’t literally just done exactly that. “They must take their own decisions to blossom, to enrich themselves, to keep and maintain one of the most beautiful attributes of our society, our collectivity. Solidarity!”
The moribund crowd responded with applause, despite itself. Apparently spoken off the cuff, the three-minute speech was a marked departure from what people had come to expect from Péladeau. Captains of industry don’t generally end their speeches with breezy platitudes to collectivity and solidarity—and this was one who had overseen some 16 lockouts during his tenure at Quebecor, and who once closed a daycare in the Quebecor corporate offices as a cost-cutting measure.
Politically, too, he is an odd match for the Parti Québécois. According to Quebec election records, Péladeau personally donated a total of $8,000 to the Quebec Liberal Party and the now-defunct populist Action démocratique du Quebec between 2005 and 2008. His first donation to the PQ was in 2010, for $3,000. In 2014, he gave a total of $200 to the party he now wishes to lead. Federally, Péladeau contributed a total of $1,500 to the Conservative Party of Canada—and nary a cent to the Bloc Québécois.
Regardless, it is telling enough that a year after the election, lifelong sovereignists Lisée and Drainville dropped out of the leadership race. “The Parti Québécois wants to live its Péladeau moment to the fullest,” wrote Lisée in January, in announcing his exit from the leadership campaign. “We have to accept this and hope that this moment brings victories.”
Péladeau’s entrance into the PQ leadership race was typically rambunctious. He announced his candidacy following a speech in front of about 300 university students. He said it almost casually, in answer to a question from a student, and it caught everyone off guard—including the PQ caucus itself, which had introduced a non-conﬁdence motion against the Liberal government that day. Such things are generally done to garner attention to an issue—in this case, the government’s intention to raise daycare rates in the province. According to PQ sources, no one in the party caucus knew of Péladeau’s announcement. It, and not the party motion, ruled the news cycle.
Much of the Parti Québécois old guard has lined up behind Péladeau. Writer and former member of the Front Libération du Québec terrorist group Jacques Lanctôt, whose written love affair with Castro’s Cuba is as long as it is profound, has publicly supported Péladeau. Strident separatist Andrée Ferretti, also a long-time communist, praised Péladeau’s “political instincts” and ability to “slake the communal thirst and rid [Quebec] of its federalist and internationalist capitalist vultures.”
In 2009, Landry gave up his regular column in the Quebecor-owned Journal de Montréal in protest of Péladeau’s locking out of unionized Journal staff. He has since changed his tune. “He was a responsible boss, and a responsible boss can’t always say yes to the unions all the time,” he says today.
“When sovereignty seemingly becomes possible, when we think we can do it, ideological differences become less important,” says nationalist writer Mathieu Bock-Côté, explaining the apparent cognitive dissonance amongst many old-stock nationalists. “The national cause imposes its own logic.”
Though a political neophyte, Péladeau has learned the art of tailoring one’s message to the crowd. Péladeau received a hero’s welcome when he stopped at a Saint-Jérôme restaurant and bar for a fundraiser. He told a group of well-wishers that the National Assembly was filled with a “bunch of sons-of-bitches,” then jumped onto a stage over which hung a weird array of paintings of, among others, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Cameron Diaz and Albert Einstein. Péladeau warmed the crowd by cracking jokes with Snyder, who was sitting in the crowd, before warbling a terrifically off-key version of an ancient nationalist song.
“You know, I was in Baie Comeau recently,” he then said, referring to the city in eastern Quebec. “Baie Comeau was home to anglophones, the neighbourhood of Hauterives was where the French lived. Some were bosses, some were workers. But we’re not allowed to talk about that.”
This anti-English sentiment, long dismissed amongst younger Quebec nationalists such as 37-year-old PQ leadership candidate Alexandre Cloutier, has a certain resonance in Saint-Jérôme and other regions in Quebec’s overwhelmingly white, French hinterland. Earlier in the campaign, Péladeau pressed the urgency of Quebec sovereignty because “with immigration, with demographics, we are losing a riding every year.” (Péladeau later apologized.)
“The more immigrants we have, the more English establishes itself,” said Huguette Patenaude, 71, who had come to see Péladeau speak in Saint-Jérôme. “I’m not against immigration, we need it, but the problem is that French isn’t enforced. Immigrants go toward English and vote more federalist, so we need sovereignty because we are losing our identity.” In fact, according to Quebec government statistics, 63 per cent of immigrants understood French upon arriving in Quebec in 2011, an increase of three percentage points since 2007.
Opposition to Péladeau within the PQ is muted, to say the least. Pierre Céré, a 56-year-old community organizer who announced his candidacy for the PQ leadership in January, has roughly zero chance of winning, and has therefore become the loudest sounding board for those Péquistes put off by Péladeau. (Update, May 10, 2015: Céré dropped out of the race one week after the publication of this story.)
“The PQ has closed itself off, and it is essentially talking to itself,” Céré says of the anti-immigration streak running through his chosen party. “It has created cracks between us and the youth. Last summer I told my kids, who are 20 and 25 and half-Chilean, that I was going to run for the PQ in part to reverse this trend in the party. They broke out into laughter, looked at me and said, ‘Good luck.’ ”
Péladeau hasn’t taken kindly to Céré’s declarations, particularly the one about his continuing majority ownership of Quebecor shares. Péladeau has vowed not to sell the shares should he become PQ leader. Were he ever to become premier, Péladeau would have a controlling stake in the largest Quebec-based media company. During a press scrum at the PQ’s yearly congress last February, Céré, who has a cheeky side, said “Citizen Péladeau”—a reference to Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles film about a scheming newspaper publisher with political aspirations—wanted to “buy” the PQ leadership.
“At first, [Péladeau’s] people were protecting him from hearing about it,” Céré says of his Citizen Péladeau quip. “But after journalists started asking him about it, he freaked out at me.” Péladeau, Céré said, buttonholed him in the nearly vacant conference room following the congress. “He said, ‘You, mon tabarnac, I’m going to buy you. How much do you cost? You are going to cause many businesses to leave Quebec.’ ” (Péladeau didn’t respond to requests for comment on the incident.)
Céré is perhaps the most visible face of the dissenters within the PQ who worry what effect Péladeau’s politics, if not his temperament, will have on the party. Péladeau counts nationalist historian Éric Bédard and Bock-Côté among his intellectual peers. (Péladeau was in the audience when Bock-Côté defended his thesis in 2013.) Both advocated for the so-called “Quebec values charter,” which sought to restrict the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by Quebec’s public servants. Péladeau also attended the book launch of Louise Mailloux, a militant atheist and charter supporter who once compared circumcision to rape and suggested halal and kosher food “taxes” were aiding religious wars around the globe.
Needless to say, the charter was an utter flop as an electoral gambit for the PQ last year, pushing the party to its worst election result in its history. Péladeau’s fist-pumping ode to Quebec independence, meanwhile, was an electoral boon for the federalists. “We should rename a street after Péladeau in Côte-St-Luc”—a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal—“because it won the Liberals the election,” says Rabbi Reuben Poupko.
Yet maybe another version of Péladeau will emerge, as it did on the night of April 9, not 24 hours after his English-baiting stint in Saint-Jérôme—and nearly two years to the day after his altercation with Pierre Rodrigue.
Brasserie 99 is a prototypical working-class Montreal bar, complete with concrete floors, wood-panelled bars, and the lingering smell of hangover in the air. Péladeau’s campaign team picked it to have Péladeau host supporters and to watch the second-to-last game of the Canadiens’ regular season. The crowd was for the most part young, tattooed and colour-of-the-rainbow diverse—the polar opposite of the cardigan set in Saint-Jérôme the night before. Martin, Péladeau’s longtime bodyguard, was 300 lb. of nerves; these looked just like the left-wing, multicultural types who might have accosted Péladeau on the picket line back when he was Quebecor CEO.
Martin needn’t have worried. Péladeau came in, made a brief speech and joined the crowd as it watched the Canadiens beat the Detroit Red Wings in overtime. He then ventured upstairs alone and signed autographs. A man with dreads and more than a whiff of pot smoke about him sauntered up beside Péladeau and snapped a selfie with the leader. Positively giddy, he showed it off to his equally dreadlocked girlfriend. Soon the former capitalist bogeyman was singing L’internationale, that enduring musical staple of the global socialist movement, with his fans around a pool table.
When Mohammed, a 20-year-old son of Algerian immigrants, was asked what he thought of Péladeau’s capitalist past, or his supposedly ethno-centric present, he shrugged. “Le pays ou la mort,” he said. Country or death. It takes all types to build a country, and Pierre Karl Péladeau is all too willing to play them.
*An earlier version of this article erred in the name of the venue