Quebec's new Liberal leader wants the province to endorse the Constitution

Philippe Couillard reveals his ‘pet project’

Signed, sealed, delivered

Ryan Remiorz/CP

Newly minted Quebec Liberal party Leader Philippe Couillard is a trained surgeon, an occasional businessman and an amateur fly-fisher. Yet he is best known as a consummate politician who has long held designs on the leadership of the party. In 2008, put off by then-leader Jean Charest’s stubborn hold on power, Couillard resigned as health minister and went into business. He also went fly-fishing on occasion. Both pursuits landed him in hot water.

Following his resignation, Couillard joined Persistence Capital Partners (PCP), a private equity fund “focused on high-growth opportunities in the health care field,” according to PCP’s website. That a former health minister would join a for-profit health care fund ruffled a few feathers, though it shouldn’t have; after all, Quebec has the largest network of private medical clinics in the country.

But Couillard’s association with Arthur Porter, former CEO of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), has become a sizable blemish on Couillard’s otherwise impressive political resumé. Once the darling of Quebec’s medical establishment, Porter has since been charged with fraud in relation to alleged bribes he received from SNC-Lavalin in return for the contract to build the MUHC’s new megahospital. Porter, who says he has has advanced lung cancer, is holed up in his Bahamas compound. He has said he is too sick to travel to face the charges.

The two were fast friends and would-be business partners, Couillard has admitted. Recently, La Presse published a 2006 picture of a smiling Couillard and Porter on a fishing trip in New Brunswick. Until 2011, Porter was chair of the security intelligence review committee (SIRC). Couillard himself served on the SIRC board during Porter’s tenure.

The Liberal leader went so far as to register a consulting company with Porter. Couillard never pursued the business, and he struck it from the federal registry the day after he declared his intention to run for the Liberal party leadership.

Yet persistent as they were, the accusations lobbed at Couillard never quite stuck. Certainly, they weren’t enough to put off party delegates, who gave him their overwhelming support. Quebec Liberals are apparently a canny bunch. The party has governed Quebec for nearly six of the last 10 decades, even while Quebecers’ heartstrings lie closer to the more nationalistic Parti Québécois.

If there is to be a Couillard legacy, it will likely be the Constitution. On a Québécois satirical news show recently, Couillard recently said having Quebec endorse the Constitution is a “pet project” of his. Unfortunately for many, he wasn’t joking, having set a goal of having Quebec’s constitutional signature by 2017. His reasoning is this: though Quebec is legally bound by the Constitution, its lack of support (and signature) for the Constitution Act of 1982 remains a psychic wound in Quebec—as well as continued fodder for the sovereignist movement.

As anyone who remembers former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake accord, however, the process of getting to that point is politically fraught and not without its pitfalls. The last round of constitutional talks more than 20 years ago failed and nearly prompted Quebec’s separation from the country. As a result, federalist leaders, Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper included, have avoided constitutional chatter. For good or ill, Couillard will likely buck the trend should he become the premier of Quebec one day.