Parti Quebecois Amps Up Separation Talk as Peladeau Joins

Quebec separatist leader Pauline Marois began her election campaign seeking to play down the independence debate. That’s all changed since she attracted media executive Pierre Karl Peladeau to her cause.

Marois, whose Parti Quebecois aims to return to power with a majority in the April 7 vote, this week sketched out elements of what an independent Quebec might look like, pledging to maintain the Canadian dollar and ask for representation on the Bank of Canada’s board.

“It’s obvious we could wish to have a seat for instance at the Bank of Canada,” Marois told reporters yesterday. “Of course,” she said, when asked if the province would keep the federal currency. Officials at the Bank of Canada and Department of Finance declined to comment.

Canadians are bracing for another round of debate about whether Quebec should remain a part of the country or form a separate nation, an idea which has twice been put to the test in province-wide referendums, failing in 1980 and more narrowly in 1995. The Parti Quebecois has been pursuing sovereignty since the late 1960s.

At her first press conference after the election was called March 5, Marois declined to say whether she would hold a referendum if she returned to power. Lately she’s been more forthright about an independent Quebec, saying two days ago she wouldn’t impose borders if the province broke away.

Low Support

It’s a surprise turnaround one week into a campaign in which the Parti Quebecois was expected to focus more on identity to counter low popular support for independence. That changed with the entry into politics of Peladeau, the biggest shareholder of Quebec’s largest media company and one of the province’s most powerful entrepreneurs.

“Peladeau’s arrival has put the sovereignty issue front and center,” said Adam Daifallah, a fellow at the Montreal Economic Institute and partner at Montreal-based public affairs firm Hatley Strategy Advisors.

Peladeau, who spent 14 years as chief executive officer at Montreal-based Quebecor Inc., said March 9 he will run for the Parti Quebecois because he wants Quebec to become a separate country. The televised confirmation of his political leanings has galvanized separatists.

Peladeau’s emergence as a backer of independence has dominated much of the election news coverage, with his candidacy adding some economic heft to Marois’s campaign.

Economic Credibility

“The PQ is no longer at a disadvantage in terms of economic credibility,” said Guy Lachapelle, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal who ran as a Parti Quebecois candidate in the 2007 election.

The Parti Quebecois returned to power in 2012 elections with a minority in the legislature, ending nine years of rule by the Liberal Party, which advocates Quebec remaining within Canada. The separatists received 32 percent of the vote, less than one percentage point more than the Liberals.

Support for Marois, 64, has since risen amid growing popularity for her so-called Charter of Values that limits displays of religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs in the public service.

The policy, which is most popular in the largely French-speaking regions outside of Montreal, has allowed her to put identity politics at the forefront of her party’s push for sovereignty, as language wanes as a divisive issue in Quebec.

Quebec as Country

“The PQ started the campaign wanting it to be about culture, identity and pride,” Daifallah said. Peladeau “said he was getting into politics to make Quebec a country.”

Peladeau, 52, resigned as vice chairman and board member from Quebecor, a company founded by his father Pierre that owns the province’s largest circulation newspaper and its most watched television network. Peladeau pledged to place his stake in the company in a blind trust if he’s elected.

He joined Quebecor’s management team in 1985 as assistant to the president after studying philosophy at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal and law at the Universite de Montreal. He had been chairman of the board at Hydro-Quebec since May 2013.

While Peladeau’s candidacy has come under criticism from labor unions and opposition parties, prompting calls for him to sell his shares in the company, prominent Parti Quebecois supporters have come to his defense.

Peer Reaction

In an open letter published by La Presse and Le Devoir newspapers, 12 prominent sovereigntists including former Quebec premiers Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry said it would not only be “excessive” to ask him to sell his Quebecor shares, but would likely result in the sale of the company to a non-local buyer.

The focus on independence could backfire, in part because support for holding a referendum is weak. A Leger Marketing Internet poll published by Journal de Montreal and the TVA television network found support for sovereignty at 34 percent, with 49 percent opposed, 15 percent undecided and 2 percent who refused to answer.

Had an election been held earlier this week, the Liberal Party would have won 39 percent of the vote in the Quebec City region, compared with 32 percent for the Parti Quebecois and 19 percent for the Coalition Avenir Quebec, Leger Marketing said today. Leger surveyed 643 residents of the greater Quebec City area via the Internet on March 11 and 12. Results are considered accurate to within 3.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Lot to Offer

Leger’s poll is the first to come out since Peladeau announced his intention to run for the separatists.

Philippe Couillard, leader of the opposition Liberals, has sought to take advantage of the change in tone to warn a majority Parti Quebecois government will hold a referendum.

If the race narrows, Marois, whose first priority is to win the election, may follow the example of previous Parti Quebecois leaders by promising not to hold a referendum in the immediate future.

Asked today whether it was hard for her to keep the focus on the economy in the face of repeated questions about sovereignty, Marois said she has no problem discussing both.

“We can talk about the two, we’ve always said we can do it, but as far as we are concerned, we are in a campaign to elect a government,” Marois told reporters near Quebec City. “The citizens want to know what we have to offer to the population of Quebec, and the Parti Quebecois has a lot to offer.”

(Updates with Marois comments in final paragraphs.)
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