When Pierre Karl Péladeau testified before the House of Commons Committee on Access to Information and Ethics in October of 2011, it was a bizarre spectacle.
The media magnate had come to complain about a federal crown corporation.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had appointed the President of that corporation three years earlier and named most of the members of that corporation's board as well. Under normal circumstances, government MPs on the committee would defend their own corporation head named by their leader.
But that's not what happened here.
The Conservative MPs were almost fawning toward the Quebec billionaire and separatist candidate-to-be. They threw him the most obsequious of lob ball questions -- some of which Péladeau seemed to find a bit embarrassing -- and joined in an unseemly gang-up on the crown corporation for which their government is responsible.
The corporation in question was the CBC.
Péladeau was after information the CBC said it did not have to divulge for business and journalistic policy reasons.
Péladeau's newspapers and broadcasters, in particular members of the SUN Media group, had been bombarding CBC with requests for facts and figures on its billboard advertising, the size of its fleet of vehicles and other matters CBC brass said were exempt from the Access to Information law.
Péladeau, the CEO of the media conglomerate Quebecor, came to Ottawa to complain that the publicly funded CBC was resisting his companies' efforts to get at the truth. Coincidentally, he was also peeved that CBC refused to advertise in SUN papers -- or any of his other vast holdings.
When opposition MPs asked Péladeau how much his companies spend on billboards or why they do not choose to advertize on CBC, he said he didn't have to divulge that kind of information.
His company is in the private sector, Péladeau reminded MPs, and as such, is only accountable to its shareholders, not the Canadian public.
The Conservative committee members loved the whole spectacle.
Péladeau was their kind of guy: a swashbuckling free-enterpriser taking on the over-fed 'state broadcaster' (which is how the Conservative MPs insisted on contemptuously describing the CBC).
PQ was always a coalition, but emphasized its social-democratic side
Now -- no doubt to great gnashing of teeth in federal Conservative circles -- Péladeau is Parti Québecois leader Pauline Marois' new best friend. The billionaire mogul, take-over specialist and boss responsible for 14 lock-outs is now a star candidate for the party that used to say of itself that it had a "favourable bias toward labour."
Of course, the PQ has always been a coalition of disparate forces, united only by the goal of Quebec independence.
When René Lévesque founded the party in 1968 it was a merger of the vaguely left-of-centre Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale (RIN), the old-style right-wing Ralliement Nationale (RN), and Lévesque's own party, an offshoot of the Quiet Revolution era Quebec Liberal Party, the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA).
And so, you had left, right and centre coming together, although, in the original PQ, the hard-right elements were the weakest link.
Neither Lévesque nor his successors ever gave the one-time leader of the RN, Gilles Grégoire, a prominent role in government. And, in any event, the RN was not so much a Péladeau-style free enterprise, small government conservative party. The RN favoured an old-fashioned, ethnic-nationalist kind of "conservatism," which was born out of the populist "créditiste" (or social credit) movement, which, in turn, was associated with crackpot monetary theories that sometimes slipped into anti-Semitic denunciations of "usurers."
Grégoire's own career ended in disgrace when he was convicted of sexually abusing teenage girls.
Lévesque's first PQ government, elected on November 15 1976, was decidedly social-democratic.
It brought in universal dental care for children, anti-scab labour legislation, a steeply progressive income tax, strict political contribution and spending limits, tough limitations on the exploitation of agricultural lands and public auto insurance -- and it nationalized Quebec's then-vital asbestos industry.
The PQ cabinet of the time did include the pin-striped, fiscal conservative Jacques Parizeau, yes, but also the worker-priest Jacques Couture, the labour lawyer Robert Burns, the broadcaster Lise Payette (for whom a young Pauline Marois served as executive assistant), the former student leader Claude Charron and the progressive Christian philosopher and theologian Louis O'Neill.
There were no billionaires in that gang.
Lévesque, himself, was indifferent to wealth and its accoutrements. At the time of his death at 65, a few years after his retirement, the PQ's founder lived in a tiny apartment on Avenue des Pins in downtown Montreal. Just down the street was Pierre Elliott Trudeau's much grander home, the art deco palace architect Ernest Cormier had designed for himself.
Marois joined Lévesque's team in its second mandate. Later, in the 1990s, as a senior minister in Lucien Bouchard's PQ government, Marois spearheaded the creation of Quebec's publicly subsidized universal daycare system.
Under Bouchard the PQ had already turned somewhat rightward. The former Mulroney Conservative and Bloc Québecois leader was a debt and deficit hawk, and thought achieving a balanced budget would be one of the famous "winning conditions" for a referendum.
Péladeau is not cut from the Bouchard small-c conservative mold. He is more on the hard-right Thatcher/Reagan side of the spectrum than most mainstream Quebec politicians.
The mogul was, until recently, in a common law marriage with the charming and bubbly television personality, Julie Snyder, a vegetarian who once had her producer try to feed tofu to a shark in an on-air stunt, and that humanized him a bit.
But Péladeau is not one of those scions of great wealth who decided to focus on good works rather than business. His focus is on money and power. And as owner of a vast media empire he has not been averse to asserting that power over the work of journalists.
Interfering with journalism in the interests of business
After Péladeau testified to that Parliamentary committee in 2011 there were other witnesses, one of whom was Marc-François Bernier, a professor of communications and former journalist.
Bernier had studied the journalistic practices and policies of Péladeau's Quebecor. He was particularly interested in the degree to which Péladeau tried to get his properties, such as the daily newspaper Le Journal de Montréal and the SUN chain, to put their journalism to the service of Quebecor's business interests.
Of Péladeau's campaign against the CBC, which took the form of SUN News' almost daily on-air attacks and a flood of Access to Information requests, Bernier said:
In my opinion, Quebecor's strategy towards the CBC is primarily intended to serve private and corporate interests [and] ... has very little to do with the public interest ... I think that one of the goals is to weaken the CBC, whose television service represents significant competition, especially in the Quebec market. Therefore, Quebecor is trying to increase its income and its profits, which are already very significant...
Bernier went on to explain that Péladeau's use of journalists and their Access to Information requests raises "very important questions in terms of ethics, professional conduct and journalistic integrity."
The communications professor quoted exchanges of emails in which some journalists "publicly stated that they had been forced ... to produce very negative articles and reports on competitors."
He also cited a survey he had conducted of Quebec journalists working for a number of different companies. Those who worked for Péladeau's companies suffered from what Bernier called "professional distress." They believed that their work was very often "supposed to serve the company's interests."
Then Bernier related this ominous fact to the House committee:
I have noticed over the last two years that Quebecor Media has withdrawn from journalistic accountability organizations, such as the Quebec and Ontario press councils. In some cases, Quebecor has even gone so far as to formally notify or threaten the members of the Quebec Press Council that Quebecor will take some sort of legal action against them if their decisions could negatively affect or harm Quebecor.
Choices are clarified
So, let's see now, what does this all add up to?
The political party founded by Lévesque, a party that is responsible for some of the most advanced recent social legislation in Canada and that passed groundbreaking laws to limit the power of money in politics, has now recruited as a star candidate a union-busting media boss, who believes he has the right to use journalism to promote his business interests.
Is there anything wrong with that picture?
Will social-democratic leaning PQ supporters stick with the party all the same because Péladeau, as the mainstream media would have it, gives the PQ and the sovereignty option economic credibility?
Fortunately for those folks they do have another option, a party which does, like the PQ, favour sovereignty, but only as a secondary objective. The party's main goal is social and environmental justice and it is called Québec Solidaire.
Elections are about choices. Marois and her pal Péladeau have now clarified the choice in Quebec.
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