The noble dream of Quebec independence has an unlikely new champion

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The newly elected leader of the Parti Québécois, 53-year-old Pierre Karl Péladeau is on a mission: make Quebec an independent country, able to take its place in the family of nations.

PKP, as he is universally known within Quebec, is an unlikely champion of the noble dream of Quebec independence.

Born the rich inheritor of a  global printing empire, PKP has watched it contract under his stewardship, along with newspaper sales. With the approval of a previous PQ government, Péladeau became the dominant figure in Quebec cable distribution, when he added Videotron to Quebecor, the giant company with a worldwide reach which his his father had put together.

The PKP media holdings (Journal de Montréal, Journal de Québec, TVA television network, and a stable of magazines) represent the sovereignist counterpart to the federalist Gesca, the Desmarais family media conglomerate which is the other monopoly provider of news to French-speaking Quebec.

The PKP corporate empire featured Brian Mulroney as Quebecor chairman. Until recently its holdings included the English-language Sun newspaper chain and TV network.

In its English language holdings, Quebecor was anti-Quebec and anti-French. While media holdings allow for freedom of speech, news outlets are expected to vigorously pursue their own corporate interests. In the case of Quebecor, that meant pushing right-wing views when it fitted the business model, and crushing unions when it helped the bottom line.

Can PKP be both the leader of the official opposition pledged to defend the public interest, and the major shareholder in a giant media company that dominates Quebec? Fellow PQ member of the National Assembly, and briefly leadership rival, Jean-François Lisée did not think the two roles were compatible.

The Quebec Liberal government is not going to let the issue die, quipping that with PKP as leader, the Parti Québéçois had become the Parti Quebecor.

PKP has pledged that as leader, his Quebecor shareholding (he stepped down as company CEO) would go into a blind trust. This approach brings to mind Ottawa Liberal Minister of Finance Paul Martin and his "Venetian Blind" trust containing ownership of Canada Steamship Lines shares. When Martin changed the rules around the use of tax havens, Barabados -- where CSL had its offshore holdings, somehow remained exempt from the changes.

This week, the National Assembly will be examining the conflict of interest inherent in having someone with enormous media clout also be an aspirant head of government.

Pressure will be put on PKP to sell Quebecor. But a political need to keep Videotron and other media holdings in Quebec hands rules out outside buyers. The obvious deep-pockets purchaser (other than the Desmarais family which would then hold complete sway over Quebec media) is the previous owner, the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement (the giant Quebec government pension fund) who sold Videotron to PKP in the first place.  

PKP might appreciate being bought out by the Caisse, since it would allow him to get out of an industry with declining prospects, presumably at a good price, and pursue fully the dream of a generation of Quebecers.

It was Marcel Chaput in his stunning 1961 essay, Pourquoi je suis séparatiste (published in English translation: Why I Am a Separatist, Ryerson Press), who made the modern case for Quebec independence.

Quebec needed to liberate itself, Chaput argued, from domination by Ottawa, and a Canadian Confederation that was not a true confederation: free itself from its status as an eternal minority dependent on an English-language majority, and join the United Nations as a Republic. After all, former colonies from around the world were doing just that.

The noble project of national liberation championed by Chaput had great appeal. He rested his case on restoring dignity to a people who had never freed themselves from colonization following the English conquest.

Writing in the period the Quebec Quiet Revolution was taking place, Chaput agreed with Pierre Trudeau and Cité Libre that Quebec needed internal liberation but argued that Quebec needed to express itself internationally, which required liberation from subservient status within Canada.

For Chaput, an independent Quebec could free itself from NATO militarization, which English-speaking Canadians would never agree to do -- being too tied to the U.S., and become a true force for peace in the world.

In the hands of René Lévesque, founder of the PQ, by the 1970s the national liberation project had become sovereigty-association, essentially a treaty between two independent countries, Quebec and Canada, to continue an economic association, much as European countries had done in creating the Common Market.

On May 20, 1980 Quebec voted No in a referendum where the PQ government asked for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association. In a rematch, the 1995 sovereignty referendum, the Yes failed to pass by less than one per cent of the vote; the No side won with 50.58 per cent.

PKP began his acceptance speech by telling PQ members gathered at the Convention Centre in Quebec City that it was 35 years ago that he had first voted Yes for Quebec independence, that his project was to unite all sovereignists, and to see Quebec achieve independence.

The PQ leadership race which PKP won with 57 per cent of the vote was well covered across the province. English-language media commentary has been scornful of PKP, and his project, citing low approval in public opinion polls, and disinterest in sovereignty.

In politics, it is easy to dismiss an adversary. Underestimating the power of an idea is not such a good idea. 

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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