Quebec politics

Abrupt resignation of PQ leader Pierre-Karl Péladeau raises questions

Corporate tycoon best known for locking out unions was always an uneasy fit for traditionally social-democratic party
Photo: Laurent Silvani

At a hastily convened press conference just before 2 p.m. EDT this afternoon, Parti Québécois leader Pierre-Karl Péladeau announced his resignation from political life, giving up both the leadership of the PQ and his seat in the National Assembly representing Saint-Jérôme.

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The news took Quebec’s political class by surprise, and although Péladeau at times choked back tears during an emotional farewell speech, he did little to illuminate the reasons behind his decision. Family reasons is all he cited to explain his departure, or as he put it, “I’m choosing my family.”

According to PQ sources quoted by CTV, Péladeau’s abrupt departure was precipitated by a nasty custody battle for his kids related to his divorce from prominent Quebec media personality Julie Snyder. Péladeau and Snyder have been a couple for years, but were married with much pomp and circumstance just last summer. They announced in January that they had split up, and their divorce proceedings are ongoing. The couple have two children together, and another from Péladeau’s previous marriage.

PKP, we hardly knew ye

Péladeau’s resignation comes less than a year after his election as head of the party, and represents one of the shortest tenures at the helm of a major political party in Quebec history.

A few short months ago, Péladeau was widely seen as the saviour of both the PQ and the sovereigntist movement: a business leader with economic credentials who could help the party compete with the governing Liberals and eat away at support for the rightist Coalition Avenir Québec.

Since then the bloom had started to come off the rose, with the PQ facing stagnant poll numbers despite a series of government scandals, and ongoing unease from the party base over the direction of the PQ under perhaps Quebec’s most notorious strikebreaker.

During his time at the helm of Quebecor — the province’s largest media conglomerate, which produces over 40 per cent of all media consumed in Quebec — Péladeau locked out employees on no fewer than 14 occasions.

Prior to today, most if not all analysts expected Péladeau to remain at the helm at least through the next election. Instead, the latest Quebecer to lose a job at the hands of the “king of lockouts” was Péladeau himself.

Péladeau has always appeared ill at ease with the practice of politics, clearly more used to the unquestioning obedience of underlings than the probing questions of reporters. He often struggled to appear relatable while shaking hands and kissing babies.

Now he’ll return to managing the day-to-day operations of the Quebecor media empire, and others will be left to pick up the pieces of a party that increasingly appears uncertain of what it stands for.

What now?

The next Quebec election won’t be for around two years, and in that time the PQ will pick a new leader. That leader will be left to redefine a party that has eschewed its traditional defence of the social-democratic safety net under its past two leaders and chosen instead to focus on identity issues (e.g., the infamous Charter of Quebec Values) and present sovereignty not as a means to the end of a more just and equal society, but instead as a tent so large it can comfortably accommodate corporate strikebreakers side by side with union leaders.

As the federal NDP also discovered, trading principles for electability is often a self-defeating proposition.

Much like the NDP’s decision to choose Tom Mulcair back in 2012, the election of Péladeau was a swing for the fences: sure, he didn’t agree with many of the party’s traditional principles, but he was, supposedly, eminently electable. For many impatient sovereigntists who have waited a lifetime to see their dream of an independent Quebec realized, this was a necessary compromise.

But, as the federal NDP also discovered, trading principles for electability is often a self-defeating proposition.

Unite for Quebec

In his first remarks as PQ leader, a little less than a year ago, Péladeau called for sovereigntist forces to unite. In his farewell speech he returned to that theme, describing progress made towards the goal of uniting sovereigntist parties Québec Solidaire, Option Nationale and the PQ under a single banner as one of his fondest accomplishments over the past year.

It’s hard to understand what progress he is describing, beyond perhaps the opening his departure presents to the unite-for-independence forces. During Péladeau’s time in politics, Québec Solidaire has carved out a distinct identity as the progressive inheritors of René Lévesque’s legacy, and the party has steadily polled at around 15 per cent. They have a distinct political base rooted in the echoes of the 2012 student strike, and everything to lose and nothing to gain by agreeing to play second fiddle to the PQ in a grand coalition for independence.

Calls for a united sovereigntist front are as old as the parties that split from the PQ over the past decade, but it’s a total non-starter for the only party whose participation in a united front would be meaningful: Québec Solidaire. What remains to be seen is whether a new, less reactionary leader can succeed in wooing progressive voters back into the PQ fold where Péladeau, and Marois before him, failed.

Now, under a new leader, the PQ will resume its quixotic quest to win back the left-wing of the sovereigntist movement. It won’t happen, at least not in the form of a coalition with QS. Nevertheless, expect ink to be spilled by the barrelful speculating on the possibility.

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