The controversial referendum this weekend, the one that will decide whether a semi-autonomous region of a medium-sized country will separate, is in Crimea, not Quebec.
If you follow this country’s English-language media, though, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Splashed across the front page of Wednesday’s Maclean’s is a picture of the Parti Québécois’ star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau and the question: Is this the man who will break up Canada?
It’s not just Maclean’s, either: the rest of Canada’s punditocracy have jumped on PQ leader and current Premier Pauline Marois’ musings on the possibility of a currency union and open borders between some future independent Quebec and the rest of Canada.
That’s to say nothing of the Angryphone crowd, sneering on Facebook at the PQ’s parochial nationalism from their suburbs on Montreal Island. Most of those suburbs have, unironically, held their own referendums and separated from the city.
Somehow, these spoken daydreams have become the defining narrative of the Quebec election campaign, at least for English Canadians.
On Thursday, the only dispatch from CBC Montreal’s radio reporters in the field with Marois and Péladeau was that they refused to talk about sovereignty and would only answer questions about the economy.
Let’s not forget that Marois has — like every PQ leader since 1995 — promised only to hold a referendum when she thinks the timing is right and to consult with Quebecers about it. Sovereignty is, of course, the PQ’s raison d’être and that promise is essentially meaningless. Those are just the words the base must hear.
But for many Quebecers, including those who will decide the outcome of the closely contested races that are the key to victory in the upcoming election, sovereignty is a secondary issue. Much of the country’s English media seems to hold the misguided belief that the surprise candidacy of Péladeau has something to do with sovereignty — probably because of the boilerplate opening to his speech where he said he believes Quebec should be its own country. Of course he believes that. That’s why he’s running for the PQ. It means nothing.
In Quebec, Péladeau is known simply as PKP. And he is known, as well-known here as he is unknown in the rest of Canada. He is the controlling shareholder of Québecor Inc., a company with annual revenues of $10 billion; until very recently he was also its president and CEO. Québecor’s influence is felt most strongly in Quebec, where it owns the Videotron cellphone and cable provider, newspapers (including the Journal de Montréal, the third most popular newspaper in all of Canada), magazines, retail stores, publishers and some of the province’s most popular TV stations.
But that’s not to say the company is without influence in English Canada. Québecor owns Sun Media, with its newspapers and TV station, along with a whole host of small-town and community papers. In fact, the company owns more newspapers than any other in the country. Despite PKP’s separatist party candidacy, Québecor looks to be expanding further into the RoC: subsidiary Videotron spent over $200 million last month to buy wireless spectrum in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, bragging in its annual report that once the towers are built, it could provide coverage to 80 per cent of Canada’s population.
This is why PKP was brought in: to give the PQ economic heft and to win a riding from the Coalition Avenir Québec, or CAQ, the centre-right party that trades in the same sort of identity politics as the PQ but doesn’t like to talk about sovereignty.
Despite the fact that he took the “k” in his middle name in honour of Karl Marx (he was born PCP), PKP is no Marxist. His companies have locked out employees at least 14 times.
Péladeau’s candidacy typifies Quebec politics only in the sense that as Quebec’s two main parties — the Liberals and the PQ — try to build bigger and bigger tents around their central bases of federalists and nationalists, respectively, they have embraced increasingly incoherent sets of policies. The PQ is trying to fit student protesters and union leaders into the same party as union busters and rural Quebecers scared of Muslims.
None of this says anything about separation. For that we’ll need a referendum, something that’s not a certainty even if the PQ gets a majority (which is not a fait accompli). Even if we do have a referendum, the PQ will have to win it. Then, if there’s a clear answer to a clear question, thanks to the bureaucratic perfection that is the Clarity Act, the province and the federal government will enter into negotiations. These would, without a doubt, last a generation.
Canada and Quebec are not breaking up. Even if it becomes more likely on April 7, separation will not happen soon.
[image via Montreal metropole culturelle/Flickr]