It will come as no surprise that I am no fan of ethnic nationalism, and no fan of men on horseback who cause the media to swoon in the face of something new, bright and shiny.
Nor have I ever met Pierre Karl Péladeau. But I know what I read and have seen, and here is my take on the Quebec election.
The Parti Québécois has always been an uneasy alliance of nationalists with a common cause but very different positions on the rest of the political spectrum. The party nearly fell apart after the demise of the Lévesque government, whose ending was not pretty. It cobbled itself together under Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, and promptly went back into disarray. It is now in office in a minority parliament, seeking a majority in a provincial election. The wind, we are told, is in its sails.
Canadians will be familiar with Pierre Karl’s father Pierre Péladeau, who will always be burned in many memories for reminding us of the truly ugly side of Quebec nationalism when he once said in an interview “the Jews take up too much space.” He later said he was only kidding, and some of his best friends were Jews. Yeah, right.
His son has now arrived on the political scene to Hosannas from the media about how he is a game changer. That might be true in ways unexpected by Pauline Marois.
With the notable exception of Silvio Berlusconi, corporate divas don’t do well in politics. There is a reason for this. To be an effective politician is not as easy as it seems. It requires a sense of humour, a thick skin, patience and more than a touch of guile. To do it well – and democratically – needs great discipline, an ability to listen, and a willingness to accept a harness of public scrutiny and irreverence that is all-encompassing.
From what I have seen, Pierre Karl Péladeau does not really possess these qualities. He had the good fortune, from a wealth perspective, to have chosen his parents wisely. He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. He has enthusiasms, but not necessarily staying power. His father once told us what was on his mind. The son will no doubt do the same, on different issues, in different ways. His words will haunt him, and people will not let up. He will want to sue lots of people who say nasty things. He is dynamic, and good looking. But his opponents should not be intimidated.
He is decidedly on the right wing of the political spectrum, and his management of the Quebecor empire has been controversial. For a Quebec public servant or trade unionist to vote for Mr. Péladeau is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. He will brook neither criticism nor opposition to whatever direction he decides, on his own counsel, needs to be taken. He says he wants a country, presumably so he can run it. The people who are going to be run should take heed.
The broader Marois strategy has been obvious. The Quebec Charter of Values, which sounds to me as ominous as a Committee of Public Safety, is based on the premise that Muslims and Sikhs, as well as Orthodox Jews, are taking up too much space. Polls show that many Quebeckers are worried about “strangers” in their midst. Ms. Marois’s comment that an independent Quebec would be a “country without borders” seems particularly ludicrous when faced with the grim reality of a government obsessed with signs on stores and what people wear. What they propose is oppressive and unworkable. It is also unconstitutional, perhaps even in the context of Quebec’s own human-rights laws.
Most Quebeckers are rightly concerned about the economy, public finances, how to protect their families in the face of an uncertain world. Instead they are being taken down a road to a rendezvous with division. Those who say this can all be done without extraordinary pain on all sides are simply lying to people.
The idea that the election is over, and that Ms. Marois’s election can be taken for granted, is just defeatist talk. Quebeckers will make their choice in April. There is much time for people to reflect on where they really want to go. Now that Mr. Péladeau has made independence his cause, people need to ask if another divisive referendum – and a turbulent government – is what they really want. They say you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. But in this case it’s worth trying.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.