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Luis Mora

What started back in March 2014 with an awkward fist pump and a promise that Quebeckers would get a country of their own has officially ended in tears. Rather than igniting the separatist flame, Pierre Karl Péladeau’s brief career in politics—memorable for his abrupt call for an independent Quebec—seems to have set off a chain of events that, following last month’s election, has left the Parti Québécois in a shambles.

Péladeau may not be personally responsible for the collapse of the PQ, but his gross misreading of the appetite for another referendum on separatism sure didn’t help. Now that he’s back piloting Quebecor, the thriving telecom and media giant founded by his dad, one can’t help but wonder why he ventured into politics in the first place.

I don’t doubt that PKP has always been a closet separatist. The kind of guy who would change his middle name from Carl to Karl in honour of Karl Marx obviously has a taste for revolution. At the time he made the jump into politics, Quebecor had just divested itself of most of its English Canadian assets, including the Sun Media chain, so he could let his separatist flag fly. But there’s more to it than that. As the cover story in the November issue of Report on Business magazine suggests, he had a more practical reason to push for an independent Quebec: It’s good for business.

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Politics, culture and commerce have always been closely linked in Quebec, and the province is incredibly loyal to its homegrown TV shows, radio stations, newspapers and magazines. Quebeckers love their media in a way the rest of Canada never will—and a large percentage of it is produced by Quebecor. In English Canada, a TV show is a massive hit if it gets 20% to 30% of the total viewing audience. Quebec’s top show, La Voix, which airs on Quebecor-controlled TVA, attracts more than half of the French-language audience. Thanks to its TV stations, magazines and newspapers, Quebecor doesn’t just understand Quebec culture—it helps create it.

Once primarily a printing and media company, Quebecor’s growth is now driven by its cable and wireless operations, which it acquired in 2000 when it bought Vidéotron. But the success of the company’s profit engine depends on a distinct Quebec too.

The only reason Quebecor was able to snag Vidéotron in the first place was because the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which had a shareholder agreement with the company’s controlling Chagnon family, decided Vidéotron’s new owners had to be based in Quebec. As Jean-François Pruneau, Quebecor’s chief financial officer, said at an investor conference this past summer, Vidéotron is most successful in those markets where everyone speaks French, “because they consume French and want French-language content.” Quebecor has been adept at packaging its content with its Internet and mobile bundles in ways other telecoms can only dream of.

To appreciate how much of an anomaly Quebecor is, it helps to remember that no other province in Canada has its own telecom company. Yes, Telus and Shaw skew west, and Bell and Rogers skew east, but Quebecor exists in Quebec only and has no current aspirations to expand beyond the confines of the province. How could it? The company does not have the scale, infrastructure or access to capital its national competitors do. All it has—and all it needs—is a vise-like grip on the people of one province and the confidence that the walls surrounding it will never come tumbling down.

It’s no wonder PKP became a political animal intent on a distinct Quebec at all costs. He may have one hand on the separatist fire that burns in his heart, but the other one is on his wallet.

Duncan Hood is the editor of Report on Business magazine. He can be reached at robmagletters@globeandmail.com

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