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Quebec comedian Guy Nantel speaks to the media after announcing his candidacy for the leadership of the Parti Québécois on Feb. 13, 2020, in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Did you hear the joke about the stand-up comedian running for the leadership of the Parti Québécois?

It’s not a joke.

Comic Guy Nantel’s candidacy may be the best or worst thing to happen to the PQ since Pierre Karl Péladeau fatefully raised his fist in support of sovereignty at the outset of the 2014 election campaign. While Mr. Péladeau’s decision to jump into politics created a lot of buzz, it soon became clear that most Quebeckers wanted none of his hard-line separatism.

It’s too early to tell how Mr. Nantel will fare as the struggling PQ prepares to select its next leader on June 19. The PQ fell to fourth-party status in the National Assembly after it won 10 seats (since reduced to nine) in the 2018 provincial election. And its status as the voice of French-speaking nationalists has been largely usurped by Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, whose populism has sucked up all of the oxygen in provincial politics since the election.

Mr. Nantel, a fixture of Quebec’s vibrant comedy scene, is the best-known of the four candidates vying for the PQ leadership. That provides him with a distinct advantage over his lesser-known rivals for a job that has gone unfilled on a full-time basis since the disastrous Jean-François Lisée stepped down in late 2018. Mr. Nantel’s candidacy has sparked heightened media interest in a contest to which few had been previously paying attention.

Still, the prospect of the PQ being led by someone who makes jokes for a living is not without its risks. While Mr. Nantel has clear talents as a communicator, he has yet to prove that voters would take him seriously as a potential leader and sovereigntist premier. He demurs. “If no one asks why a drama teacher can become prime minister of Canada, I don’t see why comedians should have an extra hurdle to jump,” Mr. Nantel said in announcing his candidacy.

Mr. Nantel favours a form of hard-line secularism that would extend the ban on wearing religious symbols in the public sector to all civil servants, not only those deemed in a position of authority, as is the case under Bill 21, which was adopted by the CAQ government in June.

Mr. Nantel also promises to hold a referendum on sovereignty during a first PQ mandate. Under Mr. Lisée, the party said it would not hold a referendum until a second mandate in power. That strategy only ended up discouraging long-time separatists without winning back soft-nationalist voters who had switched to the CAQ. Exit Mr. Lisée.

Three of the four candidates running this time – including PQ MNA Sylvain Gaudreault and lawyer Paul Saint-Pierre Plamondon – favour a referendum during the first two years of a PQ mandate. The hold-out is Frédéric Bastien, a history teacher at Montreal’s Dawson College, who considers the referendum promise a non-starter with voters. Instead, he favours forcing the federal government to the negotiating table to secure new powers for Quebec.

Mr. Bastien came to prominence in sovereigntist circles in 2013 with a controversial book that made claims about former Supreme Court of Canada justices Bora Laskin and Willard Estey; he accused them of seeking to reassure British politicians and officials that the top court would back former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s contention that he did not need the unanimous consent of the provinces to patriate the Canadian Constitution from Britain in 1982. The PQ government of René Lévesque had objected to Mr. Trudeau moving ahead without Quebec’s approval.

Mr. Bastien’s accusations of unethical conduct by the two judges forced the Supreme Court to conduct an internal review, which turned up no “documents relevant to the alleged communications by former Chief Justice Bora Laskin and former Mr. Justice Willard Estey in relation to the patriation of the Constitution of Canada.” That did not put the affair to bed among sovereigntists, who continue to question the top court’s neutrality.

In December, Mr. Bastien called for the removal of the Chief Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal, Nicole Duval Hesler, from a case involving Bill 21. Mr. Bastien alleged Justice Duval Hesler had made comments during a hearing on a request to suspend the law that betrayed a bias against Bill 21. In the end, the court refused to grant the injunction, although Justice Duval Hesler dissented with the majority opinion. But Mr. Bastien has not let up on the courts.

The PQ and its next leader have a lot riding on an eventual Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the constitutionality of Bill 21. As one PQ activist said at Mr. Bastien’s campaign launch, the legal challenges constitute “a wonderful springboard towards independence.”

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