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Editorials Pierre Karl Péladeau is talking separation now, but just wait

Pierre Karl Peladeau waves to supporters in Saint-Jerome, Que., Sunday, November 30, 2014 where he officially launched his bid to become leader of the Parti Quebecois. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For anyone who feels a little tightness in their chest when they hear Pierre Karl Péladeau vow to separate Quebec from Canada, here are a few calming thoughts.

Mr. Péladeau is the media magnate from Montreal who last week announced he will run for the leadership of the Parti Québécois. He's sort of the Silvio Berlusconi of Quebec, but without the charm. He is the controlling shareholder of Quebecor, which has vast resources in newspapers, broadcasting and cable, and he is already the favourite to win the leadership contest when it is held next May. A long queue of former PQ cabinet ministers and current members of the National Assembly has politely formed behind him, filled with men and women eager to see him restore the fortunes of a party that only got 25 per cent of the popular vote in this year's election.

But here is the thing: When Mr. Péladeau said over the weekend that Ottawa only provides Quebec with transfer payments "as a way of subjecting us to the gloomy concept that we do not deserve to be free," it's important to remember to whom he is talking – i.e., the hardline heart of the PQ membership.

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Mr. Péladeau says "sovereignty will make us richer," and he is committed to holding another referendum if he can convince enough people he's right. The idea of being both wealthy and independent is catnip to separatists, and this is his moment to sell that message.

But if and when Mr. Péladeau wins the leadership, he will have to speak not just to PQ faithful but to all Quebec voters, the majority of whom aren't in thrall to what Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard calls Mr. Péladeau's "imaginary country." His message will become a lot more moderate if he is still around next summer.

There is also the matter of Mr. Péladeau's political experience. He can be shirty with the media, and he has yet to prove that he can be a consensus-builder rather than an order-giver. He is about to face a huge character test.

Mr. Péladeau is also hobbled by his business background in a party that has traditionally depended on the left and on unions for support. And he is under investigation by the National Assembly's ethics commissioner over alleged lobbying of government on behalf of one of his many affiliated companies.

In short, Mr. Péladeau's march from PQ leadership candidate to the next René Lévesque, as some of his most ardent fans portray him, is not predetermined. The man trying to rouse the flagging spirits of the PQ today will not be the same one trying to win an election in three-and-a-half years.

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