Péladeau’s separatist talk bad for Marois

Published Mar. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

It was last week when the cameras captured the tension between Pauline Marois, the Quebec premier and Parti Quebecois leader, and her star recruit, Pierre Karl Péladeau, in the April 7, provincial election.

Marois was at the lectern with the candidate by her side as she addressed the faithful at a routine campaign stop, when Péladeau tried to get to the microphone. Gently but firmly, Marois pushed him away – not once, but three times, or so it appears from the video.

The incident reminded me of the so-called “bum-patting” incident involving Liberal leader John Turner and party president Iona Campagnolo in the 1984 federal election. It became an instant sensation, sending a message that Turner, coming out of political retirement was an old-school pol who had yet to master the new political correctness.

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Last week’s pushback between Marois and Péladeau also sent a message. The message: there is trouble ahead in PQ-Land.

Marois supporters face the dilemma of trying to accommodate the ego, ambitions and distractions of the man they call PKP. Can they maintain control of their election campaign? Marois wants to talk about the economy. Péladeau wants to talk about sovereignty, and his voice may louder than hers.

She wants to position the PQ in the left-centre, preserving the party’s traditional labour support. He wants to move it sharply to the right. He is a media giant in Quebec. From his father Pierre, he inherited control of Quebecor, which controls about 40 per cent of the media in Quebec (newspapers, television, cable and wireless) plus the Sun newspaper chain and Sun TV in English Canada. He has established a reputation as a union-buster; organized labour ranks Quebecor among the province’s worst employers.

A man of, shall we say, flexible principle, PKP is in it for himself. As his father before him, he can be a federalist when it is in his business interest to be one. And he can be a separatist when that suits his personal ambition. Let’s face it, he is not in it just to become the member for Saint-Jerome in the National Assembly or even a senior minister in a Marois cabinet.

Péladeau is used to running things. He thinks he sees a chance to take over from Pauline Who and become premier, on the way to making himself the first president of an independent Quebec. If Marois had not brought this misery down on her own head by recruiting the media magnate, one could almost have felt sorry for her as she stood at the microphone insisting that the PQ has only one leader, that leader is her, and she intends to win in April and be premier for a full four-year term. Good luck to her.

The worst thing a political party can do in an election is to send mixed messages to voters.  Marois, who is better at reading opinion polls than Péladeau, says the issue in the election must be the economy, creating jobs for Quebecers. While Péladeau talks about making Quebec a country, Marois talks about winning a majority. On her watch there would be no referendum on  sovereignty until conditions are favourable – meaning not until she is confident she could win it – and that would not happen until after there had been a softening-up process with a white paper and plenty of public discussion.

Viewed from a distance, Marois in election mode looks tougher than she had appeared to be earlier, but she is up against a corporate titan who is used to getting his own way, a man who projects both impatience and arrogance, a man who has little of the charisma of former PQ leaders (and premiers) René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard.

He would, in effect, turn the provincial election in to a referendum on sovereignty. That would raise the stakes for everyone, not least Premier Marois and PKP himself.

The Changing Newspaper Coverage Of Theresa Spence’s Hunger Strike

Canada-First Nations relationships are obviously the topic of the day. Besides the very serious substantive issues that are under discussion, I noticed one interesting trend in the public debate, that is, the struggle over whether Chief Spence’s diet constituted a genuine “hunger strike” or something else. In a lot of media coverage, journalists have been characterizing her protest as a “liquid only diet” or “liquid diet” or “forgoing solid foods”, rather than a hunger strike.

What’s at stake in this debate over how her protest is framed is fairly clear. According to media reports, Chief Spence has been subsisting on fish broth and herbal tea (one news story says she is taking vitamins as well), providing some of her opponents the opportunity to denigrate her commitment to her political and policy goals. I think the argument goes that a “genuine” hunger striker would take, at most, water. Questioning whether she is, in fact, engaged in a hunger strike, is not just a debate about semantics, but about the level of Spence’s sincerity and commitment to her policy goals.

I personally am inclined to see this as a genuine hunger strike, but that’s not the point here. I was more interested in whether any kind of patterns were detectable in how journalists framed her protests. Specifically, I wondered whether there was a change over time in the newspaper framing.

Below are the number of newspaper stories in the database Canadian Newsstand from December 13th, 2012 to January 14th, 2013 that responded to the search string “Theresa Spence”. This database includes both the Globe and Mail, the National Post, most of the metro urban dailies, a lot of local community newspapers, but, importantly, none of the Sun chain of newspapers.


Not surprisingly, coverage has been building gradually since Chief Spence began her protest, culminating in the last week or so with the publication of the audit of her band’s finances, more protests from the Idle No More network and the meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister.

Then, I combed through the articles looking for terms like “hunger” and “hunger strike” as well as terms like “liquid”, “liquids only” and “liquid diet”. I calculated the daily average frequencies of both sets of terms and plotted them against each other below.


So this plots the “average” number of occurrences of terms referring, more or less to a “hunger strike” versus terms referring to “liquid diets”, taking “liquid food” and forgoing “solid food” in Canadian newspaper stories that mention “Theresa Spence” over this time period. Clearly, references to Spence’s protest as a hunger strike have declined substantially, with frequencies after the publication of the audit much lower than prior to the audit.

The lines are smoothing lines; although the solid line suggests the decline started before the publication of the audit, I think that’s illusory. To me, there’s a clear break in the points before and after the publication of the audit. In terms of phrases that refer to a “liquid diet”, the smoothing line suggests a slow, monotonic increase in that sentiment.

It’s also important to remember: both of these trends occur in the context of a lot more coverage, period, post-audit (see the first figure). But while there was more newspaper stories that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once after the audit, references to her going on a “hunger strike’ dropped off dramatically, while references to her only taking “liquid foods” continued a slight increase.

So, how to square all of this? I think two things are really important. First, it seems like the publication of the audit weakened Spence’s credibility, hence, the declining references to her on a “hunger strike” while references to her being on a “liquid diet” increased. But, perhaps more importantly, the sheer volume of newspaper coverage that appeared post-audit suggests that Spence was sidelined somewhat as events overtook her. Between January 7th and January 14th, Canadians witnessed protests by Idle No More, a meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister and some conflicts within the Assembly of First Nations. It seems like newspaper coverage during that time referenced Theresa Spence, began framing her protest equally as a “hunger strike” or as a “liquid diet”, and probably sidelined her, period.

Finally, it seems like this is an important lesson in how source credibility (as defined by journalists) is so crucial in structuring Canadian journalism.

**Methodological notes:
I searched Canadian Newsstand for all newspaper articles with full-text that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once. Then, I used the tm package to analyze the texts within. I looked for terms that referenced hunger, hunger strike or hunger striking and, essentially, averaged them over the number of stories that appeared each day. Then I did the same with terms like “liquid”, “liquid foods”, and “liquid diet”.