One of Jean-François Lisée’s first political wins came against an unlikely opponent: his father.
Seventeen-year-old Lisée was working at his dad’s hotel when he found out the old man wouldn’t be paying double time to employees stuck on the Easter Sunday shift.
That’s when Lisée decided to strike back. He drafted a petition demanding the workers’ rights be respected.
“I wrote it and I signed it. The boss’s son was the first to sign so all the employees signed the petition,” said Lisée.
The document eventually made its way to the hotel’s manager, who called young Lisée into his office.
“He was working really hard not to laugh in my face,” said Lisée. “He said, ‘Listen, I talked to your dad. Of course we’re going to pay double for Easter. Of course! It’s the law. But there’s only one thing Jean-François: promise me that you won’t unionize the hotel.’”
The question elicited an explosion of laughter from the Parti Québécois leader.
“It never crossed my mind.”
This is Lisée in a nutshell: mischievous, calculating, principled to a fault but not quite principled enough to get himself kicked out of the family home. And, of course, the story speaks to someone who was born for bare-knuckle politics.
He recounted this episode from his childhood in Thetford Mines during a rare quiet moment in the provincial election campaign. Lisée sat beneath the deck of a ferry sailing across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, grinning as his thoughts drifted to the past.
You wouldn’t think Lisée would have much to smile about these days.
He’s in charge of a party that sits third in the polls at a time when its raison d’être — making Quebec a sovereign nation — is less popular than it’s been in a generation.
But somehow, as his rivals labour through carefully scripted talking points, Lisée appears to be having the time of his life. At his almost nightly PQ rallies, the 60-year-old is part standup comic, part itinerant preacher.
Unlike the wooden, severe tone of his predecessors Pauline Marois and Pierre Karl Péladeau, Lisée’s speeches are heavy on improvisation. He frequently stops to try out a new joke or wake the crowd up with a call and response.
“On veut faire du Québec?” he’ll ask, pointing to the crowd.
“Un pays,” they roar back at him.
Four years ago, Marois tripped over herself to avoid talking about sovereignty. Lisée screams it from the pulpit.
In one of his favourite gags, he performs an exorcism on Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault.
Legault, he argues, was a lifelong sovereignist but lately his tune has changed.
To cap off the act, Lisée walks over to an imaginary Legault, places his right hand on the CAQ leader’s forehead and screams: “Jean Chrétien, leave this body!”
As with so many of his jokes, Lisée always chuckles at the exorcism bit.
When Lisée was 14 years old, he lied about his age to become a card-carrying “militant” for the PQ.
That same year, he stopped attending Sunday mass, much to the chagrin of his mother, and began developing a pro-labour, leftist worldview that put him at odds with his grocery store-owning father.
The Lisées were staunch supporters of the conservative Union Nationale party at the time, according to Lisée’s mother. She said his decision to join the PQ caused “little conversations” at the dinner table.
“I guess you could say he was very strong-willed,” said Andrée Goulet. “For us, back then, the PQ just wasn’t our party. Even at 14, he was much older than his age, really passionate about his politics.”
It was 1972, the PQ was still on the margins of political life in Quebec, holding just seven seats in the National Assembly. Even so, Lisée says there was an intoxicating feeling within this fringe movement, that they would be the ones to make history.
“If you were for progress, if you were for women’s equality, if you were for worker’s rights, you were for the PQ,” said Lisée. “That was all in the same deal.”
After his time as a teenage politico, Lisée graduated from l’Université du Québec à Montréal and made a name for himself in journalism, working as a foreign correspondent in Paris and in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.
But it was his writings on sovereignty that made him a bestselling author and a rising star in Quebec’s nationalist movement.
His 1990 book, In the Eye of the Eagle, unearthed documents that suggested the American government had been keeping tabs on the sovereignty movement since the Kennedy administration.
He left journalism in 1994 to become an adviser to then premier Jacques Parizeau. Lisée was also one of the strategists behind the 1995 referendum campaign.
“There was, in ’95, this certainty that we would fail badly,” Lisée said. “It was drilled into public opinion.”
At one of the lowest points in the campaign — when polls had fewer than 40 per cent of Quebecers in favour of sovereignty — Parizeau was despondent.
“We were in this room with Mr. Parizeau and four of us. And he said, ‘Is there still someone in Quebec who believes there will be a referendum in 1995?’” Lisée said. “And I said, ‘Mr. Parizeau, they are all in this room.’”
In the end, the referendum went forward and Parizeau’s side went on to garner 49.42 per cent support for a sovereign Quebec, far exceeding the doomsday predictions from earlier that year.
“That’s why I’m so zen today,” said Lisée. “Because I’ve been there through the crises and we always bounce back.”
Of all the lessons drawn from Lisée’s campaign in the 2016 PQ leadership race, two stand out.
The first: Never write him off.
The second: Whether squaring off against allies or rivals, Lisée will get his hands dirty.
During a 2016 conversation about whether the government should forbid women from wearing burkas, Lisée suggested the Muslim garb could be used by terrorists to hide machine guns.
After one of Cloutier’s surrogates accused Lisée of fear-mongering, he hit back hard. Lisée shared an article in which controversial imam Adil Charkaoui — who has been accused of radicalizing Muslim youth — spoke glowingly about Cloutier.
In a social media post, Lisée said the article was proof that Cloutier could count on public support from the controversial imam. The post sparked a torrent of online abuse targeted at Cloutier.
“That day was a day of too much volume, on both sides,” said Lisée. “That was a bad day in the campaign. They shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have done that.”
In the end, Lisée won the race on the second ballot and Cloutier left politics.
As for Hivon, she has become the vice-chief of the PQ, often warming the crowd up for Lisée at rallies.
Despite the fact that he’s a father of five and regularly speaks about his children, Lisée struggles to project his humanity in interviews and speeches. His wit may elicit laughter from a crowd but it can also come off as mean-spirited.
A side effect of his attacks on Cloutier is that they further strained Lisée’s relationship with Quebec’s Muslim communities.
Lisée had already championed the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values on religious neutrality in 2014. The charter would have made it illegal for employees of the state to wear any sort of religious head covering.
Public hearings over the proposal ratcheted up social tensions that winter; Muslim women were shouted down in public, some were spat at and saw their mosques vandalized.
Looking back, Lisée admits the charter debate got out of control and that he’s drawn lessons from it.
“If you want to set new rules you have to fix the problem of lack of integration, of discrimination and racism,” said Lisée. “In these very difficult issues involving identity, religion, language, the method is as important as the policy.
“That’s why, you see me now say, ‘Go slow, go gradual, go respectful.’”
His new secularism policy would only affect people in a position of authority: judges, prison guards and police officers.
Even so, the PQ has had to kick out two candidates this campaign for lewd online posts about Muslims. Both Muguette Paillé and Pierre Marcotte were booted from party ranks for comparing Muslims to animals and having ties to far right groups.
Lisée has repeated that he was “disgusted” by the former candidates’ behaviour and that his vision of a sovereign Quebec includes a strong Muslim community.
But he’s been criticized for showing clemency to another controversial candidate.
After it emerged that Michelle Blanc, a candidate for the PQ in Montreal’s Mercier district, joked about Adolf Hitler, used the n-word and implied a PQ critic was a pedophile, Lisée merely demanded she apologize and retract her statements.
“He isn’t one to muzzle his people and yes, there’s some risk in that, but the flip side is a campaign that feels real,” said Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, who is running in Prévost riding for the PQ. “It’s the choice he’s made. It’s risky but it’s authentic.”
“People will see that in the debates. Lisée is passionate and he has a freedom of thought, an authenticity that will resonate with people.”
Does Lisée honestly believe Quebec can free itself from Canada?
The latest polls say a majority of francophone Quebecers believe the sovereignty question is settled. Going into this year’s campaign, survey after survey showed the PQ losing supporters to the right-leaning CAQ or leftist Québec solidaire.
In fact, Lisée — who was first elected to the National Assembly in 2012 — is facing a tough challenge in his own riding of Rosemont. Québec solidaire’s Vincent Marissal, a former La Presse columnist, has been gaining ground on the PQ leader.
“I’m not worried about Rosemont,” Lisée said. “I invite the competition, I relish it.”
As he sat looking onto the gulf — with his campaign bus parked deep in the ship’s hull and everyone’s cellular phones briefly disconnected from the outside world — Lisée didn’t appear to be fazed by anything.
The “winning conditions” are out there, he said. It may not be today or tomorrow but Quebecers will come to realize that the federation doesn’t work for them, he said.
If elected, the PQ would not call a referendum in its first mandate; it would opt instead to consult with Quebecers, hold a congress on sovereignty in 2021 and call a referendum after the election in 2022.
At the start of the campaign, former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe observed: “He’s doing what Parizeau did in 1989. He said there will be no referendum in the first mandate. The first condition to win a referendum is to have confidence in yourself.
“Let’s let Quebecers gain confidence in themselves before acting.”
The plan is clearly defined, sure, but Lisée would need to pull off a string of improbable victories just to put another referendum on the ballot.
Try telling that to the PQ leader.
“Our goal is the same as it was in ’76 or in ’98, when no one said we had a chance to win,” Lisée said. “Our goal is to win.”