(NDLR: Extraits des portions du câble diplomatique qui touchent la conférence de Copenhague, la position du Québec et l'influence de la famille Desmarais)

Ambassador Jacobson’s second visit to Montreal December 14-15

Copenhagen was headlining the morning papers and Party leader Gilles Duceppe was eager to explain the Bloc’s support for Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s highly-publicized climate summit position, which was advertised as quite distinct from that of the Canadian federal government. Duceppe explained that Quebec was aggressively lobbying to accept the Kyoto Protocol’s 1990 date as the reference year for carbon emissions instead of 2006, because the province’s major carbon emitting industries had done significant retooling, largely in the face of a souring economy, during the mid-1990s and thus believed the earlier benchmark better serves Quebec’s interests. Premier Charest also sought an entente with other sub-national players (e.g. California, Washington, Manitoba, Ontario, Ile de France) to gain recognition at the conference of their efforts and interests. Quebec was reportedly successful in joining a coalition of 20 others at Copenhagen with the goal to put political pressure on their central governments.

Meeting with Power Corporation

The Ambassador also met key members of Power Corporation to discuss the general business and political climate in Quebec and Canada. Andre Desmarais, president, and four key lieutenants welcomed the Ambassador to their lavish offices. Andre Desmarais is the son of one of the wealthiest men in Canada, with close personal and family ties to a long string of Liberal Canadian Prime Ministers (Trudeau, Chretien, Martin) and to the current French President Sarkozy. These interlocutors offered their insights into Quebec society and provided candid personal opinions to the Ambassador about the dynamic between Quebec and the “rest of Canada” (or ROC, as it is often shortened in Montreal newspapers). Desmarais opined that no Canadians feel more affinity for the U.S. than the Quebecois, and that anglophones generally feel more “threatened” than francophones by the cultural and economic colossus to their south. These businessmen ofered the uniform view that Quebec is open to even greater trade with the U.S., reminding the Ambassador and Consul General that it was Quebec’s support for closer ties with the U.S. that proved critical for passage of NAFTA over the hesitations of the rest of Canada. Desmarais was quick to point out, as well, that “Canadian values” (by which he also clearly meant Quebec, as well) are subtly distinct from our own. This, he asserted, more than anything else explained the refusal of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien to join the military effort in Iraq and their willingness, up to a point, to play a role in Afghanistan. (Comment: The Desmarais clan is emblematic of a significant number of Montrealers with whom we engage who are linguistically and culturally francophone, but remain proudly Canadian and staunchly federalist in perspective.)


A coffee with social and political commentators L. Ian MacDonald and Bernard Saint-Laurent provided the Ambassador with more perspectives on political and social issues in Quebec. MacDonald is a frequent commentator for CTV and CBC and was a formr speech-writer for Brian Mulroney and a Canadian diplomat in Washington. Saint-Laurent is a popular radio commentator and political analyst for CBC Radio One. Both men opined that issues of language and culture provoke strong emotions in Quebec. They also suggested that the best way to understand this emotional issue is to recall that Quebec is legally and officially a monolingual province, albeit one with a long tradition of linguistic and cultural tolerance — contrary to the sometimes alarmist picture painted in some pan-Canadian media. Saint-Laurent noted that while the general atmosphere was the most tolerant in memory, the perceived or real spread of English monolingualism, particulary in the West end of the island of Montreal, is causing growing concern among the majority francophone population. This only serves to remind that strong currents of linguistic discontent churn not far below the placid surface. They called attention to the moderate success of “the chldren of Bill 101” — that is of immigrant and second general children educated in the French language alongside children of the wider Quebecois society — who have by and large, they said, adopted francophone culture as their own and are successfully integrating themselves into Quebec society. Simultaneously, they added, youth from longtime francophone families growing up alongside immigrants are showing significantly greater tolerance and intercultural understanding that those of their parents’ “and grandparents’” generations.


Controversy over Quebec’s aggressive position at the Copenhagen environmental conference shed some surprising light into the connections of powerful provincial interests in the Alberta oil sands. Montreal’s two major newspaper chains battled back and forth over Quebec-based Power Corporation’s (Power Corp) financial ties and the corporation’s alleged impact on Premier Charest’s actions in Copenhagen. Whether Charest was influenced by Power Corp to tone down his criticism of the federal government is unclear, but the corporation’s provincial and federal influence is undeniable.

Charest’s Strategy Under Scrutiny

Arriving at the COP15 Conference in Copenhagen, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a strong federalist, openly and actively pushed Canada to do more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and signed a pact with 20 sub-national representatives who were similarly unsatisfied with their national governments’ positions. Charest’s public lobbying of this own federal government sparked strong reaction accross Canada, sometimes very critical of Quebec for “undermining ” federal environmental policy. Quebec won the Globe and Mail’s “Denigrate your Own Country Award”, along with Ontario, for its performance in Copenhagen. The controversy continues to simmer in the Montreal news this week.

In Quebec, most observers praised what they saw as progressive, green policy by Charest. But Montreal’s influential La Presse excoriated Charest’s “arrogant ” strategy, branding him “irresponsible ” and disloyal to Ottawa. On December 17th, the paper defended Prime Minister Harper’s Copenhagen position, insisting that the oil sands industry was vital for the economy of Canada and Quebec. La Presse’s stance raised eyebrows in Quebec ; the paper is federalist, but rarely so quick to jump to the federal government’s defense due to an alleged slight from Quebec. Further, the paper’s commentary is usually pro-environment.

Top circulation tabloid Journal de Montreal led several commentators in charging that La Presse’s stance had been dictated by its ownership — Power Corporation, a holding company with substantial financial interests in the oil sands. (Comment: The Ambassador met with Power Corporation Official on a recent visit to Montreal discussing the general business and political climate in Quebec in the period just before the controversy broke. The diversified management and holding company based in Montreal ($37 billion USD revenue last year) is owned by the powerful Desmarais family. Paul Sr. and his two sons are among the most influential of Canadians and have strong political and family ties — primarily with the federal Liberals in Canada and the French President Sarkozy. End Comment)

Power Corporation and Oil Sands

Although La Presse defended its impartiality, it was hard to refute Power Corportion’s financial interests in the oil sands. Power Corp is the largest individual shareholder (4.5 %) in the French company Total S.A., and wields further influence with Paul Desmarais, Jr. on Total’s board of directors. Total S.A. has invested $6 billion USD in Alberta’s oil sands to date, and plans to invest $20 billion USD more over the next two decades. It is the fifth largest publicly-traded integrated international oil and gas company in the world operating in more that 130 countries, with 96,950 employees.

Comment: Charest Tones Down Criticism

It’s difficult to say whether Charest was reacting to La Presse, pressure from the Desmarais family, or another factor entirely, but by the end of the conference he lay low, passing on further media opportunities to criticize Harper. Since then, he has avoided speaking about Canada’s environmental policies, focusing instead on his own plan to reduce automobile emissions in Quebec. The province is the first in Canada to adopt stricter fuel efficiency standards than the federal government. This legislation takes effect Jan. 14, 2010. Meanwhile, the oil sands controversy continues to play itself out in the media here, with the Desmarais angle as a backdrop.