The Big Read

Bucking industry trend, Pierre Karl Péladeau’s nationalist newspapers thrive in Quebec

Quebecor Media president Pierre Karl Péladeau in Quebec City in August 2019. The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissino

On February 19, Richard Martineau got it completely, utterly, disastrously wrong.

In a column published in Journal de Montréal, the highest-circulation French-language newspaper in North America, Martineau said McGill Faculty of Law professor Daniel Weinstock was in favour of female genital mutilation. The columnist then called out Quebec’s education minister Jean-François Roberge for inviting Weinstock to consult on the province’s ethics and religious culture curriculum.

The response from the government was almost immediate. Citing “new information,” Roberge’s office disinvited Weinstock within hours of the column’s publication. Martineau himself was chuffed—“Bravo to the minister, who reacted quickly!” he wrote on Facebook, after plugging his column—while the Journal made pains to note that its star columnist had unearthed Weinstock’s alleged musings. It was one of the better examples of how the Journal is an immovable force in Quebec society, particularly on the visceral issues of language and identity.

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Talking Point

The newspaper industry is in crisis—except at Quebecor, where the Journal de Montréal and the Journal de Québec continue to publish seven punchy editions of their print product a week. The paper’s saving grace: they are part of the sprawling Quebecor empire led by outspoken CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. But former employees describe a malaise within Quebecor’s media properties, as their newsrooms find themselves increasingly at odds with the older and overwhelmingly white columnists on the masthead.

“I can’t remember any other government acting on what comes out of the columns in the Journal de Montréal. There’s a phalanx of columnists that, while I wouldn’t say they’re entirely homogeneous in terms of ideology, but on balance, they project the vision of nationalism that is central to the [Coalition Avenir Québec],” says Weinstock. 

The Journal is not alone. Many of Quebecor’s news media properties have succeeded while hewing to its timeworn mantra, repeated ad nauseam through the words of its most prominent columnists and pundits, Martineau chief among them: Quebec is under siege by a multi-headed hydra comprised of feminists, Islam, immigrants, English-speaking people, young people, leftists, the Black Lives Matter movement, the mayor of Montreal, Montreal in general and “obese, pansexual, penguin, non-gendered trans Muslims,” to name a few. (To be fair, that last one was an apparent attempt at a joke.)

For Quebecor, which owns the Journal de Montréal, trading in this muck has been good for business. While its publishing competitors lay off staff, cut salaries and cease printing paper versions of their products, Quebecor prints seven punchy editions a week of its Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec tabloids. Over four million Quebecers consume its newspapers every week, according to the company’s 2019 annual report—including more than two million readers of the Journal de Montréal’s print edition. 

Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau has been positively bullish on the newspaper industry, even offering to buy up the orphaned newspaper titles sold off by his competitor Gesca, including Quebec City’s Le Soleil. (The government rejected the offer.)

That isn’t to say Quebecor’s newspapers have been immune to the existential travails of the industry. Advertising accounted for roughly 67 per cent of Quebecor newspapers’ revenue in 2015; in 2019, it was just over 54 per cent. Digital revenue increased by less than a percentage point during that time. TVA Group, Quebecor’s broadcasting, magazine and television content-production subsidiary, recently reported a $42.1-million year-over-year revenue decrease—a continuing downward trend aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the saving grace of Quebecor’s news-media titles—the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec included—is that they are but a cog in the wheel of a company that is literally and figuratively attached to millions of Quebec households.

Quebecor’s cable arm Videotron has grown its market share by over 40 per cent to nearly 60 per cent of Quebec’s market, since 2008. Today, it is the biggest high-speed internet provider in the province, delivering internet to the homes of over 1.7 million clients and harvesting $150 million in net income in the first three months of 2020 alone. Quebecor not only owns the pipes, but much of the stuff that flows through them, as well.

Videotron is part of Quebecor’s media entity, along with the company’s newspaper titles. Its various holdings underneath the media umbrella produce news and cable news, movies, cooking shows, dramas, reality TV and cartoons. It publishes not only newspapers, but books and magazines, as well; one would be hard pressed to find a non-Quebecor-owned title while in grocery-store checkout lines in the province.  

The company doesn’t break out its newspapers’ financials, masking the true health of its publishing assets. Quebecor CFO Hugues Simard didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did several of the company’s spokespeople.

Richard Martineau. QUB Radio

“Despite the secular challenges faced by media and the exacerbated cyclical pressure brought on by the pandemic, Quebecor has succeeded over the past two decades with a convergence strategy that has leveraged its media and telecom assets in the province of Quebec,” said Adam Shine, a media and telecom analyst with National Bank Financial.

Like many a media executive, Péladeau rails against the ravages wrought on the industry by the likes of Facebook, Google et al. But unlike most of those executives, Péladeau also frequently and publicly pillories his rivals for slights and unfair business practices. He used last week’s second-quarter earnings conference call to single out his competitors. He accused CBC/Radio Canada of “clearly predatory” and “anti-competitive behaviour during the health crisis.” 

Péladeau mentioned Bell 12 times during the call, either to talk about Quebecor’s ongoing fight with its crosstown rival at the CRTC or to poke fun at Bell’s allegedly tumbling specialty-channel ratings. Quebecor’s might and Bell’s travails were duly noted in the Journal de Montréal the same day.

As for Martineau, a linchpin of those very media assets, there was one problem with his hot Weinstock take: the professor and philosopher never said he was in favour of female genital mutilation. The videos on which Martineau based his assertion were actually of Weinstock voicing an ethical dilemma over female circumcision in some U.S. hospitals. He himself is very much against the practice, having called it “incompatible with the norm of gender equality” in a 2015 paper.

For Vanessa Destiné, Martineau’s mistake was what she called “the point of no return.” Destiné, 30, worked at various Quebecor titles for nearly three years as a reporter, content producer and columnist. And while she loved her time at the company, she said she grew tired of the white elephants in the room. “I was tired of being associated with Quebecor’s culture, and being associated with these columnists who bring so much shame to our work.” She left the company in late June. (Martineau didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Destiné was one of four young journalists who left the company at around the same time for similar reasons—part of what she calls a “malaise” between the Quebecor newsrooms and the comparatively older stable of much-hyped columnists. “I will never say anything bad about Quebecor. I was proud to work for the company, because it gave me a chance,” says Mickael Destrempes, one of those four 30-something journalists to leave the company. “What I found difficult was having to defend who I worked for because of voices like Richard Martineau.”

Few people speak of this malaise on the record, mostly because they don’t want to incur Péladeau’s micromanaged wrath. In 2013, the former Parti Québécois leader accosted an executive from a competing company for daring to say hello to him at a dinner function. Two years later, he cursed out a political rival before offering to buy him off. (Full disclosure: Péladeau called yours truly a “pamphleteer” when I reported this last prise de bec.)

More recently, Péladeau got into a Twitter spat with investor Mitch Garber that began with him calling Garber’s Cirque du Soleil co-leadership “deficient,” and continued with Garber describing Péladeau as “the guy who was born on third base but was convinced he’d hit a triple.” (Péladeau took over Quebecor from his father, who founded the company in 1965.)

The opinion pages of Quebecor’s media titles remain similarly forthright and belligerent, though it seems changes are afoot. The paper recently hired former politician Maka Kotto and one-time political staffer Harold Fortin to write for the Journal de Montréal—two non-white exceptions to the paper’s decidedly blanche opinion roster.

“[Journal de Montréal editor] Dany Doucet and Pierre Karl Péladeau think it’s important to have diverse points of view on the pages,” says former Journal columnist Lise Ravary, noting there are dozens of other voices writing in the paper. “But it’s unavoidable that star columnists take up a lot of space, and it doesn’t just happen at Quebecor.”

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Weinstock did get at least one apology. Four days after the publication of Martineau’s column, after Weinstock threatened legal action, Roberge said he “sincerely regreted” disinviting the professor from consulting on the province’s ethics and religious curriculum.

Martineau wasn’t quite as forthcoming. He penned a separate “clarification,” linked to the column, in which he said it was “inexact” to say that Weinstock believed Quebec doctors should symbolically mutilate the genitals of young girls.

The column itself remains uncorrected on the Journal’s website.