The man working behind the scenes for Quebec Premier François Legault is Martin Koskinen.
Koskinen is no ordinary chief of staff. Legault refers to him as his “alter ego” and frequently says Koskinen speaks for him, and vice-versa. But both men, although different, are complementary. Legault is impatient and sometimes hot-headed, while Koskinen is calm and soft-spoken.
“François Legault has a very good instinct for the popular mood,” said Koskinen.
“He is someone who, honestly, reads everything. He spends a lot of time checking media reports and he is someone who asks a lot of questions. He is very curious to find out what citizens think, very sensitive to the public mood and how people perceive things,” he added.
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Legault was mocked when he referred to comments on his Facebook page to justify public policy. But polls show Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is nearly certain to re-elected when Quebec heads to the polls on Oct. 3, with the size of his majority being the only question really left in doubt.
According to 338Canada’s projections, as of Thursday the CAQ had about a 99 per cent chance of forming the next majority government in Quebec and could aspire to a near-complete domination of the National Assembly with between 80 and 107 out of 125 seats.
So who is François Legault and what makes his party so popular in Quebec?
CAQ insiders and outsiders, who have agreed to speak with the National Post in recent weeks, have described the party’s first term as hyperactive, a government that acts fast and deals with consequences later, but always with the defence of “middle Quebec” in mind.
Whether banning religious symbols for certain public-sector jobs or defending the French language with new, stricter language laws, the CAQ has proven to be unapologetic. The government enacts reforms that appeal to the majority of Quebecers, even if it infringes on religious and linguistic minorities.
And it hasn’t been shy to invoke the notwithstanding clause in order to breach certain rights enclosed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — if it serves Quebec’s interests.
While playing to Quebecers’ identity demands, the party is also aiming to change the province’s economic destiny. The government has aggressively pursued Legault’s obsession with making Quebec an economic powerhouse, with the goal of making the province rich enough to move from a “have not” to “have” province when it comes to equalization.
To the question “What does Quebec want?”, the CAQ seems to have found the perfect recipe: focusing on the economy while at the same time defending Quebec’s distinct identity.
By combining these two ingredients, the CAQ and its leader have managed to put an end to decades of back-and-forth rule between the Liberal Party of Quebec (LPQ) and Parti Québécois (PQ), which have been arguing about la question nationale for the last 50 years.
This has been a regular practice between the premier and his chief of staff: both men regularly bounce ideas off each other and challenge each other before coming to a conclusion on public policy. Koskinen even refers to himself as Legault’s personal “sounding board.”
Sometimes, the premier will read the room and change course unexpectedly.
An example of this, said Koskinen, was when Legault pulled the plug on Quebec’s controversial “health contribution” earlier this year — dubbed the “anti-vax tax” — for unvaccinated Quebecers, citing the need to maintain social peace as support for COVID-19 measures was slipping away.
Koskinen was in favour of the measure, saying there were strong arguments to be made in terms of “solidarity and responsibility,” but Legault was the one to change course.
“He came to the realization that we would stigmatize the unvaccinated unnecessarily and that we had a responsibility to provide social peace. Even though (the idea) could defend itself on purely a cartesian level, it was best to backtrack,” said Koskinen.
His chief of staff describes the premier as a “pragmatic,” someone who is “always on the move” but willing to adjust to new circumstances, opportunities and new information — a bit like an evolving business plan.
For him, it is mostly important to be in movement. He moves and then makes corrections
“For him, it is mostly important to be in movement,” said Koskinen. “He moves and then makes corrections.”
Sometimes, Legault’s lips move faster than his brain, leading to problems.
During his first conference with his fellow premiers, Legault blasted Alberta’s “dirty energy,” prompting fierce criticism in Western Canada. Koskinen now says Legault “regrets” his choice of words, even though he has dismissed Alberta’s backlash previously.
“It’s part of his character. He has this authenticity, this candour, but sometimes it puts him in sh-t.”
Legault grew up in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, in Montreal’s West Island. As a college student, he took great pleasure in opening the Quebec independence newspaper Le Jour, while sitting among businessmen reading the federalist Montreal Gazette during his daily train commute.
At just 29 years old, Legault became a partner in a company that would later become Air Transat in 1987. A quarrel with Jean-Marc Eustache, the company’s now former president and CEO, would result in Legault selling his shares without warning in 1997, leaving him “financially independent” before he turned 40.
Legault’s economic profile caught the attention of Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard in 1998. Bouchard recruited Legault to become the PQ’s minister of industry and commerce before he was even elected as a MNA. After he won a seat, he was shuffled to become minister of education.
Legault took the job seriously, so seriously, he threatened to resign in 2001 when the government was about to cut $400 million from education during Quebec’s deficit-slashing efforts. Bouchard had to interrupt a trip abroad to resolve the crisis.
Legault won and the budget cuts did not move forward as planned. This prompted some young PQ members to rally behind him and to encourage him to run for the party’s leadership.
PQ MNA Pascal Bérubé was one of Legault’s fiercest supporters in those years, and he is still dumbfounded Legault never decided to run for PQ leader, even though he had three occasions to do so. But every time, Legault would back away, arguing it was not his time.
“No CAQ MNA has worked harder than me to make him premier,” said Bérubé. “But I wanted him to become an independentist premier,” he chuckled.
Like many Quebecers, Legault came to the realization that Quebec would not be prepared to settle the debate on separation in the foreseeable future and decided that it was time for the population to have a third option that was not the Quebec Liberal Party or the PQ.
In his 2013 book, Cap sur un Québec gagnant — which would translate roughly to “Focus on a Winning Quebec” in English — Legault admitted that he did not find it “easy” to put aside his dream to see Quebec separate from the rest of Canada but that, in his view, Quebec had to set the issue aside and instead focus on making the province richer.
Once it is free from equalization, he continued, Quebec will have accumulated “enough political weight in order to take control of its destiny” and will then be free to choose the best way forward.
Frédéric Boily, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean and author of a book about the CAQ, dismisses any suggestions that the CAQ leader might have a “hidden agenda” for Quebec sovereignty. “On that front, he’s remained firm,” said Boily.
Éric Montigny, professor in the department of political science at Université Laval, said that Legault personally put the idea of Quebec independence to rest and is instead working to increase the province’s autonomy while staying a part of the federation.
“Fundamentally, what he is trying to do is to make sure Quebec has more powers, more autonomy and more wealth while staying inside of Canada,” said Montigny.
Legault left the PQ in 2009, and it was not long after that he entered discussions to eventually form a new party. The CAQ saw the light of day in 2011 and merged with the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) — Quebec’s centre-right party at the time — later that year.
The CAQ won 19 seats in its first election in 2012 and only three extra seats for a total of 22 in 2014, remaining the third party in the legislature.
“A lot of people would have left” as leader after those results, admitted Christopher Skeete, Legault’s parliamentary assistant for relations with English-speaking Quebecers. But Legault stayed on and Quebecers got to know him better as time went by.
In 2018, the CAQ won a majority government with 74 seats, exceeding the estimates of all published opinion polling — and even the CAQ’s own expectations.
Where 2012 was an introduction, 2014 was the establishment of the credibility and, of course, 2018 became the realization of the dream
“What people fail to realize is that this was long and coming,” said Skeete, who considers himself one of the founding members of the CAQ. “Where 2012 was an introduction, 2014 was the establishment of the credibility and, of course, 2018 became the realization of the dream.”
Carl Vallée, who was part of Legault’s transition team after his victory, said that the CAQ embodied the PQ’s nationalism and the Quebec Liberal Party’s economic record and that Quebecers do not have to choose between one or the other when they get tired of the other option.
“Now, (Quebecers) can have their cake and eat it too,” Vallée, who also did a stint as spokesperson for prime minister Stephen Harper, said.
Many political observers note the CAQ has benefitted from a changing political landscape in Quebec in the last two decades, which opened the door for a third viable option in government. Legault “managed to embody that” on his third election as leader in 2018, noted Montigny.
Were the CAQ to be re-elected in 2022, that would confirm this new political realignment in Quebec, he said.
“Quebec is in full transformation,” added Montigny. “Many people in English Canada think that the decline of the PQ means a decline of Quebec nationalism. They’re dead wrong. Quebec nationalism is different and manifests itself differently.”
“It is even stronger because it is consensual.”
Simon Jolin-Barrette, a young and ambitious minister, who represents Borduas in southwestern Quebec, became Legault’s point person for implementing the strategic reforms that spur controversy even today — such as Bill 21. In his words, when the premier gives his ministers a mandate, “he expects us to deliver.”
Koskinen said that the goal of Bill 21 — which was adopted as law in 2019 but is in front of the courts — was to try to find the largest consensus possible around a “tense” debate on religious signs in the public domain that had been “lingering” for more than a decade in Quebec.
The law, which prohibits public employees in positions of authority such as police officers and judges from wearing religious symbols on the job, is widely popular in Quebec, but has been condemned as racist outside the province.
In the CAQ’s view, the government had to put a lid on the issue once and for all in an attempt to satisfy the majority of Quebecers, who wished to see restrictions on religious signs in the public domain. Legault’s inner circle continues to think Bill 21 was the right call and that the case is now closed.
“We have no interest in reopening the debate and going any further,” said Koskinen.
Jolin-Barrette, one of the more nationalist members of Legault’s caucus, made no apologies when asked to defend his record on Bill 21, and goes even as far as saying that the rest of Canada should follow Quebec’s lead in terms of separating religion from the state.
The accusations of racism and intolerance, he said, are “unacceptable.”
“We have the right, in Quebec, to make our own choices. That is fundamental and should be very well understood,” he emphasized. “Quebecers make their own choices and Quebecers have a right to decide how their collective life, their society, moves forward.”
While identity politics took up more space than expected in the first term, the CAQ — and Legault in particular — did not give up on the objective of creating more wealth in Quebec and relentlessly pursued economic opportunities, even while fighting the pandemic.
Catherine Loubier, who was Quebec’s delegate general in New York for two-and-a-half years, was at the forefront of the premier’s efforts to increase foreign investment. While there, Loubier dealt with those working on Wall Street, and said New Yorkers were surprised to see a premier speak their language.
“New York is transactional,” Loubier said. “People go there to make deals. So if you go to a meeting and you don’t really have an ask or if it’s not clear after five minutes what do you want, how much it costs or what do you want to do here … New Yorkers will get impatient.”
“Legault has the perfect personality to sit in front of the New York crowd because he’s transactional,” she added. “Five minutes have gone by and the person in charge knows exactly what he wants and what he is probably willing to do to get it.”
Koskinen said that the CAQ leader is “frustrated” that he was not able to focus more on the province’s economic development because of the pandemic.
He confirmed the CAQ’s second mandate to be mostly focused on the economy, as geopolitical tensions are revealing the need to rely on North American supply chains. But, Koskinen hinted at more power struggles with Ottawa as Quebec strives to have more powers in immigration.
“We won’t be against immigration, but we’ll have to protect the future of the French language,” Koskinen said.
What about Legault? Will the apparently unbeatable premier stay on for the whole term if he is re-elected?
“It’ll all depend on his health, his energy and his passion,” said his chief of staff. “He loves his job, but he is not someone who will be clinging on to it.”
“I think he wants to stay for the next four years, but it’s way too early to say.”