In 1997, when he was president of Air Transat, the company he helped found, he abruptly sold off his shares and divested himself of the company in anger after a dispute with his partners. They found out after the fact that he had packed his bags and left them for good.
Later, serving as then premier Lucien Bouchard’s education minister in 1998, he complained about Quebec’s notoriously slow-moving bureaucracy, saying the mandarins in his ministry were unwilling to think outside the box or see how things were done elsewhere in the world.
In 2011, his desire to shake things up manifested itself again when he founded the Coalition Avenir Québec, a party seeking to break the 50-year monopoly of power shared by the Liberals and Parti Québécois.
This time — in true corporate style — he’d decided to cut out the middle man and go for the top job himself.
“The key word (for this party) is that we want change,” Legault said at a Nov. 13, 2011 news conference in Quebec City that launched the CAQ.
Quebec election: Immigrants who fail values test will be Ottawas responsibility, not Quebecs, Legault says
What interests me is creating wealth,â CAQ Leader FranÃ§ois Legault says. I dont accept that we in Quebec are not as rich as people in Ontario, not as rich as other North Americans.â Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette
In those early political years in the hinterland, Legault crisscrossed Quebec, telling small groups of people gathered in bingo halls and church basements that an unhealthy, melancholic satisfaction with the status quo had come to be accepted as normal in Quebec.
Steering the blame on “the old parties and their old way of doing things,” he would link the problem to years of polarized feuding over Quebec’s political status in Canada while more important issues simmered on the back burner.
He said it was time to put aside that sterile debate or witness Quebec’s “quiet decline,” a play on the words Quiet Revolution, a period of intense socio-political change in Quebec history.
Couillard says $75 grocery budget is possible, but a regrettable sign of poverty
Six and a half years later, after two failed attempts to win an election (2012, 2014), Legault is back with the same core message in this campaign.
Legault is older. Now 61, he famously said when he created the CAQ that he was willing to work at getting it off the ground for 10 years. Time is ticking.
Including his work as a Parti Québécois minister, Legault is now the second-to-longest-serving member of the National Assembly, a fact he does not like to be reminded of.
Mr. Legault returned to a pointed attack on Mr. Couillard on the topic of Quebec identity and diversity – questions that have replaced national independence as the key provincial fault line. He reiterated his plan to ban religious symbols from being worn by public servants in positions of authority, such as police officers. Its a plan popular with the public. Mr. Couillard did not back down, saying he would not bend to opinion polls on matters of individual freedom.
Quebec Liberal Premier doubles down on notion that $75 weekly grocery bill is possible
He’s wiser. He still refuses labels such as left or right and prefers to be called a Quebec nationalist, but he has ditched all talk of referendums, a strategic move that made his party instantly less threatening to many Quebecers including, in theory, anglophones.
He’s learned from his mistakes. After he failed to win the 2014 campaign despite growing discontent with the Liberals and the PQ, he set out to broaden his appeal beyond francophones living in the suburbs of Montreal and Quebec City — his power base.
Francois Legault is a born pragmatist, driven by an entrepreneurial spirit that makes him results-driven. Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS
To counter the idea that the CAQ is a one-man party, he has surrounded himself with a new team of candidates including a record number of former managers and technocrats who, while not big name television personalities, fit Legault’s mantra which is to, well, fix Quebec and fix it right.
Apartment buildings are shown after a tornado torn roofs off and windows blown out after a tornado caused extensive damage to a Gatineau, Quebec neighbourhood forcing hundreds of families to evacuate their homes on Friday, September 21, 2018. A tornado damaged cars in Gatineau, Que., and houses in a community west of Ottawa on Friday afternoon as much of southern Ontario saw severe thunderstorms and high wind gusts, Environment Canada said. Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS
“What interests me is creating wealth,” Legault said this week in an interview with the Montreal Gazette. “I don’t accept that we in Quebec are not as rich as people in Ontario, not as rich as other North Americans.
“I know we can do better, we can be richer. Creating wealth is a way to finance services and create a more reasonable fiscal burden,” he said. It ends up putting “money back in the pocketbooks of Quebecers.”
Legault, however, couldn’t be more different than his main opponent, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard. A brain surgeon, Couillard can pontificate about a wide range of complex issues while being oblivious to caucus revolt happening right under his nose.
Veteran political scientist Christian Dufour says of Legault: “Fundamentally, he’s an accountant. He is very kind and affable but he’s not an intellectual at all, not an ideologist. That explains criticism that many of his policies are what his opponents have tagged ‘rough drafts.’”
A good example is the CAQ’s controversial plan on immigration. It sits somewhere between the vision of the Liberals and PQ and is designed to appeal directly to the insecurities of those who believe French is threatened in North America.
That does not mean he’s unwilling to fight for his ideas. He remains as competitive in politics as he was in business.
In poker, his style would qualify as “loose-aggressive,” noted one veteran observer over a beer on the campaign trail recently.
Roughly put, he’ll play most hands and remains hard to read — and hard to play against. Such a player will use their chips as weapons and keep up constant pressure on their opponents.
Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard (right) and Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée (left) survey the damage caused by a tornado, in Gatineau, Que., Saturday, September 22, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS
He is underestimated, Legaults longtime chief of staff Martin Koskinen said in an interview. He is not built for the opposition, to just criticize for the sake of criticizing. He is a man very focused on results.
The simple explanation is that when someone is first, he becomes the target of all his adversaries, Francois Legault says of the bumps heâs encountered along the way in this election campaign. People are saying I have all kinds of faults. I am being demonized.â Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette
But some Quebecers — most notably, anglophones — still don’t feel comfortable with Legault or see him as their premier. Perhaps they don’t know him.
In his semi-autobiographical book, Cap sur un Québec gagnant: le Projet Saint-Laurent, Legault reveals he had a more or less normal childhood growing up on the West Island.
“There’s an agreement right now between Canada and Quebec regarding economic immigration. In this agreement, it says that the Quebec government decides, for the first step, to issue or not (issue) a selection certificate,” Legault said. “If we don’t issue the selection certificate, it becomes the responsibility of the federal government, if you have questions after that, you must ask Mr. Trudeau’s government.”
He was born May 26, 1957 at the Lachine Hospital and grew up in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. His father, Lucien Legault, was a postmaster, his mother, a housewife who also worked as a cashier at the local A&P grocery store to help with the monthly bills.
His best friend was (and is) his cousin, Pierre Schetagne. He was constantly at his side in those days, including during what Legault says were epic snowball fights with the anglophones of Senneville.
He attended school at École Saint-Georges in Senneville. His parents were strict about his education and the young Legault was always first in his class.
There was sadness, too. His father died young, at age 59, forcing Legault, the oldest of three children, to take on more family responsibilities at the same time as getting an education.
He nevertheless excelled at academics, skipping a year in high school to find himself in CÉGEP at age 16. At the time, there was no francophone CÉGEP on the West Island so he had to travel downtown to Collège Marguerite-Bourgeoys.
It was in this period that he started to get interested in sovereignty as a political option, recalling with glee riding the train between Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and Montreal surrounded by businessmen reading the Montreal Gazette while he and his cousin perused Le Jour, a pro-independence daily edited by Jacques Parizeau.
He was goal-driven even back then, deciding as a teenager he would be independently wealthy before turning 40, something he accomplished the day he sold the Air Transat shares. He was 39.
In his book, Legault explains that his motivation to make it financially was probably linked to watching his widowed mother, Pauline Schetagne, scraping and saving to make ends meet. Loyal to her, he would live at home until he was 29.
After CÉGEP, he completed a bachelor’s degree at the HEC in 1978 and started working as an accountant at Clarkson Gordon (later to become Ernst & Young).
While working there, he borrowed $50,000 from a bank to launch Air Transat with his partners. He kept his mother in the dark about the loan so she wouldn’t worry.
Francois Legault served as education minister under then premier Lucien Bouchard. Gordon Beck / Montreal Gazette
Ironically, it was his rival today, PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée, who had a hand in his jump into politics. In the winter of 1998, Bouchard, then premier, asked his adviser Lisée to find him a new PQ recruit from the business world.
Legault was ready for new challenges in his post-Air Transat life and decided to accept the offer. Bouchard would later surprise him by naming him education minister.
It was to be the start of his second life, one marked by various periods of turmoil. While education minister, he found himself at odds with his cabinet colleagues when he wanted to impose performance contracts on Quebec’s CÉGEPs and universities.
On day 31 of an election campaign, Quebec's party leaders dropped everything and went to Gatineau to offer assistance and tour the devastation left in the wake of a violent tornado that ripped through the area Friday afternoon.
He was a committed PQ politician and in 2005, he and a team of financial experts published a study concluding a sovereign Quebec was viable financially.
His star rose in the party but to the surprise of many insiders, he backed away from a run at the leadership after Bouchard resigned in 2001. He would rally instead to Bernard Landry.
Eventually, Legault too left the party, in 2009, concluding that the sovereignty option was going nowhere.
Its one of the ways that hes become more realistic as a politician. Most importantly, in this campaign, he has decided that if a win Oct. 1 means joining the stampede to the middle of the political spectrum, so be it.
Gone from the CAQ program are such controversial ideas as reforming organized labour, radically reducing the size of government and oil exploration in maritime Quebec.
“I think he’s vulnerable because he had not occupied his natural territory, which is centre right,” said Dufour, noting that there is very little distinguishing the CAQ from the other parties now. The veteran analyst is one of the few in Quebec to lament the CAQ’s decision to drop or soft-pedal some of its more right-of-centre agenda.
Francois Legault on the campaign trial, at a seniors residence in ChÃ¢teauguay on Sept. 10, 2018. Paul Chiasson / THE CANADIAN PRESS
A basic criticism of Legault — a lifelong Habs fan — is that he’s great on the offensive, not so hot on the defensive.
And campaigns are cruel masters. In his interview with the Montreal Gazette, Legault recognized his campaign has hit turbulence.
“The simple explanation is that when someone is first, he becomes the target of all his adversaries,” Legault said. “People are saying I have all kinds of faults. I am being demonized.”
Couillard is trying to brush his record on the economy, on health and education under the rug, but I think it will catch up with him, as will the corruption issue, Legault said. Its clear he wants the ballot question to be on immigration but I think Quebecers have other concerns.
Analysts, however, say immigration could ruin the CAQ’s election in the same way as the Charter of Values hurt the PQ campaign in 2014. Legault is quick to point out that the Liberals, not the CAQ, opened up the debate on the issue.
“I think we will talk about it a few more days but on election day, people will remember the 15 years of Liberal government. I can’t imagine people being happy with the same party for 19 years.
“It’s true that in creating a new party six and a half years ago, I didn’t pick the easiest path. But if we form a government on Oct. 1, it will be historic.”
It’s also when Legault will find out whether history has dealt him a decent hand or whether it’s time to fold.