MONTREAL – He's one of Canada's most powerful media barons, with an empire that spans newspapers, cable television and cellphone services.
Now, Quebec multi-millionaire Pierre Karl Peladeau has become a key figure in the movement to make the French-speaking province an independent country.
Peladeau's stunning decision to run as a candidate with the separatist Parti Quebecois in the province's legislative election April 7 has helped fuel talk of another referendum on secession - if the party wins a coveted majority of seats.
Peladeau's candidacy, announced Sunday, has pushed Quebec independence to the forefront of the campaign after PQ leader and Premier Pauline Marois initially avoided the issue when she dissolved the legislature and called the election last week.
His entrance has sparked debate everywhere from hockey locker rooms to radio talk shows. The Canadian weekly magazine Maclean's asked on its latest cover: "Is this the man who will break up Canada?"
Fueled by her new star candidate, Marois has openly mused about the details of an independent Quebec - such as retaining the Canadian dollar and keeping the borders open.
Quebec, with a population of 8.1 million, has had referendums on secession twice before, most recently in 1995 when the pro-independence side lost by a razor-thin margin.
It remains to be seen whether the 52-year-old Peladeau, viewed by many as Marois' potential successor, will help or hinder Quebec's appetite for another referendum on the issue.
Polls show support for Quebec independence remains stuck at around 40 percent and hasn't changed significantly in 10 years. Quebec, which is 80 percent French-speaking, has plenty of independence already. It sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French speakers, bases its legal code on France's and has legislation favoring the use of French over English.
But many Quebecois have long dreamed of an independent Quebec, as they at times haven't felt respected and have worried about the survival of their language in English-speaking North America. Decades ago, they thrilled to visiting French President Charles de Gaulle and his cry of "Vive le Quebec libre!" — long live free Quebec.
Peladeau, owner of Quebecor Media Inc., was once considered one of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's closest allies in the Quebec business community. He also founded Sun News, a populist, right-wing news channel sometimes likened to a "Fox News North."
But Peladeau removed any doubt about his political beliefs this week, declaring himself a committed sovereigntist who wants to "make Quebec a country."
One political analyst said Peladeau's candidacy has allowed the PQ to tie together two key issues: the economy and the party's ultimate quest of independence.
"Mr. Peladeau coming into the race was probably on the part of the PQ a way of twinning both those things by saying, 'Here is someone who believes in sovereignty, but also has economic credentials,'" said Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at McGill University.
But his focus on sovereignty has given ammunition to Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, a staunch defender of Canadian unity. He warned recently that "Mr. Peladeau wants to destroy Canada."
Campbell Clark, The Globe and Mail's chief political writer, wrote that Peladeau has got people talking about sovereignty, and that wasn't really the plan.
"The PQ downplayed the whole idea of a referendum, so it was harder for Mr. Couillard to get traction when he attacked them for planning to hold one. Now, Mr. Peladeau has given the federalists-versus-sovereigntists battle a higher profile," Clark wrote.
A new survey from the polling firm Leger Marketing suggests support for the Liberals has jumped in the Quebec City area since Peladeau's candidacy brought the prospect of Quebec independence into focus.
That may be part of the reason why Marois and Peladeau steered away from the issue while campaigning on Thursday, and instead focused on plans to revive the province's slumping economy.
Many political observers, including pollster Eric Grenier, have expected the PQ's campaign to center on its proposed secular charter, which includes a ban on public employees wearing religious headgear.
"I think the charter put the PQ back in a position where they could win," said Grenier, operator of the polling aggregator site ThreeHundredEight.com, explaining that the charter is popular with French-speaking Quebecers.
"I'm sure they will talk about it more as the campaign continues."
Peladeau also faces scrutiny from within his own party.
Richard Martineau, writing in the Peladeau-owned Journal de Montreal, said left-leaning members of the PQ, traditionally a left-of-center party, could be upset about bringing in the powerful anti-union businessman.
Peladeau also has been challenged to sell shares in Quebecor if elected to office in order to avoid any conflict of interest. The company's holdings include the province's largest tabloid daily and a popular French-language TV station.
But many longtime sovereigntists appear prepared to look past those issues.
A dozen prominent members of the movement, including two former Quebec premiers, came to Peladeau's defense in an open letter published in Montreal newspapers, saying he shouldn't be required to sell his shares.
In Maioni's view, there appears to be a sense among many secessionists of Peladeau's generation that, "if there's going to be a sovereign Quebec, this may be the moment."