ST-JEROME, Que. - Magnate-turned-politician Pierre Karl Peladeau sat in a dimly lit church in small-town Quebec alongside his three main rivals: a pianist, a realtor and one of his former employees.
From behind taped sheets of paper bearing their names, one of Canada's most powerful media barons and his opponents laid out their respective ideas to combat problems in the riding of Saint-Jerome.
The multimillionaire, recruited by the Parti Quebecois as a superstar candidate, even had to publicly endure personal barbs from his ex-worker during Monday's all-candidates event north of Montreal.
Peladeau was a long way from the big chair in the boardrooms of his Quebecor empire.
"Concerning my qualifications, you probably know that under the inspiration of a great builder of Quebec â€” my father Pierre Peladeau â€” I spent the last 25 years at Quebecor, 14 overseeing its management," Peladeau said as he introduced himself at his only all-candidates event of his campaign, an affair that drew about 100 people and left more than half of the pews empty.
"(It's) a company with thousands of employees."
The celebrity businessman, also known by his monogram PKP, made a splash in the provincial election campaign a few weeks ago when he announced his candidacy by vowing to make Quebec a country and pumping his fist in the air.
But within a couple of days, the pro-sovereignty PQ steered away from its public musings about independence as opinion polls suggested a shift in momentum toward the pro-Canada Liberals. Surveys have shown that nearly two-thirds of Quebecers do not want another referendum on sovereignty.
Peladeau dodged questions on the subject after his proclamation as the party scrambled to avoid further damage. At one news conference, PQ Leader Pauline Marois even lightly pushed Peladeau away from a microphone when he tried to answer a reporter's question.
Since the shove, Quebecor's majority shareholder has maintained a lower profile at Marois news conferences, where he has focused on promising to use his expertise to help boost Quebec's economy.
Away from the heightened scrutiny of Marois's campaign, the media tycoon said he's been knocking on doors and visiting shopping malls with hope of winning the Coalition-held Saint-Jerome.
At the candidates event, Peladeau made no mention of independence and tried to cast himself as someone well-positioned to help the region if he is elected next Monday.
"As you probably know, I spent a good part of my youth here in the Laurentians, further north in Ste-Adele," Peladeau told the audience before explaining how a PQ government would address poverty, homelessness and school dropout rates in the riding.
"I think I have a deep understanding of the region."
While on stage, Peladeau also found himself under attack by Liberal opponent Armand Dubois, a former TV journalist and union leader at a Quebecor (TSX:QBR.B) outlet.
Dubois dedicated nearly the entire two minutes of his closing remarks to criticizing his old boss, who has long been both a popular and polarizing figure in Quebec.
"Permit me, Mr. Peladeau, to tell you that I very sincerely doubt your language," said Dubois, who also challenged Peladeau to sell his shares in Quebecor for the good of democracy.
Rivals have said Peladeau's empire controls about 40 per cent of Quebec's print and electronic media.
Peladeau, who has engaged in drawn-out battles against the labour movement, sat stony-faced and only looked over at Dubois once during the barrage.
After the event, Peladeau told a couple of reporters that Dubois's closing statement was an "ad hominem attack" that broke the rules of the event.
Organizers had asked candidates to avoid targeting each other. The goal was to have participants explain their ideas for the riding by answering questions provided to them one week in advance.
Coalition candidate Patrice Charbonneau questioned whether Peladeau had actually been present in the area during the campaign. The real-estate agent said the businessman didn't even recognize him at first when he approached him before the event.
"It took him like 10 seconds (to recognize me)," said Charbonneau, whose face adorns numerous campaign signs posted around town.
"I met my adversary for the first time seven days (before the election). Think about it. I will let you decide if that's normal or not."
Vincent Lemay-Thivierge, a local musician who is running for Quebec solidaire, also participated.
A woman who watched from the church pews said she thought Peladeau's management experience would help the local economy.
But Moniqua Seguin added she won't expect to see him around the riding if he wins.
"I think that Mr. Peladeau is also very busy, so he might not pass by as often," Seguin said.
Peladeau, who shook hands and chatted with people in the crowd before the event, said he's already learned a lot on the hustings.
"I've had during the campaign the chance to meet with a lot of people in the riding, whether it's at the Wal-Mart, the Metro (grocery store), at different other locations," he told The Canadian Press in a brief interview.
"That's very interesting for me to have the capacity to meet with people, to listen (to) what they're looking for. I guess that, you know, this is the role of the next politician (in the riding)."