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Quebec Nationalists Are Freaking Out That a Chicken Chain Was Gobbled Up by Swiss Chalet’s Owner

The great sauce war has come to an end with St-Hubert's sell-off.

by Patrick Lejtenyi
Mar 31 2016, 8:59pm


Not actual St-Hubert chicken. Photo via Flickr user Mike

Before we even get started here, let me get this out of the way: Despite being a good Quebecer, I'm no fan of St-Hubert rotisserie chicken. I'm not a foodie or a vegan or anything, I just don't like it (the barbecue sauce you get on the side is OK though). So I wasn't weeping or shaking my fist when the company announced it was being bought by Ontario's Cara Inc. for $537-million.

The deal makes sense: Cara owns other casual-dining, high school first date chains like Kelsey's, Montana's, and Swiss Chalet, and until now didn't have a very strong a foothold in Quebec. By acquiring St-Hubert Group's 120 restaurants in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario as well as its retail business, together employing over 10,000 people, Cara is now a major player in the Quebec food business.

So cue the outrage, beginning with Quebec's leading separatist, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the head of the opposition Parti Québécois. Before the barbecue sauce on the deal was even dry, PKP was tweeting how bad this was for the province.

"Under Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, Quebec is for sale," read one of PKP's several chicken-related tweets.

He listed St-Hubert alongside other big Quebec companies to sell out, including hardware store Rona (bought by US-based hardware giant Lowe's earlier this year), Cirque du Soleil (bought by US, Chinese, and Quebec interests last year), and mining mega-giant Alcan (bought by Rio Tinto in 2007, also under a Liberal government).

"No! Not another jewel!" tweet-wailed Francois Legault, the leader of the pro-business, soft nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec. "The slow decline of the Quebec economy. Increasingly becoming a retail outlet economy."

Now, at first glance, it might be odd to see the province's collective confidence shaken by the sale of something as ridiculous a lot of roast chicken. But it strikes a chord because St-Hubert was a rare homegrown success, a product of the painstakingly-built Quebec Inc.—the industrial/political symbiosis that grew out of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and helped place economic power in francophone hands.

Among Quebec's national identity-obsessives, there was a fair amount of debate about the overall meaning of the sale.

Maxime Laporte of the Société St-Jean Baptiste, the province's oldest and best-known French language group, said the sale of the chain was another example of how Quebec loses when it doesn't control its own economy.

"I'm not impressed either with our government or our business class," he told VICE. "We are becoming an economy of managers, of tenants, of retail branches. That's not the same thing as being owners. And while we can be very well-taken care of, that's really a consolation prize. It's illusory."

On a more practical level, Laporte worried that, by being taken over by a Canadian company, St-Hubert may be exposed to the hungry rumblings of an American multinational, salivating at the prospect of acquiring all that chicken for the equivalent of 70 cents on the dollar. He also explained that the ripple effect on the chicken supply chain alone could drastically impact Quebec's agricultural economy.

Laporte went on to explain that he would have liked to see the Quebec government directly intervene in the company's business, and get the province to prop it up through its investment arm, the Caisse de depot et placement. The fact that it didn't, he said, indicates a troubling "lack of vision and audacity."

Si belle. Photo by Flickr user Krista

On the other hand, some French language activists aren't nearly as alarmed.

"Frankly, I'm not surprised" at the sale, said Eric Bouchard of the Mouvement Québec francais. He explained that the early leaders of Quebec Inc.—people like media baron Pierre Péladeau, Pierre-Karl's father, and former premier and economist Jacques Parizeau—wanted to specifically get francophones into the chairmanships of big businesses and build a French-speaking business class.

It might be a sign of their success that the new generation of business leaders aren't as attached to that ideal and just want to make money. "They are leaving that national vision behind," he said.

Bouchard, in fact, sees the sale as potentially good for Quebec. Because whenever he walked into one of their outlets, he said all he could hear was "unilingual English American music. There was no Québécois music."

He predicts that in order to win over Quebec diners, the new owners will go out of their way to entice locals—and Quebec-made, Quebec-produced ambient music is a tool.

"It will touch that nationalist chord," he said. Under the old regime, "St-Hubert made zero effort. It took its audience for granted. The new managers will have to seduce Quebecers."

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