When Gilles Vaillancourt was first elected to Laval municipal council in 1973, what would become Quebec’s third-largest city was a place of farmers’ fields and isolated villages dotting the highway south out of Montreal. It is what Vaillancourt probably wished was his legacy: Under his tutelage, first as a councillor, then as mayor for two largely unopposed decades until his resignation last fall, Laval became a vibrant, teeming residential and commercial hub, less a suburb of Montreal than a burgeoning rival to it.
Yet Vaillancourt was known for far less noble reasons before the Quebec government placed Laval under its guardianship this week—and even before police arrested and charged the former mayor with gangsterism last month. And as one of his former acolytes, Jean Bertrand, alleges, Vaillancourt largely owes his political endurance to an illegal donation scheme involving nearly every councillor with PRO des Lavallois, Vaillancourt’s political party.
Bertrand worked with the party since its founding in 1984, and since 1998 as its “official agent”—the party money man, essentially. In his testimony at the Charbonneau commission looking into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, Bertrand said he devised a system by which he would collect cash from various construction and engineering firms. He would then give the money to the councillors, who would in turn write cheques to PRO des Lavallois.
Suffice to say, the practice was a blatant violation of Quebec electoral law and, according to Bertrand, the councillors, including current interim mayor Alex Duplessis, were aware of it. “I told them it was illegal. They knew it was illegal. But they did it just the same,” he testified. Only PRO des Lavallois councillor Robert Plante refused, Bertrand said, adding that Vaillancourt approved of the system. (Duplessis proclaimed his innocence during a subsequent press conference.)
Quebecers (Montrealers in particular) were suitably aghast at Bertrand’s allegations—somehow forgetting that, according to other testimony at the Charbonneau commission, Laval is effectively Quebec writ small. Last fall, former construction maven Lino Zambito testified how he brokered a similar scheme between the province’s three main political parties and some of its largest engineering firms. By Zambito’s account, the Liberal Party of Quebec, the Parti Québécois and the now-defunct ADQ all happily took donations from him and the small army of people he recruited to write cheques on behalf of these engineering firms.
As the case of PRO des Lavallois shows, the net benefit of this sort of cash harvesting meant electoral dominance. Even more than Quebec’s Liberal party—the most prolific provincial participant in the cheques-for-cash racket, according to figures presented at the commission—PRO des Lavallois ruled over its proverbial roost. Until he resigned in November, Vaillancourt served as mayor for 23 years. For the last 11 years, PRO des Lavallois held every one of Laval’s 21 seats, meaning no one could ever second-guess the party’s rule. Members of the opposition, most of whom had been roundly beaten by Vaillancourt’s team, sat in the public gallery during council meetings. PRO des Lavallois supporters regularly shouted them down if they dared question the mayor’s decisions.
“There is no electoral egalitarianism at the municipal level,” Bertrand testified. “The party that is the wealthiest will crush the others before the election even happens.”
Certainly, Vaillancourt was a crafty political operator who used the party cash with great efficiency. He targeted his constituency of mostly older retirees by showering them with perks. As Maclean’s observed in 2011, he bused some 2,600 seniors to cabane à sucre, Quebec’s yearly maple-syrup-drenched rite of passage.
Vaillancourt instituted a yearly water-tax rebate for anyone over 65. He made sure his councillors were constantly selling membership cards. With voter turnout hovering around 35 per cent, targeting Laval’s sizable crop of senior citizens was a canny move: Vaillancourt’s party had some 28,000 members, representing nearly a third of the number of people who voted in 2009.
By Vaillancourt’s own count, he attended more than 3,250 municipal, zoning and executive council meetings throughout his career. “I can’t run a city as big and as important as Laval without knowing almost everything,” he told Maclean’s two years ago in his office of dark wood and deep leather. “I have an extraordinary memory that has helped me over the years.”
Laval has since fallen from grace. It once enjoyed a reputation as one of the country’s fastest-growing cities; now, it is merely one of 31 municipalities to be put under guardianship by the province since 1968. This means the city will be run by three government appointees; the current council, including interim mayor Duplessis, has virtually no power. Officially, there is no time limit to Laval’s guardianship, though there will be province-wide municipal elections in November.
Bertrand himself was arrested in May, along with Vaillancourt and 35 others allegedly involved in the collection of money for the party. The nature of Vaillancourt’s arrest on gangsterism charges puts him on par with the likes of Mafia kingpin Vito Rizzuto and former Hells Angels boss Maurice “Mom” Boucher. It is an incredible development, suggesting police believe Vaillancourt ran Laval like a criminal enterprise.
Bertrand dissolved PRO des Lavallois in January, turning its $1.3-million war chest over to the provincial election body. Yet even though the party is gone, Laval (and Quebec) will find it very difficult to get out from under the shadow of its legacy.