The cabane à sucre is an annual rite for many Quebecers, and on a recent Friday afternoon, 650 golden agers from the city of Laval, a vast suburb north of Montreal, bused into the nearby town of St. Eustache to eat crepes with maple syrup, cretons, and maple syrup-flavoured fèves au lard, and to indulge in a spot of line dancing. Aside from the festive sense common to sugaring-off events, though, this one had a spirit of civic pride. “Our mayor is number one!” said Gino, an ebullient 58-year-old. “Every year he invites us here.” “It doesn’t cost us anything. It’s a gift from Mayor Vaillancourt,” said Gabriel, who along with his wife was on his fourth free cabane à sucre outing.
Indeed it was: the merry event was entirely paid for by PRO Lavallois, the political party that has governed Laval for 22 years—the last 10 unopposed. Paying for seniors to go to a cabane à sucre has been a tradition for over 15 years. Over the course of two days, the party footed the bill for some 2,600 seniors, at an estimated cost of $16 per person, and most were quite appreciative. Attendees interviewed by Maclean’s said cabane à sucre was something they looked forward to every year. Across the room, the object of their affection, Gilles Vaillancourt—the bespectacled 70-year-old architect of PRO Lavallois’s two-decades-long supremacy and a man currently mired in allegations of bribery, favouritism and influence peddling—shook every hand, listened to every anecdote and chuckled graciously at every joke.
The event had all the hallmarks of a campaign stop, down to the huge “Team Vaillancourt” banners decorating the sugar shack and the PRO Lavallois pens handed to every senior as they left. Yet the next election isn’t for two years, and the people in attendance aren’t all PRO members. Arguably, Vaillancourt wouldn’t need to campaign even if there were an election—he beat his last opponent by nearly 40 percentage points in 2009. He just seems to love doing it.
Those canny political instincts have allowed this son of a furniture salesman to rise from humble town councillor to one of the most powerful politicians in Quebec, if not Canada. As mayor of Laval for the last 22 years, Vaillancourt has been instrumental in the city’s transformation from sleepy rural respite to industrial and commercial hub. Today, Laval is roughly the size of Halifax, with a budget of about $669 million and annual private investment of over $1 billion. Its debt load has decreased for 12 consecutive years and it has a higher credit rating than the province of Quebec, according to a release from the mayor’s office. And because PRO Lavallois holds all 21 council seats, Vaillancourt presides over it all. The opposition, such as it is, literally sits on the sidelines, in the public gallery, along with the dozens of PRO Lavallois supporters who often shout it down.
Yet the past several months have been trying for the man known as the “King of Laval.” Last November, Vaillancourt was suspended from the board of directors of Hydro-Québec, the province’s public power utility, after two politicians claimed he tried to bribe them with cash-stuffed envelopes. Former Bloc Québécois MP and one-time provincial justice minister Serge Ménard told Radio-Canada that Vaillancourt had offered him $10,000 when Ménard was running for the Parti Québécois in 1993. And Vincent Auclair, a Laval-area MNA with Jean Charest’s government, says the mayor offered him an envelope in 2002 “to help with a difficult campaign,” as Vaillancourt allegedly put it. Outraged, the mayor threatened to sue both men, though he has yet to do so. Meanwhile, the Sûreté du Québec and the province’s Municipal Affairs Ministry are investigating him.
These aren’t isolated controversies. A La Presse investigation last fall indicated that a quarter of all public works contracts in Laval between 2001 and 2008 were awarded to firms owned by businessman Tony Accurso—including Construction Louisbourg and Simard-Beaudry, both of which pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion for a total of $8 million last December. Accurso’s closeness to various Montreal politicians has been part of the huge controversy in the city’s construction industry in the past two years. In 2009, media reports indicated that the head of Montreal’s executive committee had vacationed on Accurso’s 120-foot yacht in 2007; the city later awarded a $355-million water meter contract to a consortium that included Simard-Beaudry. “It is widely known that Mr. Accurso has direct access to the offices of Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt,” wrote La Presse’s Bruno Bisson and André Noël in the fall of 2009.
Vaillancourt’s name has apparently become so toxic that 15 of 16 Montreal-area mayors of the Union des municipalités du Québec, the council of Quebec municipalities, declared last February they wouldn’t participate in UMQ activities as long as Vaillancourt remained on its executive committee. “His presence on the board sends a message that we’re not serious about setting the tone for the behaviour of municipal politicians,” said Westmount Mayor Peter Trent, the board representative of the 15 mayors. “The board should be purer than Caesar’s wife.”
Sitting in his carpeted office on the second floor of Laval’s city hall, the man around whom all these accusations swirl is the picture of calm. He bears a passing resemblance to jazz crooner Mel Tormé and has barely blinking blue eyes and a low, raspy voice that he uses sparingly. Vaillancourt seems at once an incarnation of folksy politician and intense combatant who has fought (and won) all his life. “I know Tony Accurso very well, because he’s a contractor in the area, but he’s not a friend of mine,” he said. “I never went on his boat,” he added, with the tiniest of smiles.
Vaillancourt’s history and Laval’s are closely entwined. He was first elected in 1973, eight years after Laval’s founding. That same year, a mayoral candidate named Robert Roy published How to Stop Corruption in Laval, a book decrying the “secretive nature of municipal politics in Laval”—suggesting that practically from its inception, Laval has had a reputation as a haven for big business and less-than-transparent governance. Vaillancourt had been pegged to take over the family furniture business. Instead, he was drawn to fix the new city’s many inefficiencies. “Development in Laval was anarchy,” he recalls. “All the towns had their own services. Nothing was standardized. There was no city centre. Everything had to be built.”
So he built, working to carve a new city out of farmland. It wasn’t easy—a mid-’80s Montreal Chamber of Commerce report referred to the city as “the third world of Montreal”—yet Laval continued to grow, largely thanks to the pro-business principles he helped shape. Its governance has cleaned up along the way; as Vaillancourt notes, all contracts with the city are subject to public tender. But his critics say elements of Laval’s old ways are very much alive in his administration. Guy Garand is head of CRE Laval, the city’s environmental protection advocate. In 2005, the organization rallied against a new bridge spanning the river between Laval and Montreal. “We used to get $25,000 from [the city],” Garand recalls. “After we opposed the bridge that money was cut.” The bridge, one of Vaillancourt’s cornerstone projects, was built anyway. It’s set to open in May.
“He’s like Maurice Duplessis,” says Audrey Boisvert, who ran against him in 2005 as a CEGEP student. “He’s done some good, but he controls everything. He knows his files.”
Indeed, by Vaillancourt’s count, he has attended 3,246 municipal council, zoning and executive council meetings over his career. “I can’t run a city as big and as important as Laval without knowing almost everything. I came into the world in Laval, and have lived here my whole life.” He admits to being a workaholic who deplores golf (“Who has a day to waste chasing after a ball?”) and only manages the occasional badminton game.
“The guy is very bright and well-educated,” says Herbert Black, a Montreal businessman who says he was thwarted in attempts to build a multi-million-dollar metal recycling plant in Laval because it would have put him in competition with Jean-Guy Hamelin, a well-known businessman and long-time PRO Lavallois contributor. “The people who run against him are amateurs. He’s so ahead of them, and he has so much more money to make picnics and do this and that for the people. That’s how he lasted.”
Certainly those seniors’ outings, along with initiatives like a water-tax rebate for the over-65 set, make for good politics—especially if you consider the demographic most likely to vote. “Political success doesn’t happen by magic,” said Vaillancourt attaché Jean Maurice Duddin when asked about the trips. “You have to work at it.”
Vaillancourt also seems adept at keeping opposition at bay. Local journalists have not fared well when it comes to investigating the mayor. According to a report by the FPJQ, the province’s association of journalists, local reporters “are regularly called to the mayor’s office to explain themselves—when they aren’t simply boycotted outright.” The report cites a critical article by Courrier Laval staffer Stéphane St. Amour, who left the city hall beat shortly thereafter. According to the report, St. Amour was asked to come to face the mayor’s staff. “It used to be a lot more simpler back in the day,” the mayor’s attaché said, according to the report. “We used to put undesirables on a spit.” St. Amour declined to comment, citing an ongoing labour grievance with the Courrier, where he still works.
Vaillancourt denied the allegations. As for former justice minister Ménard’s allegation of bribery, Vaillancourt furnished several letters written by Ménard in the ’90s and early 2000s, one sent following Vaillancourt’s 2002 win. “Congratulations Mr. Mayor of Laval and, I hope, dear friend!” Ménard wrote.
“I’m human like everyone else, and it hurts when I’m hit like that,” Vaillancourt says of the investigations into his administration. “But I have nothing to apologize for. This is the best-run city in Quebec.” Whether or not that’s true, throughout 10 consecutive elections, democracy has spoken loud and clear: Laval loves Gilles Vaillancourt, and he loves Laval right back.