Bernard “Rambo” Gauthier, a union representative based on Quebec’s north shore, just finished his thoroughly telling and highly entertaining testimony at Quebec’s commission investigating corruption in the province’s construction industry. The so-called “Charbonneau commission,” so named after presiding judge France Charbonneau, has shown there are many moving parts within this demonstrably corrupt business: construction companies that rig bids; engineering firms that over bill the government; unions that flex their financial and organizational muscle to impose themselves on the government; and governments that collect donations from the lot of them, thus keeping the whole mess going.
Rambo—we might as well dispense with the quotations—is, it is alleged, another familiar moving part. As his nickname, his mohawk and his thick silver chain suggest, he is the prototypical union tough, the guy who rules over his terrain with a jealous and barely restrained fury.
Under threat of violence, Rambo is alleged to have forced companies to use workers from 791, his local affiliated with the FTQ union federation. In 2010, Radio-Canada’s Christian Latreille devoted significant airtime to investigate Rambo’s rather unique management style. An example, from a recorded conversation between Rambo and construction foreman Sylvain Boissonneault:
“I’m trying to tell you in the most polite way possible. Until I come meet you, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut,” Gauthier says. “You’ll see when Rambo gives you one in the teeth. You won’t find that funny.”
During testimony leading up to Rambo’s appearance on Tuesday, Charbonneau heard from a litany of construction company owners who had the unfortunate task of having to deal with the man. This included Normand Pedneault, who in 2005 won a bid for culvert work in Longue-Rive, about 130 kms southwest of Baie Comeau.
For having the audacity to hire FTQ-Construction workers from another district other than the North Shore, Pedneault said between 40 and 50 members of what he called “Rambo’s gang” descended on the worksite, threatened the workers (who belonged to the same union federation) and assaulted Pedneault’s two brothers who were working as foremen on the site. A drunk, 300-pound man stood inches from one of Pedneault’s brothers. “If you have children, we’ll take care of them,” the man said, according to Pedneault, who broke down in tears while recounting the episode.
There’s lots more. Rambo impressed himself on Rock Savard, owner of Construction J & R, to hire a North Shore crew on a road construction site in 2005. When Savard balked, somewhere between 50 to 100 workers showed up to help change his mind, Savard said. “They are showman,” Savard testified. “They were doing a show, but it was pretty stressful being in the show.” There was the demand for daily hot soup on site, under threat of work slowdown. There was an $8,000 fine, as a result of an illegal work stoppage in 2009, the same year he uttered those bon mots to Sylvain Boissonneault. Not coincidentally, Gauthier’s union local, according to commission inspector Michel Comeau, “was the authority on construction sites.”
In short, Rambo is a union goon straight out of central casting, a man who incorporates every bad cliché the organized labour movement has been trying to shed for the last half-century at least. He is in many respects a throwback to Quebec’s bad old days of FTQ tough guys like André “Dédé” Desjardins, whose men often doubled as soldiers and who could grind a job site to a halt with a wave of his diamond-encrusted finger.
And yet, as Rambo bulldozed his way through three days of testimony, the man who seemingly rules by his fists, or at least the threat of his fists, came off extremely well. The Charbonneau inquiry is part theatre, with judge France Charbonneau playing chief theatre critic to the parade of company owners, union types, engineers, politicians, mobsters, civil servants and investigators testifying before her. It can be harsh: she showed former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay to be as bumbling and willfully ignorant as everyone assumed, and once asked a former public works director if he was both “ignorant and incompetent.” As one politico said to me, “She convicts people with her eyebrows.”
Yet if she was trying to do as much with Rambo, judge Charbonneau met her match. Part if it, I think, is that Rambo is the first witness within the great mess that is Quebec’s construction industry to have not a whiff of shame about him. Just the opposite: Rambo seems to honestly believe he’s doing God’s (or at least the working man’s) work on the North Shore. This area is rich with natural resources, home to the “Plan Nord” resource development plan and the site of Hydro-Québec’s Romaine River hydroelectricity project. Yet Gauthier says his 600 heavy machinery workers would get passed over if he didn’t make such a fuss.
“It’s been years that we’ve been fighting to work chez nous,” he said during his testimony. “I can’t go home at 5 p.m., put my lunchbox down and forget about things when there are fathers at home, crying. People think we’re rolling in gold. It’s not true. There are people here who have been on welfare for 18 months. There’s a Plan Nord going on and we can’t even get work in our own corner of the world.”
I wrote about Rambo a few years ago. It’s tough to choose, but I think this was my favourite quote: “We are against violence, but honestly, telling a goddamn bastard that he’s a goddamn bastard feels good. It’s liberating. It takes out 50 per cent of the rage in your heart. And now you can’t do it. If you do, you’re accused of intimidation, tabarnac.”
I saw the exact same righteousness and rhetorical flourish in his testimony. He has reason to be proud, because he’s very effective at his job. He oversees about 600 men, a pittance compared to combined members of the three other major union federations (not to mention the 70,000 members of FTQ-Construction, with which Rambo’s local is associated.) Yet his methods have given him de facto control over who does and doesn’t work construction on much of Quebec’s North Shore. Membership in his local has swelled since he took office. No wonder he’s going home to a hero’s welcome, if his Facebook page is any indication.
The FTQ, meanwhile, has never once sanctioned him—even though he admitted to confronting and intimidating FTQ members. Why would they? As well as being a force to be reckoned with, Bernard Rambo Gauthier also happens to be a hell of a recruiting tool.