'King of Laval' dethroned: Vaillancourt quits as mayor

Once known as the "King of Laval," Gilles Vaillancourt has joined the ranks of Quebec's fallen political leaders, stepping down after 23 years as Laval mayor.

Laval's 'invincible' mayor steps down after 23 years at the helm

Gilles Vaillancourt was elected Laval mayor in 1989 and has served unopposed since 2001. (CBC)

Once known as the "King of Laval," Gilles Vaillancourt has joined the ranks of Quebec's fallen political leaders, stepping down after almost a quarter century as mayor of the province's third largest city.

Vaillancourt can take credit for overseeing the development of Laval from a patchwork of farms and villages to what it is today: a busy commercial and industrial hub and home to more than 400,000 people.

His success in promoting his city and keeping property taxes in check garnered Vaillancourt incredible public support and six straight mandates — the last three unopposed — but his downfall came with an avalanche of allegations at the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the province's construction industry.

'A monster of politics,' observer called him

Vaillancourt was born and raised on Île Jésus, which became the city of Laval in 1965.  He began his political life in 1973, elected councillor for Laval-des-Rapides. 

When Claude Lefèbvre founded the Parti du Ralliement Officel (PRO) de Laval in 1980, Vaillancourt joined him — taking over as leader and Laval's mayor nine years later, in 1989.

Vaillancourt was re-elected in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2009, eliminating the opposition from 2001 on.

Jean-Claude Grenier, a journalist for the weekly Courrier Laval for close to two decades, told Le Devoir in 2005 he did not think anyone could take on Vaillancourt and win.

"You really have to be well-equipped to confront him. I tell myself that the day Vaillancourt is not the mayor of Laval is the day when he decides not to be the mayor of Laval. There is no one that will beat Vaillancourt," said Jean-Claude Grenier. "He’s a monster of politics in Laval, and he has a strong, well-oiled machine behind him."

Gilles Vaillancourt was first elected Laval mayor in 1989. (Ville de Laval archives)

Oversaw Laval's transformation

Over Vaillancourt's 23-year tenure at the city's helm, Laval grew exponentially.

In his first eight years in office, Vaillancourt attracted $750 million in investments, and the city industrialized.

Over the decades, Laval became a commercial and industrial hub, with shopping malls, a major hospital and a satellite campus of Université de Montréal.  In 2007, Montreal's metro system was extended to Laval — fulfilling one of Vaillancourt's long-held goals.

Allegations piled up

Over the years, Vaillancourt faced a slew of allegations pertaining to the way he ran his city. He denied the many claims of favouritism, bribery and corruption made by opposition party leaders and bureaucrats.

"I never tried to give them money. I strongly deny it," said Vaillancourt in November 2010 after Bloc Québécois Member of Parliament Serge Ménard and Liberal Member of National Assembly Vincent Auclair both alleged Vaillancourt had offered them thousands of dollars in illegal party donations during two separate campaigns.

Vaillancourt had threatened to sue his accusers if they failed to retract their comments but later said he would not go ahead with legal proceedings.

'The mayor is a goner,' opposition leader says

A series of raids by Quebec's anti-corruption unit — known by its French acronym UPAC — appear to have precipitated Vaillancourt's decision to take sick leave on Oct. 24.  His homes, his office at Laval city hall, other city offices and Vaillancourt's bank accounts all came under scrutiny.

Among other things, anti-corruption investigators were looking for evidence of what was allegedly tens of millions of dollars funnelled through offshore tax havens.

With the announcement of the mayor’s leave of absence, the vice-chairman of Laval’s executive committee Basile Angelopoulos insisted the city would continue "business as usual" until his return.

Around the same time as the UPAC raids, one-time construction boss Lino Zambito told the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in Quebec's construction industry that entrepreneurs who had contracts with the city of Laval were expected to hand over a 2.5 per cent cut to Vaillancourt.

Vaillancourt denied the allegations.

Laval opposition parties called for a moratorium on all public works contracts in the wake of the allegations. On Nov. 6, the city's executive committee suspended the awarding of contracts involving sidewalks, sewers and aqueducts.

Robert Bordeleau, one of Vaillancourt's rivals in the 2009 election, speculated that other members of the mayor's administration must have been privy to some of what has been alleged about corrupt practises in Laval.

"There were a lot of people, surely, who witnessed certain things, certain practices. And no one has denounced anything," said Bordeleau. "It’s a party where, as I’ve said, the mayor is a goner, the party too. You can forget about PRO des Lavallois."

End of an era

Yet despite all of the controversy surrounding Vaillancourt's long tenure as mayor, many residents stand by him.

Concordia political science professor Marcel Danis believes Vaillancourt’s success in transforming Laval helped him win the loyalty of Laval voters. He said he thinks Vailllancourt might have even won a seventh mandate.  

"Had it not been for the Charbonneau commission, this guy would have been unbeatable, " said Danis.