Montreal·Analysis

The complicated legacy of Régis Labeaume, Quebec City's strongman mayor who reinvented himself

Régis Labeaume, once an aspiring actor, is theatrical, quotable and never seems to back down from a fight. He added colour to the beige world of municipal politics.

At the outset of his career, Labeaume fit into a certain mould of municipal politician. Then he changed

Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume seen here in a 2015 file photo. Labeaume announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election after 14 years in power. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

When Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume announced on Wednesday that he was leaving office this fall after 14 years in power, many political observers resorted to that old saw, calling it the "end of an era."

There was a bit of nostalgia in the remark. Labeaume, once an aspiring actor, is theatrical, quotable and never seems to back down from a fight. He added colour to the beige world of municipal politics.

But he was also the standard-bearer for a particular kind of charismatic local leader: the strongman (and they do tend to be men) whose legacy is more ambiguous.

There was a time, not so long ago, when many town and city halls in Quebec were dominated by these strongman figures, mayors who won seemingly perennial re-election by nearly North Korean margins.

Classic examples of the type include Gilles Vaillancourt, who ruled Laval from 1998 to 2012, and Jean Tremblay, who spent 20 years in the mayor's office in Saguenay.

At one point in Vaillancourt's tenure, there were no opposition councillors. His party controlled every seat on city council. Left unchecked, he spent lavishly on public infrastructure, and stashed away millions for himself in a Swiss bank account.

Philippe Couillard, then premier, with Labeaume, right, in 2014, outside what would become known as the Videotron Centre. (Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

Tremblay had a reputation for drafting the city's budget in secret, insulting journalists and sidelining critics. He also insisted on starting city council meetings with a prayer, until the Supreme Court stopped him.  

Labeaume's career had a similar arc, at least initially. With the support of Quebec City's reactionary talk radio stations — often referred to collectively as radio poubelles, "trash radio" — he coasted to re-election victories with more 70 per cent of the vote in 2009 and 2013.

He marshalled his popularity to get the provincial government to pay for half of a $400-million arena meant to induce the return of the Nordiques, the city's late, beloved NHL team. 

Labeaume then somehow convinced the National Assembly to pass a law protecting the city from lawsuits when he effectively gave control of the new arena to the Quebecor corporation.

He also regularly berated his opponents and expressed little sensitivity, at least in public, for disadvantaged groups.

He accused blue-collar workers of "screwing the system," falsely alleging they were skipping out on work. He said sometimes he wanted to "beat" former Conservative cabinet minister Josée Verner.

Anne Guérette, an opposition councillor, said Labeaume routinely made demeaning remarks about her, including once calling her "completely stupid."

In 2015, he resisted a provincial request to accept more Syrian refugees, using language with racist overtones. "Families scare people less than guys in their 20s who are frustrated," he said.

The shooting

But then, in 2017, Labeaume's career stopped following the trajectory of Quebec's other strongman mayors. On Jan. 29 of that year, six Muslim men were killed in an attack on a suburban mosque in Quebec City.

Labeaume attended an emergency meeting with the premier, and other top officials, hours after the shooting. One person who was present said the mayor appeared to be in a state of shock.

Gone was the garrulous brawler. At a news conference the next morning at city hall, he wept openly with leaders of the Muslim community, hugged them, comforted them.

Labeaume's ashen face in the days after the attack became emblematic of the way much of the province felt: a mix of horror, incomprehension and empathy.

Labeaume's ashen face in the days after the attack became emblematic of the way much of the province felt, a mix of horror, incomprehension and empathy. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Boufeldja Benabdallah, one of the founders of the mosque where the shooting occurred, noticed the change in Labeaume, though he prefers to call it a "progression."

In his work with the mosque, Benabdallah had met with Labeaume a few times before the attack. He remembers the mayor being all business, anxious to have issues resolved as quickly as possible.

Afterward, Benabdallah said, the two often worked closely on difficult issues, such as securing land for a Muslim cemetery. He noticed Labeaume was willing to smile more. The warmth of his character shone through.

"He became a lot closer to ethnic communities," Benabdallah said. "He started talking about the spirit of togetherness (le vivre-ensemble). He hadn't done that before."

What legacy for the strongman?

Labeaume's transformation was perhaps more substance than form. He didn't completely abandon his confrontational approach to politics. But now, one-time allies had become his targets.

In the days after the mosque attack, he assailed the radio poubelles stations for stoking xenophobia in his city.

And he attacked them again, more recently, for peddling conspiracy theories about the pandemic and encouraging resistance to public health measures.

Quebec Islamic cultural centre representative Boufeldja Benabdallah, right, chats with Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume at the inauguration of a memorial to the 2017 mosque shooting, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

He also still has enormous political clout in the Quebec City area and hasn't given up using it to advance his preferred legacy projects.

But instead of securing a sweetheart deal for a multi-billion dollar corporation and an NHL team that never materialized, this time it's to build a tramway that will connect different parts of the city to its historic centre.

Securing funding for the project from the current provincial government was no mean feat, given several Coalition Avenir Québec MNAs were opposed. Éric Caire, now a cabinet minister, had even campaigned on the slogan "no way tramway."

In the twilight of Labeaume's tenure, we don't see a reinvention of the strongman mayor per se, as much as a realignment with more progressive policies.

That nevertheless leaves voters with an important question to consider ahead of this fall's municipal election: Is getting things done more important than how they get done?

At Wednesday's news conference, Lebaume made it clear where he stands on the issue.

"Sure you can question the style, the method," he said. "But I always believed that you can't argue with success and I never doubted my desire to make this city the most beautiful one in the country."

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