In the end, Donnie Brasco didn’t show

Charbonneau commission, fall session: All eyes on Laval’s Gilles Vaillancourt and Montreal’s Gérald Tremblay
(Ryan Remiorz/CP; Graham Hughes/CP)

In the end, Donnie Brasco didn’t show up.

For days now, Montreal media has been salivating at the prospect that one of the FBI’s most famous agents would be testifying at the opening day of the commission investigating corruption in Quebec’s construction industry. For good reason: under the moniker Donnie Brasco, Joe Pistone infiltrated New York’s Bonanno clan, and for six years gathered intelligence that would drive a stake through the heart of one of America’s biggest crime families. Also, Johnny Depp played him in a movie. You decide which is more impressive.

Pistone might well still show up at the so-called Charbonneau Commission, whose 18-month mandate includes the examination of the industry’s ties with organized crime. When I asked if Brasco was showing up, as Radio-Canada reported last week, commissioner spokesperson Richard Bourbon smiled. “We never said he was coming in the first place,” he said, winking.

Instead, the first day of the commission’s fall proceedings—Maclean’s wrote about the spring/summer session here—with Judge France Charbonneau essentially pleading with journalists to behave themselves. “The imperative is on the security of the witness, we can’t have them put in danger,” Charbonneau said in her opening remarks. “We are asking the media, with respect, to not publish the names of witnesses before they appear.”

Charbonneau’s quaintly appropriate request, which will no doubt be ignored, is a reminder of the stakes of the fall session. The first installment of the Commission, while certainly damning to the construction industry, dealt largely in generalities. For all his accusations and impressive noise, star witness Jacques Duchesneau studiously avoided naming names; he said people within the industry wouldn’t talk to him unless it was under a cloak of anonymity.

Duchesneau has since parlayed his crime-fighting reputation into a political career, having just been elected the newest MNA for the St-Jerome riding outside of Montreal. The Charbonneau commission, meanwhile, promises to get into the specifics he might have left out. As Charbonneau said in her opening remarks, witnesses will speak about the granting of contracts for the construction “of sidewalks, sewers and asphalt in Montreal. These witnesses will indicate how businesses within the industry divided contracts, how city civil servants were bribed and how some money was diverted towards municipal political parties. Some of the witnesses will speak to us about certain cities, notably Laval and Montreal.”

This last bit is very interesting. Though she didn’t name names (yet), it’s hard to see how anyone would speak about municipal-level corruption without mentioning the reign of Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay. Both mayors have been mired in scandal allegations as of late, and both have withstood them fairly well—for vastly different reasons.

Vaillancourt, who I wrote about here, is what you might call a one-man political dynasty. He has ruled over Laval, Quebec’s third largest city, for some 23 years. His party, PRO Lavallois, holds all of the sprawling city’s 21 seats. His critics, when they aren’t busy losing elections against him, call him a supreme tactician who doesn’t much care what people say about him.

He has shrugged off his alleged ties to construction magnate Tony Accurso, recently indicted on fraud, conspiracy, influence-peddling, breach of trust and two counts of defrauding the government. It’s probably why he shrugged again when I asked him about how it looked that he was chummy with several construction engineering firms mired in conflict-of-interest charges stemming from the financing of political parties. “You have two very important engineering firms based here in Laval, Dessau [and] CIMA+. If I didn’t know these people I’d be the last of the idiots.”

Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay is a different political animal. First elected to his current position in 2005, Tremblay is known as a bland, perpetually smiling technocrat whose success in municipal politics is due largely to the fact that he wasn’t full of either himself (like his predecessor Pierre Bourque) or of bold, expensive ideas (see Drapeau, Jean.)

Yet scandal has caught up to his administration as well. After defending it for months, Tremblay was forced to cancel a $355-million water metre contract after a city auditor’s report said it would actually cost taxpayers close to $600 million. And then there’s Frank Zampino, former head of Montreal’s executive committee and Tremblay’s former second-in-command. He is the alleged architect of a bid-rigging scheme that cost the city millions and is currently awaiting trial on fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust charges.

Through sheer obstinacy, Vaillancourt has proven himself impervious to the scandals swirling around him; Tremblay, meanwhile, has managed the same by being the incarnation of the grey suits he always seems to be wearing. Yet the Charbonneau commission offers an interesting possibility in the months to come: that we’ll finally be able to see behind the curtain cloaking Montreal and Laval—where the vast majority of Quebec’s, if not Canada’s, organized crime syndicates ply their trade. It’s not quite Donnie Brasco, but we’ll take it.