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Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt presses his hand over his heart as he announces his resignation in Laval, November 9, 2012. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)
Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt presses his hand over his heart as he announces his resignation in Laval, November 9, 2012. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)

Beleaguered Laval mayor steps down Add to ...

Another day, another mayor gone in disgrace, and no end in sight to the turmoil brought on by the crackdown on graft and corruption in Quebec.

One of the most powerful and firmly entrenched mayors in Canada, Laval’s Gilles Vaillancourt, relinquished his office after 23 years on Friday, only four days after Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay called it quits.

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The resignations have left more than 2 million citizens without the mayors they elected and plunged the two biggest cities in metropolitan Montreal into political crisis. Both men stepped down in the wake of damaging disclosures in Quebec’s corruption probe.

“This is more than a democratic crisis, it’s an earthquake,” said provincial MNA and anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau. With two mayors gone in the same week, “this is unprecedented.”

As if watching their mayor go wasn’t enough, Montrealers also lost the No. 2 figure at city hall on Friday when the chairman of the city’s executive committee, Michael Applebaum, stepped down in protest from his post.

Mr. Applebaum accused the Montreal executive committee, which acts as city hall’s cabinet, of trying to cover up a confidential city document showing Montreal public-works contracts were upward of 30-per-cent higher than in other municipalities. Mr. Applebaum, also unhappy about tax hikes, was sidelined a day earlier as his party’s choice for interim mayor.

The dizzying pace of resignations, police operations and bombshell disclosures at Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission has left citizens with a disquieting sense of shock and cynicism. The commission has only scratched the surface and barely begun its hearings.

Perhaps nothing embodies the stunning upheaval in Quebec political life as much as the sight of Mr. Vaillancourt, whose iron grip on power earned him the nickname Mayor for Life, tendering his resignation.

Mr. Vaillancourt was mayor for six successive terms and seemed like an immutable force in Laval, which is connected to Montreal by a series of bridges across the Rivière des Prairies. He has run the city without opposition since 2001, quieting critics by keeping taxes low and services well-run while homes and condo towers sprouted across the landscape.

But his time ran out as he became weakened by a succession of investigative news reports, sworn commission testimony and police operations, which cast a light on doubtful ethical practices in his city of more than 400,000 people.

His goodbye speech Friday offered no apologies, however. Mr. Vaillancourt vaunted his record instead and said the allegations against him are unproven.

“We’re facing allegations that, even without proof, are altering the reputations of those in whom you have placed your trust,” he said, showing little emotion as his career drew to an ignominious close. “I am one of these people and I have been deeply hurt. Regardless of what I do or say, it is clear that the damage has been done.”

Construction entrepreneur Lino Zambito testified before the Charbonneau Commission that companies paid a 2.5-per-cent cut on construction contracts directly to Mr. Vaillancourt. Quebec’s anti-corruption police investigators have also become regular visitors to Laval in recent weeks, executing search warrants in construction firms, engineering companies, at city hall and in Mr. Vaillancourt’s own homes and financial institutions.

Mr. Vaillancourt has been a political fixture in Laval for nearly 40 years, starting first as a city councillor, and his departure signals the end of an era, said the leader of the Laval opposition party Mouvement Lavallois, David De Cotis.

“It can’t be easy for this man. In his head, the city of Laval is his city. He’s going down in shame, not with a parade and people clapping,” Mr. De Cotis said.

The Quebec government hailed Mr. Vaillancourt’s move, saying it was time for him to go.

With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City

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