Dust coats the mayor’s desk at Laval City Hall. The furniture hasn’t been used much since two mayors resigned in quick succession in 2013 and the corrupt city administration was placed under trusteeship. With the election of an ex-cop who confronted the city’s shady elite in the past, maybe a cleanup is under way.
While an assistant wipes off tables in council chambers, Marc Demers settles into his chair as mayor of Laval. Like many politicians, Mr. Demers claims he is not one. A cop and private investigator for more than 30 years, he insists he remains more versed in cracking cases of murder and insurance fraud.
“I never even dreamed of becoming the mayor of Laval, but I’ve been tackling corruption for a long time. Working hard on it, in fact,” Mr. Demers said.
One early Demers investigation in the 1980s involved a city councillor and businessman named Gilles Vaillancourt, the man who went on to be the mayor known as the King of Laval. Mr. Vaillancourt was forced to resign after 23 years last spring when he was charged with gangsterism and fraud on allegations he led a ring of 37 construction bosses, bureaucrats, lawyers and political operatives who looted the public treasury. He awaits trial.
Rumours circulated for years that Mr. Vaillancourt was skirting the law and running the city as a personal fiefdom. Mr. Demers was on the fraud squad in 1982 when he said he found evidence Mr. Vaillancourt was having money deposited at a local credit union under a false name in order to collect interest without having to pay taxes.
Mr. Demers was promptly taken off the case and given a promotion he did not seek to homicide. Another detective took the Vaillancourt file, dropped it, and shot up the police ranks to inspector, Mr. Demers said. The allegation was never proven in court.
“The officer jumped three storeys in one shot. It was the biggest promotion any Laval police officer got in 30 years,” Mr. Demers said. Some years later, Mr. Demers found out the officer was doing favours for Tony Accurso, the construction boss now charged with Mr. Vaillancourt and others in the alleged Laval bid-fixing and fraud scheme. “I denounced him, and they had to pension him off,” Mr. Demers said.
While Montreal and Laval saw four embarrassing mayoral resignations in the past year, Mr. Demers sees evidence of a return to accountability. He was reluctant to comment on the Toronto spectacle, where Mayor Rob Ford has refused to resign amid revelations of public intoxication, criminal associations, crack smoking and a myriad of lies about it all.
Mr. Ford “should take responsibility, but eventually the people will pronounce. Maybe some laws should change. But I don’t know, I have a lot of things on my own plate,” he said.
Mr. Demers, 62, was born in Montreal, and raised the middle child of five siblings by his widowed mother. His father, himself a former Mountie and private investigator, died of a heart attack in 1959. His mother raised the family on welfare. At age 16, Mr. Demers worked evenings as a mechanic while attending school.
Mr. Demers raised two daughters and a son with his wife, Jeanne D’Arc Bélisle. As a major-crimes investigator, he handled more than 400 deaths, but the most trying moment came in the 1990s when a threat from the Hells Angels forced him to temporarily move the family.
He retired in 2001, set up a private firm to investigate fire insurance fraud, and dabbled in provincial politics, organizing Parti Québécois campaigns in Laval and running unsuccessfully himself.
He believes he’s prepared for the stress of a mission to clean up city hall.
“The hardest part of running for mayor was not seeing my children and grandchildren for two months,” he said. “But I don’t find it stressful. I always say if no one is shooting at me, why should I be stressed.”
More than half of Laval’s residents have never known a mayor other than Mr. Vaillancourt, but Mr. Demers believes city culture can change quickly.
“It’s very simple. I want every elected person and every employee in Laval to understand that their loyalty must go first to the citizen of Laval, and not to the mayor,” Mr. Demers said.
“And that’s the mayor saying it.”
Police allege corruption in Laval centred around one man, Mr. Vaillancourt. The city might be slightly easier to clean up than the spider web of conspiracies in Montreal, Mr. Demers said.
“It’s not only one guy, but in Laval the leader is clearly identified,” he said, adding Quebeckers are still going to be shocked by what they learn in the months ahead when dozens of corruption cases go to trial.
“I think a lot of people will be surprised,” Mr. Demers said.