As Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois steels herself for Monday’s Charlevoix by-election, she can take comfort in the fact that, win or lose, she can always retreat to the comforts of her multimillion-dollar private estate that sits on agricultural land, part of which is owned by the Quebec government.
The creation of the riverside manor on Île Bizard involved some deft handling before the Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land on the part of her husband, Claude Blanchet.
This included an affidavit to the commission that proved decisive in obtaining permission in 1992 for Marois and Blanchet to build the estate on land zoned agricultural.
The rear of the le Bizard home owned by Claude Blanchet and Pauline Marois.
Photo : John Mahoney the Gazette
The man who swore out the affidavit said he never read it and added that Blanchet gave him a "gift" of $1,600 after he signed the document.
The three-storey greystone château, which sports seven bathrooms and is heated by three geothermal systems, has been the couple’s private Shangri-La since the mid-1990s.
While campaigning for a seat to represent Charlevoix in the National Assembly, Marois said she lives in a modest home in the riding, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, and she invited journalists in to photograph it.
But her real home is on Île Bizard, where her $3-million château sits on 41.3 acres of lush gardens, fountains and large, glistening duck ponds.
She has never invited journalists inside its plush gates.
Part of the estate sits on land the Parti Québécois government expropriated in 1978 for the extension of Highway 440.
Marois and her husband have essentially merged their own acreage with the government land to create a manicured hideaway on Île Bizard they call "La Closerie" - The Small Estate.
They have taken over the government land, which comprises about seven acres, and included it in their property.
Officials with the city of Montreal said the only lease on the expropriated land on Île Bizard is for a park run by the borough of Île Bizard/Ste. Geneviève.
Despite agricultural land conservation laws established by Marois’s party in 1978 to protect dwindling farmland from development, she and her husband won the right to build the three-storey stone mansion on land designated for farming.
Marois refused to be interviewed for this story. The Gazette left messages for her husband at the manor house gate and with Marois’s aides. He called The Gazette back once in the evening when the reporter was not there, but did not leave a telephone number where he could be contacted. He did not respond to additional messages.
The land came into the hands of Marois and her husband in a roundabout way.
They purchased the land in 1992 from Henry Walsh, a business partner of Blanchet.
Walsh had purchased it two years earlier for $65,823.38 from a company owned by Mario Grilli, one of the major land developers on Île Bizard. Walsh and Blanchet were business partners with Grilli at the time.
Soon after his purchase, Walsh filed an application with the Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land for permission to build a house and hobby farm on the property.
He said he wanted to keep horses, ducks and geese. Walsh filed a study by a company called Agrosysts Ltd., which essentially claimed that was all the land was good for.
But the commission didn’t agree. On June 18, 1991, it rejected his application.
"It is the commission’s view that such a project would have a negative impact on the protection of agricultural land ... in a municipality where there wasn’t much agricultural land left," the ruling states.
After the rejection, Walsh made another application, claiming he had an acquired right to build a house and other structures on 5,000 square metres (1.2 acres) of the land.
The Agricultural Land Act states that if a house on land designated agricultural was occupied in November 1978, when the law was enacted, the owner has a right to build on a section of up to 5,000 square metres.
Walsh based his case on the existence of a small abandoned and now derelict riverside cottage located at the end of his property.
When he made the application in late 1991, the cottage was engulfed in vegetation and its walls and ceiling were caving in.
But Walsh produced before the commission an affidavit from Marcel Turcotte, who in 1991 was about 70. Turcotte claimed in the affidavit that he was living in the cottage in November 1978 when the law was enacted.
Turcotte said he began renting the cottage from owner George St. Pierre in 1962 for $15 a month. Although the cottage had no electricity, Turcotte said he lived in it year-round.
He said he continued to rent it until 1974, when St. Pierre sold the property to Campeau Corp. for residential development.
Turcotte said that in 1975 he bought a house on Joly St., which is adjacent to the property and about a two-minute walk from the cottage.
He claimed in the affidavit, however, that he continued to stay at the cottage every second night until 1980.
Turcotte said he was worried somebody might steal some discarded construction materials and other junk he kept around the cottage. This consisted of a snowmobile carcass, some sheet metal and empty barrels.
He claimed he later kept two dogs tied up to guard the cottage.
His claim that he lived at the cottage in 1978 was despite the fact he didn’t own the land, paid no rent at the time and had his own house - with heating - a two-minute walk away.
Faced with Turcotte’s affidavit, the commission accepted the acquired right.
Commission lawyer Pierre Girard said the affidavit "gave the commission no choice." This allowed Walsh to subdivide his land, carving out a 5,000-square-metre, irregularly shaped building lot, officially called Lot 22-1.
As soon as he obtained the approval and created the subdivision, he sold all the land in June 1992 to Marois’s husband, Blanchet, for the same amount he’d paid two years earlier - $65,823.38.
Asked whether he was just acting as a front for Blanchet, Walsh said in an interview, "Yes, I was.
"We didn’t want to politicize the outcome. We wanted that it appear neutral before the commission." He said he did it as a favour to Blanchet. "He was a friend," Walsh said.
He also said he never met Turcotte.
Soon after purchasing the property from Walsh, Blanchet and Marois built their manor house on the newly formed Lot 22-1.
They also built a large barn just outside Lot 22-1, which remains agricultural land. The commission allowed them to build the barn because it is considered a farm structure, even though they don’t farm the land.
Turcotte is now 86 years old and still lives on Joly St. with his second wife, Pierrette Turcotte, 72.
Because of a workplace injury in 1970 in which he broke his spine, Turcotte walks with a cane. But he tries to remain active, driving back and forth each summer to a fishing cabin he owns in St. Michel des Saints, about 70 kilometres north of Mont Tremblant.
He said that since his accident he has lived off worker’s compensation. He was a construction worker.
Turcotte and his wife said it was Blanchet, and not Walsh, who approached them to sign the affidavit attesting that Turcotte had lived in the cottage.
"It was Blanchet who approached Marcel," Pierrette Turcotte said.
"It was always Blanchet." "He asked me to sign that I had lived in the cottage on the land," Marcel Turcotte said. "I lived there for 12 years." He couldn’t remember exactly when he moved out. But Pierrette Turcotte said it was in 1975, after they bought the house on Joly St.
Marcel Turcotte said he never read the affidavit before signing it.
He said he sometimes went to the cottage because "I still had some junk there and I was moving it over here." Turcotte said he cannot recall when he first began renting the cottage. But his affidavit says it was in 1962, which means he left the cottage in 1974 or 1975, as Pierrette Turcotte recalled.
Asked whether he received anything from Blanchet for his affidavit, Turcotte said : "He gave me a gift - $1,600 cash.
"I never asked for anything," he added.
The government land Marois and Blanchet include in their estate is in two parcels.
The first, which is part of the proposed Highway 440 extension that would link Laval to Highway 40 in the West Island, sits at the entrance to their property.
As they drive through their automatic wrought-iron gates and down their sweeping, tree-lined driveway, they are actually driving on six acres of public land owned by Quebecers.
But a sign on the electric gate warns intruders that the land is "Privé." A security keypad and intercom are hooked up to a post in front of the gates.
The driveway enters their land after about 50 metres and continues almost 700 metres before arriving at Marois’s château.
The second parcel of government land - about 1.5 acres - is a provincial road corridor crossing the centre of the estate, where the couple have created two large ponds.
Most of the Île Bizard land expropriated for Highway 440 lies fallow. Only one section is leased, according to the Île Bizard/Ste. Geneviève borough. This section is used as a public park.
Because The Gazette was unable to contact Blanchet or Marois, we could not determine whether they have a lease for the expropriated land.
The couple’s rectangular estate, which backs onto the Rivière des Prairies, is valued by the city of Montreal at $2.8 million.
The land alone is valued at $770,000.
This year, the city levied a $29,348.72 tax bill on their property.
In the early 1970s, the provincial Liberal government began expropriating land on Île Bizard for the Highway 440 extension.
The expropriations forced a number of residents off their property.
After the Parti Québécois took power, the government imposed a moratorium on highway expansion in 1977, but continued to expropriate land for the proposed extension.
In 1977, 1981 and 1983, the government expropriated the land around the future estate.
The estate entrance, as well as the entire frontage onto Cherrier Rd., is part of a parcel of land for which the government paid about $1.5 million.
When, or if, the extension is built as planned, the highway would go right through the land Marois and Blanchet use as the entrance to their estate.
The gate would be bulldozed and the entire frontage would become an asphalt highway junction.
It would mean the end of the intrusion on government land and also the end to the gated hideaway. Marois and Blanchet would then be forced to enter the property through a working-class development consisting of small bungalows on Joly St., to the east of their land. Gone would be the grand entrance.
When Marois and Blanchet built the estate, the PQ had just regained power and had essentially killed the Highway 440 extension.
But with the Liberals now back in power, the issue is back on the table.
Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt is lobbying heavily for the extension, claiming it is a logical solution to traffic tieups in Montreal.
The extension would allow traffic from Laval and the North Shore to avoid the bottlenecks of Highway 15 and Metropolitan Blvd. by giving direct access to the West Island and Highway 40 to Ottawa. Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay is also in favour of the extension.
MANSION’S PRIVACY IS CLOSELY GUARDED
La Closerie has been a secret hideout that Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois and her husband, Claude Blanchet, have jealously guarded.
No journalists have been allowed to enter its grounds and photograph the manor house - even though parts of the property are on government land.
But people who have visited it say it is a vast building with seven bathrooms.
The architecture is reflective of Catholic Quebec. The greystone manor resembles a convent - perhaps reminiscent of Marois’s early days as a student at Jésus-Marie convent school in Quebec City.
Her house in the Charlevoix region is located in l’Anse sur Sac, near the picturesque village of St. lrénée. The house was recently lampooned by the Radio-Canada show Infoman as "l’Anse sur Shack."