“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead
Lac-Simon, northwest of Montreal, is known for its crystal-clear lake and sandy beaches. But the struggle over the future of the Domaine des Pères Ste-Croix is an example of the climate of intimidation that casts a shadow over the bucolic town, residents say
September 12, 2014
MONTREAL — When Chantal Crête moved full-time to her cottage in Lac-Simon, a lakeside resort northwest of Montreal where she had summered for more than 30 years, she thought she’d finally get around to reading all the books she never had time for as a busy stay-at-home mother in Gatineau.
But instead of enjoying lazy days and magnificent sunsets from her deck, Crête, 50, a former lecturer in educational psychology at the University of Ottawa, has devoted the last 18 months since moving to Lac-Simon to trying to save a heritage site overlooking the lake, whose pristine waters have attracted generations of summer residents.
The struggle over the Domaine des Pères Ste-Croix — a 48-acre estate that Heritage Canada the National Trust, a charity that raises awareness of historic places, identified in July as one of the country’s 10 top endangered heritage sites — is a saga complete with shadowy investors, controversial First Nations leaders, former city of Montreal officials and the religious order that owns St-Joseph’s Oratory.
“Lac-Simon is out of control in terms of development. It’s out of control in terms of noisy boats. It’s out of control for ATVs,” said Paul Malouf, a Montreal businessman and lifelong summer resident who writes a blog on environmental issues in Lac-Simon.
“It’s a corner of Quebec where things happen and the police don’t observe too much,” added Malouf, 51, a former town councillor in Lac-Simon whose late father was Albert Malouf, judge and author of the Malouf report into cost overruns at the 1976 Olympics.
But Luc Poupart, a local real-estate agent, says what Lac-Simon needs is more development, not stricter surveillance.
“There are two groups here,” he said. “There are people here that do not want any development of any kind. They come from the city. ... For them, it’s a secondary residence and they want peace and quiet.”
But many year-round residents are eager for investment to pull the local economy out of the doldrums, he said. “There’s nothing here.”
Behind the town’s bucolic scenery, warring views on waterfront development are fuelling a climate of intimidation, residents say.
Town councillor Odette Hébert said this week a fellow councillor threatened to kill her after a Sept. 5 town council meeting where she asked the town to seek a legal opinion on the voting rights of trailer-park residents. The Sûreté du Québec is interviewing witnesses, said police spokesperson Marc Tessier.
Former councillor Pierre Paquin had his tires slashed and garage windows broken in 2011 during a debate over the town’s zoning bylaw.
“It’s sad to say it, but it’s a place that’s like a black hole,” Paquin said. “It’s a place to have fun, to do illegal things ... People who are honest, like myself and my wife, feel threatened, pushed out, unwelcome.”
But it was the area’s towering pines that first attracted European settlers. In the late 1800s, a family of lumber workers named Groulx settled on the present-day site of the Domaine des Pères Ste-Croix.
In 1932, the Groulx family sold a vast tract of land overlooking the lake to the Congregation of the Holy Cross (known in French as the Congrégation de Ste-Croix), the order of priests and brothers who run St-Joseph’s Oratory. The former teaching order used the Domaine as a vacation retreat.
Architect Lucien Parent, best known for designing much of St-Joseph’s Oratory, took inspiration from the Art Deco-era fascination with ocean liners to design the Domaine, completed in 1933. The main building resembles a steamship whose prow is advancing into the lake.
“It is just magnificent,” said Crête, who was married in the Domaine’s rustic chapel and often attended choir concerts and other events there.
“There’s a natural trail along the lake with the Stations of the Cross. It’s a superb path with cliffs and rocks and majestic trees,” she said.
Until this year, local residents were free to wander on the Domaine.
“There was no problem about going on the site. We were always welcome,” Crête said.
I would never set foot there. You’d be thrown out in 30 seconds,” she said.
In late 2010, Jean Fortier, the former chairman of Montreal’s executive committee under former mayor Pierre Bourque, arrived at Lac-Simon’s small, drab town hall with important news.
The aging Holy Cross priests were planning to sell the Domaine des Pères, he told Lac-Simon town manager Jacques Maillé in a private meeting, according to Crête, who said Maillé told her about the encounter.
The Holy Cross Congregation had been rocked by a sexual-abuse scandal in the wake of articles in 2008 by Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery. In October 2011, it reached an $18-million settlement with victims.
Fortier and retired lawyer Robert Dostie had been mandated by the congregation to act as go-betweens with the municipality. They announced the Domaine would soon become the site of a major real-estate development.
Maillé already knew Fortier, who had been involved in a proposed development for another Holy Cross property in Nominingue, which was later abandoned.
Maillé had a 30-year career as a tax official at the city of Montreal before retiring in 2002 and moving back to his hometown of Lac-Simon.
Maillé also knew members of the Holy Cross Congregation through his brother, Michel, the former director of the Fides publishing house, which was owned by the Holy Cross fathers until 2010.
Fortier and Dostie arrived just as Lac-Simon was getting ready to adopt a new five-year urban plan, as required by provincial law.
“We wanted to be more ecologically friendly,” Malouf said.
A 2011 study by the IBI-DAA urban planning firm had noted an “accentuation of pressure to develop, particularly bordering the lake” and “first signs of environmental degradation: possible presence of blue-green algae in Lac Simon and nearby Lac Barrière.”
It would also protect local wetlands, which had been identified in a 2010 study by the Groupe Hémisphère environmental research firm. Two-thirds of the surface of the Domaine des Pères consists of wetlands with high ecological value, found the study, which had been commissioned by the town.
The proposed urban plan aroused the ire of local developers, speedboat owners and trailer-park residents, who staged noisy protests in 2011.
In May 2012 — five months before the urban plan was adopted — Dostie reappeared to present a development proposal for the Domaine des Pères to the town council. Fortier had since dropped out of the project.
Dostie presented a 17-page proposal to the council calling for a mix of housing, from condos to single-family homes. It said the site’s zoning was incompatible with “the residential development discussed with the municipality over the past months” and suggested it “could be adjusted.”
The proposal also presented the 30 acres of wetlands on the Domaine as an obstacle “limiting … its development” and suggested that part of the site be developed “subject to a re-evaluation of the qualification of wetland.”
As Dostie’s urging, the minimum lot size for new waterfront construction throughout the municipality was reduced to one-and-a-half acres (7,500 square metres) from two acres, said former councillor Lise Villeneuve, who headed the zoning committee.
“Suddenly, the lot size of 10,000 square metres on the shoreline was being questioned. It happened when they first presented the development plan for the Domaine des Pères,” said Villeneuve, who retired to Lac-Simon after a career as a senior administrator in a provincial health and social services centre in Laval.
When Lac-Simon held public consultations on the proposed plan in August 2012, Groupe Hemisphère’s map showing two-thirds of the Domaine des Pères as wetland had been replaced by a new map, which was not as detailed and showed no wetlands on the site.
The original map was restored after Crête, who had not yet been elected to council, and Malouf, then a town councillor, complained to the provincial Environment Department (MDDELCC). However, the town added a clause specifying that the map could be overruled “if a specialist confirms the absence of wetlands on a site.”
Lac-Simon adopted the urban plan in October 2012. However, a year later councillors noticed an error that had gone unnoticed when the 280-page urban plan was adopted.
The controversy arose after real-estate agent Poupart put up a billboard advertising a future 12-unit condo-hotel and 90-boat marina on a waterfront site near the town hall.
Councillors Villeneuve and Malouf were surprised by the billboard, since the project would have been illegal under the previous urban plan, which only allowed single-family homes on the site, and there had never been any discussion of increasing the zoning, according to the two ex-councillors.
But when the councillors checked the urban plan, to their surprise, it did allow low-rise condos on the site.
At a stormy council meeting, then-mayor Gaston Tremblay said the zoning change must have slipped in by mistake.
Questioned by a journalist at Le Droit newspaper, a spokesperson for the firm the town hired to produced the urban plan, IBA-DAA, said someone from the municipality had called to increase the zoning of the site, but added, “I can’t remember who.”
Poupart, a former lawyer, spoke up at town council to argue that the zoning change had been intentional and should be maintained. But the town council rescinded the zoning change in 2013.
Crête, who had stood up at a public meeting to ask how the apparent zoning error had occurred, was served a legal notice accusing her of having “initiated, publicly, an opposition movement aiming to change the zoning to no longer allow the use that is currently permitted.”
“It’s a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation),” Crête said. “They want to stop me from talking. I disturb people because I denounce things.”
On Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, representatives of the Holy Cross fathers visited Lac-Simon to announce at a public meeting at the town hall that the property would soon be sold. Crête stood up at the meeting to outline the residents’ plan to acquire the Domaine. Afterward, accompanied by Malouf, she approached the congregation’s superior, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and asked him to name a price.
“He said, ‘Fine, but do you have the money?’ ” Crête said.
“I said, ‘Yes, there’s no problem.’ ”
Crête said Aumont told her the price was $2 million. She promised to consult her members and get back to him without delay.
The members, including some summer residents with deep pockets, quickly authorized Crête to make an unconditional cash offer of $2 million.
On the Monday morning, Crête’s accountant contacted the congregation to confirm the offer.
“My accountant called me back to say, ‘Mrs. Crête, it’s not for sale.’
“I said, ‘Come on, what do you mean it’s not for sale?’ ”
The congregation’s administrative director, Robert Bélanger, had said the fathers had not made a final decision on whether to sell the Domaine, Crête’s accountant explained.
In an interview with The Gazette, Bélanger denied that Aumont had named $2 million as the price. “We never mentioned a specific price. All we said was that the property would not sell for under $2 million,” he said.
“She offered us a price that we refused. That’s all,” Bélanger said.
However, Malouf, who was there, also affirmed that Aumont had said the price was $2 million.
“We knew perfectly well that it was for sale,” Crête said. “It just wasn’t for sale to us.”
The residents’ group wasn’t the only potential buyer. A real-estate agent for a prominent businessman also contacted the congregation several times between September 2012 and April 2013, expressing his client’s interest, but was told the property was not on the market. In April 2013, the congregation finally confirmed to the real-estate agent that the property was for sale, for $4 million; the businessman then decided not to pursue the matter, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
In late spring of 2013, local residents noticed orange tape among the trees on the Domaine des Pères, suggesting the property would soon be subdivided and sold. “We were devastated,” Crête said.
In January 2013, the town had cited the property as a heritage site, meaning that it could not be transformed or subdivided without the local council’s authorization. The citation was a victory for local heritage advocates, but could be overturned by a simple vote of council.
A few months later, in May 2013, Maillé stepped down as town manager and announced he was running for mayor in the November municipal election. The bombshell was Maillé’s choice of a campaign manager: real-estate agent Poupart, the vocal critic of local zoning laws.
Then-councillor Villeneuve called Maillé at home to ask why he had allied himself with such a polarizing figure.
“He said, ‘I couldn’t refuse. They offered me a turnkey election,’ ” Villeneuve said.
“He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Lise, I set my conditions,’ ” she said.
Maillé, who was indeed elected mayor of Lac-Simon, did not return several messages left by The Gazette. When finally reached by phone on Monday, he declined to speak to a reporter, saying “I don’t have time.” When urged to give his side of the story, he promised the reporter a telephone interview at 7 p.m. However, he did not answer the phone at that time or during subsequent attempts to reach him.
Poupart told The Gazette he did not make any inappropriate offer to Maillé, and that in volunteering on Maillé’s campaign he was simply exercising his democratic rights.
At the news conference, Crête spoke of letters of support that had poured in from local MP Mylène Freeman, MNA Alexandre Iraca and heritage advocates across the province.
But the most dramatic moment of the news conference was the appearance of two self-described First Nations leaders, Guillaume Carle and Jocelyn Simoneau, who said they were there to denounce the application for heritage status.
Who were the newcomers, and what was their connection to the Domaine des Pères?
Carle, 54, of Gatineau, is the controversial founder of a group called the Confederation of Aboriginal People, which claims to represent off-reserve natives.
The muscular, tattooed Simoneau, 40, is a Lac-Simon resident and chief of the Communauté Anishinabek de la Petite Nation, a group founded in March 2013 to represent off-reserve natives in the region that is affiliated with Carle’s Confederation.
Neither group is recognized by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, said Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson Michelle Perron.
In April, Carle was arrested by Gatineau police for alleged criminal harassment and is scheduled to appear in court Oct. 8. He has been arrested several times in the past on charges of uttering threats and obstructing a peace officer, but the charges were either dropped or he was acquitted. He has no convictions aside from a minor driving offence in the 1990s.
In October 2013, the Sûreté du Québec arrested Simoneau on 12 charges of extortion, possession of a prohibited or restricted firearm, careless use of a firearm or weapon, loansharking, assault, uttering threats and conspiracy. A preliminary inquiry scheduled for Sept. 10 was postponed and a new date has not yet been set.
Simoneau’s name evokes fear in Lac-Simon, where some residents refused to speak on the record for fear of reprisals.
Simoneau has built several houses in Lac-Simon but is not licensed by the Régie du Bâtiment du Québec. Legal documents show he has had several properties seized for unpaid taxes or debts. A house at 124 chemin Simoneau owned by Simoneau’s wife, Katherine Gravelle, and two other people that Poupart advertised earlier this year at $349,000 is listed on tax records as an empty lot evaluated at $38,000.
Simoneau’s claims to represent off-reserve Algonquins (Anishinabek) in the Petite Nation region, which includes Montebello and Lac-Simon, are questionable, according to experts.
“There is no one to my knowledge among the people who are members of this community who are in any sense descendants of Algonquins who might have lived here in the Petite Nation,” said Jean-Guy Paquin, the author of two books on the history of the region’s Algonquin people.
Simoneau, who was born in Montreal and grew up in the Gaspé, has no Algonquin ancestry. He has one-sixteenth First Nations ancestry through a great-grandmother who was a Mi’kmaq in the Gaspé.
The Communauté Anishinabek de la Petite Nation charges $225 for membership cards, awarded to prospective members after they provide a cheek swab for DNA testing to establish aboriginal ancestry, a former member said. The former member said no one is refused entry based on the DNA test.
Asked why he is the chief of an Algonquin community when he has no Algonquin ancestry, Simoneau told The Gazette local Algonquins elected him to represent them. “I’m just there to help them,” he said.
He added that as a native, he has a claim on lands regardless of where they are located. “Aboriginal, it’s all public lands and everything. It’s the Gaspé and everything.”
A month after the news conference, in September 2013, Simoneau reappeared at Lac-Simon’s town council meeting with Carle to say his community had “important financial interests” in the Domaine. In an interview with Le Droit newspaper, he said a member of his aboriginal community was planning to buy the property.
Who was the mysterious businessman and how did he seal the deal to buy the coveted heritage site?
The question was even more intriguing since two months before the Domaine was sold, Després, the unknown investor, had acquired another property in Lac-Simon, beating out the town itself. The town had hoped to turn that property, a former bar, into a new town hall.
Després paid $175,000 for the bar, which had been repossessed and has a municipal evaluation of $892,060. Crête said the circumstances of the sale raise questions about how Després outbid the town.
On Dec. 2, 2013, the new town council, led by mayor Maillé, voted in a closed-door meeting to bid $200,000 for the bar. Crête and fellow councillor Hébert argued the property was a bargain since it had been repossessed. However, for unexplained reasons, the municipality bid only $160,000 for the property, according to a local media report, losing out to Després, who bid $175,000.
The Gazette contacted two councillors from Maillé’s party to ask whether they remembered the council’s unanimous decision to offer $200,000, which was not recorded.
Louise Houle Richard and Gilles Robillard both denied that the municipality had bid on the property; however, Robillard later corrected himself, saying the council unanimously approved an offer of $180,000. Robillard did not explain why the bid that was submitted was $160,000.
Soon after Després successfully purchased the bar property for $175,000, real-estate agent Poupart sent a letter on Jan. 30 in Després’s name to Lac-Simon’s mayor and council noting that the property would make an ideal town hall.
He offered the town “a real turnkey project with no cares,” consisting of a fully renovated commercial condo that would occupy part of the building while Després would retain the remainder. The town rejected the proposal.
On March 18, two days before the Domaine des Pères was sold, Després took out an $800,000 mortgage on both the bar and the Domaine des Pères with a private lender, Michel Hübler, at 12-per-cent interest, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
Two days later, Després bought the Domaine des Pères, putting down $300,000 in cash. The terms of the sale gave Després three years to pay the Ste-Croix Congregation the balance of $2.2 million, financed at four-per-cent interest.
Six months after the sale, the identity of the investor who bought the Domaine is still a mystery to most residents of Lac-Simon.
Neither man is licensed as a construction entrepreneur by the Régie du Bâtiment du Québec and the telephone numbers and addresses listed on the legal documents relating to the sales and mortgages on the two Lac-Simon properties are today invalid.
Poupart promised to contact Alexandre and Serge Després to ask whether they would speak to The Gazette, but they did not respond. Serge Després’s wife refused to take a call from a Gazette reporter at her place of work.
Reached by The Gazette, two former members of the Communauté Anishinabek de la Petite Nation identified Serge and Alexandre Després as members of the group. Poupart confirmed that Serge Després is a member of the Communauté Anishinabek.
In July 2013, Alexandre Després posted on Facebook that he was expecting his “carte d’autochtone” (native card) in the near future.
But the leader of the Communauté Anishinabek denies the group is behind the Domaine des Pères purchase. In an interview with The Gazette, Simoneau said he doesn’t know who the owner of the Domaine is and that his community has no connections with the site or the owner.
Despite his claim not to know the owner, Simoneau was recently seen on the site by local residents, and Poupart confirmed in an interview with The Gazette that Simoneau is now living on the site.
Simoneau’s group held a sweat lodge and fire walk on the Domaine des Pères on the weekend of Sept. 5 and 6, and on June 21 held a party for members, hoisting Mohawk Warrior flags at the entrance to the site, according to an invitation and photos posted on the community’s Facebook page.
Simoneau said he got permission to use the site from “an acquaintance who loaned it to us who knows the owner,” adding that the acquaintance is “anonymous.”
Poupart is currently advertising three one-and-a-half acre building lots on the Domaine des Pères for $345,000 each. In an interview, he said there is quite a lot of interest in the lots and that sales would be conditional on approval by the town council.
Poupart said Alexandre Després plans to present a project for the site to the town council within the next month. He said the concept will be similar to the Wendake First Nations hotel near Quebec City.
Despite support from preservation advocates across the province and Heritage Canada the National Trust, the provincial Culture Department rejected a fourth application for heritage status for the Domaine des Pères in July.
But Crête said she won’t give up the fight.
“It’s been an eye-opener. An eye-opener to what goes on, to how widespread it is and how it’s accepted,” she said.
“When you see how the authorities look the other way, how people get away with things and nobody speaks up, it just makes you sick. But then I tell myself, no, I’m going to keep fighting to the end.”