Mayor Chantal Rouleau says she didn't set out to be a do-gooder. She wasn't planning to be offered police protection, inundated with supportive e-mails, or hailed as a "courageous" woman.
All she did was speak publicly about the presence of organized crime in the construction industry in her Montreal borough, and her powerlessness to do anything about it. It was, Ms. Rouleau says, her own cri de coeur.
"We can't put our heads in the sand any longer," she said in an interview. "This cancer is too advanced."
Ms. Rouleau's denunciation of the "intolerable" situation in her district didn't reveal much that Quebeckers haven't already heard. Almost each day brings new evidence of what a recent government probe called a "clandestine universe" of corruption and Mafia infiltration in the province's construction industry.
But a small-potatoes politician's willingness to denounce it, and admit it scared her, put a face to an intangible issue that has shaken the province.
Ms. Rouleau was a little-known mayor of one of Montreal's 19 boroughs when a Radio-Canada investigative journalist confronted her at her office recently. Did she know that her council awarded a $670,000 contract to a construction firm whose part owner has been linked to the Mafia?
Rather than defend it, she said her hands were tied. The firm won the bid for the job, and provincial law requires municipalities to award contracts to the lowest bidder.
"It's shameful that we're at the heart of this," Ms. Rouleau said, "and we can do nothing."
After the item ran on the evening news, Ms. Rouleau checked for explosives under her car. She may have been unnerved by too many Hollywood mob movies, but her worry was real. "Are they going to come after me, after my family? After my friends? Will I be threatened?" the first-time mayor thought to herself.
"I was afraid."
The system of granting contracts to lowest bidders was designed to pre-empt granting favours to friends, but it has made municipal councils – pressed to shore up crumbling infrastructure or complete projects – hamstrung at a time of growing evidence of bid-rigging and criminal ties in Quebec's construction world.
It's especially pressing in districts like Ms. Rouleau's Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles, where the availability of land has translated into booming business for contractors.
"We deal with contractors, and we have serious doubts about some of them or their businesses, but we have no choice but to accept granting them the contract," said Ms. Rouleau, who was elected last year after working in the environmental field in the private and public sectors.
Her denunciation added to the relentless pressure on Premier Jean Charest to hold a full public inquiry into Quebec's construction industry. Mr. Charest has so far resisted the chorus, though this week he said his Liberal government would be open to amending contract-awarding rules, a request also made by Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay.
Still, piecemeal promises may not be enough. The same day that Ms. Rouleau's comments were aired, Bernard Généreux, the head of the Quebec Federation of Municipalities, said to his group's annual convention that "gangrene" was eating away at Quebec's institutions and "collusion, intimidation and the code of silence" ran rampant in the municipal world. Mr. Charest was sitting in the front row.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Généreux said that simply by speaking up, mayors like Ms. Rouleau were changing the pattern.
"For a long time these things weren't spoken about," Mr. Généreux said. "But now more and more elected officials are denouncing the situation they find themselves in. They're exposing it to the light. Because if fear wins, then the Mafia will have won and the code of silence wins."
As for Ms. Rouleau, he said, "I find her very courageous."