This article is co-published with Pivot, and you can read a French version here.
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On March 14, Quebec housing minister France-Élaine Duranceau attended a lobbying event for the Association des professionnels de la construction et de l’habitation du Québec. The organization, founded to represent the interests of residential construction companies, hosts an annual cocktail party which is attended by government ministers and MNAs from several parties. In photos published in Quebec habitation, the organization's magazine, Duranceau can be seen standing next to Philippe Marsan, chairman of the board of directors.
Marsan is also Duranceau’s former business partner, and had a mandate to lobby her ministry only a few months prior to the event. Marsan was not a registered lobbyist at the time the photo was taken and it is not clear what engagement the two had that day.
The minister’s spokesperson described it as an “informal conversation,” in response to questions from Ricochet.
Tough two weeks for the minister
Last week, reporting by Ricochet and Pivot revealed that Annie Lemieux, another ex-business partner of Duranceau, had an active mandate to lobby her ministry and met with her shortly after she took office.
In 2019, Duranceau and Lemieux bought a home in Montreal’s Rosemont neighborhood for just over $500,000 and converted the modest duplex into luxury condos, selling one for $800,000 just months before her appointment to François Legault’s cabinet.
Yesterday, the Quebec Ethics Commissioner opened an investigation into Duranceau for “possible breaches of the Code of Ethics and Ethics of Members of the National Assembly,” according to a press release.
Ricochet was initially told by the minister’s spokesperson that Duranceau and Lemieux’s companies were “inactive,” with her office later clarifying that they are still active, but only due to ongoing litigation.
Duranceau was scheduled to appear at an event in Trois-Rivières earlier today, but later backed out according to a press release sent out after the commissioner's announcement of their investigation.
Earlier this week, Premier Francois Legault defended Duranceau, saying that she’s the right person for the job, and that her current mandate is to build affordable housing. On Wednesday, the premier again came to the minister’s defence arguing that she had done nothing wrong while committing that his government would cooperate fully with the ethics investigation.
“Ms. Duranceau and Mr. Marsan had a business relationship in the past that ended before her arrival in politics,” wrote Philippe Couture, spokesperson for the minister. “Ms. Duranceau had the opportunity to have an informal conversation with Mr. Marsan at the event.
“As you know, before entering politics, Ms. Duranceau worked in the real estate field, so it is normal that she still knows several people who work in that industry,” he wrote in French in an email to Ricochet.
Close ties to several lobbyists
In July 2016, Duranceau and Lemieux started NOMI Immobilier Inc. with two others: Donald Cloutier and Philippe Marsan.
According to the Quebec business registry, Cloutier owns several real estate and construction ventures, boasting an impressive portfolio of property for sale or rent in Quebec, Florida, and Turks and Caicos.
In Saint-Sauveur, where Cloutier lives, he helped build Sommet la Marquise, a development of 84 houses, which according to their website have all been sold. While the price of the new build is no longer public, one of the homes, which has five bathrooms, is currently listed with Remax for $4.75 million.
Cloutier’s housing development was built by the TRÉMÄ Group, a construction company co-owned by Philippe Marsan, Duranceau’s other business partner from NOMI Immobilier, and Jean-Sebastien Tremblay.
Marsan held a mandate to lobby Duranceau’s ministry until new year’s eve 2022 on behalf of the APCHQ. Tremblay currently holds one open mandate with that ministry on behalf of the APCHQ, for which he is a regional president, in addition to a mandate on behalf of TRÉMÄ.
The APCHQ mandates targeted affordable housing laws across many public institutions in addition to Duranceau’s ministry, including the city of Montreal.
For instance, one of 40 mandates submitted by the APCHQ sought to defend a clause in Quebec leases known as “clause F,” which grants owners of new homes the ability to increase rents as much as they want during the first five years of the unit’s rental.
Bill 31, Duranceau’s housing legislation introduced earlier this month, maintained the provisions of “clause F,” as the APCHQ had requested.
Both Marsan and Tremblay were at the cocktail reception for the APCHQ earlier this year along with Duranceau, and her colleague, Economy, Innovation and Energy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon.
Marsan did not respond to questions sent to him prior to publication.
“As part of my duties at the APCHQ, I participated in events where Ms. Duranceau was present to give speeches,” wrote Tremblay in an email. “I did not meet her to lobby on behalf of the APCHQ, nor for my company and I have no meetings planned with her.”
He also claims that he did not interact with Duranceau at the cocktail event. “I spoke only once with Ms. Duranceau and it was following a speech to members of the APCHQ last November. I obviously congratulated her on her recent appointment at the time,” he wrote in French in response to questions from Ricochet.
Land in the Laurentians
Marsan and Duranceau both own property on the same rural street in the village of Esterel. According to Google Maps, their homes are approximately 300 meters apart, or a four minute walk.
Duranceau bought her plot of land from her father in 2014, who had owned the land since the 1970s, in what appears to be a cash transaction as no mortgage is on file with Quebec’s land register.
“The transferee declares to be on the one hand the daughter and on the other hand the spouse of the transferor's daughter. Consequently, there is exemption the payment of the transfer duty,” stipulates the deed of sale. Duranceau declined to answer questions about the transaction.
In an interview last week with French media Noovo Info the minister was asked if she thought her proposed law put renters in a tough situation. She dismissed a tenant’s right to transfer their lease, and suggested that if they want to have control over rent increases, they “should invest in real estate.”
The minister has since apologized for those comments.
MNA for Nelligan files complaint
The Ethics Commission opened an investigation into Duranceau’s relationship with her former business partner, Annie Lemieux, at the behest of Monsef Derraji, Liberal MNA for the Nelligan riding.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had an ethical problem with a minister from the CAQ government,” said Derraji in a phone interview. “At the beginning it was Pierre Fitzgibbon, after that it was Simon-Jolin Barrette, and now the minister of housing Duranceau.”
“Clearly this is a mess,” he continued. “My hope is that all the MNAs, especially the ministers of the CAQ, should follow the code. It’s not a joke.”
He said he expects the commissioner will clarify things and instruct the minister how to behave in the future.