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Quebec village hits residents, local paper with legal notices after questioning hiring of new manager

A Quebec village with a population of 1,000 has come under fire after the local paper and 97 citizens received lawyer's letters. The municipality is defending the move, saying it is trying to defend the reputation of the new general manager.  (Sébastien Vachon/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A Quebec village with a population of 1,000 has come under fire after the local paper and 97 citizens received lawyer's letters. The municipality is defending the move, saying it is trying to defend the reputation of the new general manager. (Sébastien Vachon/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Days after reporter and editor-in-chief Marc Cochrane attended a municipal council meeting in Île d'Orléans, his paper, Autour de L''île, was threatened with legal notice and his article scrapped.

The warning came from a lawyer representing the village of Sainte-Pétronille, Que., located east of Quebec City.

Cochrane had attended a meeting Dec. 11 with plans to report on a letter from residents demanding an investigation into the town's new general manager, Nathalie Paquet.

Residents say they learned through an access-to-information request that she had been accused of serious offences in her previous role in the municipality of Val-des-Lacs — located near Mont-Tremblant, Que. — and wanted to know if the municipality was aware.

"A few days later, the lawyer called us," said Cochrane. The lawyer, he said, told the paper it would be sued if it published the article.

"So the president [of the paper] decided that my article would not be published to protect the financial security of our newspaper."

The municipality told them it was unacceptable for the paper, which receives some funding from the village, to write articles that could be libellous to municipal employees.

"It is the first time [in] the history of the paper that something like this happened," said Cochrane. "It's not a good thing for the liberty of the press."

Nine days later, 97 residents were also issued formal legal notices and told they need to stop sharing information and documents concerning Paquet.

In the letter, obtained by CBC, Guillaume Renauld of the law firm Therrien Couture Joli-Cœur in Quebec City said the citizens' letter attacks Paquet's reputation and private life.

Now, the public relations firm representing the municipality says the town is standing by Paquet and that the legal notices issued to citizens and the newspaper were necessary "to put an end to a campaign that is unjustifiably damaging her reputation."

Reporter Marc Cochrane says being threatened with legal action by the municipality has never happened before.
Reporter Marc Cochrane says being threatened with legal action by the municipality has never happened before.

Reporter Marc Cochrane says being threatened with legal action by the municipality has never happened before. (Radio-Canada)

'We don't have a voice,' says resident

In a statement, the public relations firm said the town "respects journalistic work" but felt it needed to act quickly to "protect its personnel."

"For Mayor Jean Côté, intimidation and defamation are unacceptable," read the statement, which also said no one else from the municipality would comment on the case.

"The mayor is worried about democracy in his municipality, when a small group decided to create an unhealthy climate."

Maurice Boivin, one of the 97 residents who was issued the formal notice, says he feels attacked.

"It's definitely intimidating," said Boivin. "It's a peaceful village here. And all the citizens, you know, they're not aggressive, they just want answers but … We don't have a voice, that's another problem."

François-Xavier Simard, a lawyer representing the 97 residents, says people feel like their "most fundamental rights," like freedom of expression are being violated.

Maurice Boivin is one of several citizens who recieved the formal notice.
Maurice Boivin is one of several citizens who recieved the formal notice.

Maurice Boivin is one of several citizens who recieved the formal notice. (Radio-Canada )

Redacted letter listed general manager's 'serious offences'

Citizens obtained the information regarding Paquet through an access-to-information request, in an effort to understand why she left her job as general manager of Val-des-Lacs.

It was the contents of this letter, which was heavily redacted, that made the hiring of Paquet "incomprehensible," read the citizens' letter.

CBC viewed the redacted letter from Val-des-Lacs that was sent to Paquet telling her that she was invited to a special council meeting to remove her from her position. It said she had the opportunity to present her side of the story to council. The letter included 25 redacted paragraphs describing Paquet's "serious offences."

Quebec's municipal commission opens investigation

In Sainte-Pétronille's statement, the village said it stands by its hiring of Paquet, following what it described as a "rigorous" process that took six months.

Mayor Côté said Paquet is competent to manage the municipality.

"It's astounding that a group of residents would attack the municipal council and the general management," said Côté in the statement.

He said Paquet is the subject of a "public smear campaign" and that some elected representatives are nervous about  being booed at council meetings.

On Thursday, the body that oversees municipal governments in Quebec opened an investigation into Sainte-Pétronille.

Sainte-Pétronille says it also asked for an investigation to clarify the facts because it is convinced that the decisions "taken over the past year were the right ones."