MONTREAL — There is not much that surprises the aging Italian residents of Montreal’s Saint-Léonard neighbourhood.
Gangland Mafia wars, corruption schemes and the federal sponsorship scandal have all been tied, justifiably or not, to the working-class quarter in the city’s north end that these people call home. Rightly or wrongly, the newest allegations of sexual misconduct against their longtime member of Parliament, Massimo Pacetti, are just that — new. They don’t radically alter the political calculus for a federal riding that the Liberal brand has dominated for decades.
That was the consensus this week at Centro Leonardo da Vinci, a community centre just steps away from the home Pacetti shares with his wife and two teenage children. It’s a place more Italian than Italy, where the retired men gather to play or watch the action unfold at indoor bocce courts, where the coffee is imported from Europe and the pizza is said to be excellent, and where the organized entertainment is by Italians and for Italians.
“You don’t even have to vote for the Liberals,” said Lyette DiBiase, a longtime Liberal voter in the riding of Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, who had just finished her morning workout. “They’ve always won here and they always will get in. I’m not sure how they do it.”
Not many people are willing to offer their opinion on the allegations against their MP, allegations they tended to find both confusing and tough to substantiate.
Yet the voters of Italian heritage are not pleased at the way Pacetti has been treated by his own party, said Vittorio Giordano, editor-in-chief of Montreal’s Italian-language newspaper Cittadino Canadese. Pacetti was kicked out of the Liberal caucus before getting a chance to defend himself against allegations from an NDP MP who told the Toronto Star and other media about an unwanted sexual encounter in Pacetti’s Ottawa hotel room earlier this year.
The NDP MP, who has asked that her identity not be made public, classified it as “sex without explicit consent” and explained that she did not report it to the police because of a bad experience following a sexual assault she suffered as a teenager. Pacetti has said he is innocent and suggested a confidential mediation process could be the best avenue to resolve the complaint.
“Canadian standards of fairness and the presumption of innocence can then be maintained to arrive at the truth,” Pacetti said in a statement Tuesday.
Some voters approached by the Star said they found it hard to determine the facts of the case.
DiBiase said she was of two minds about the incident. While she tended to believe the allegations, saying “there’s no smoke without fire,” she also wondered whether federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had acted too hastily, or without establishing the facts, before he kicked Pacetti out of the caucus earlier this month.
But the prevailing sentiment among the Italian community in Saint-Léonard is to side with their elected MP, said Giordano.
“It’s an allegation. Anybody can make an allegation . . . but you have to prove it,” he said. “It’s one thing for you to say something against me and it’s another thing for the judge to say it’s true.”
Pacetti has also worked hard as a local representative, showing his face at community events, speaking up for Italian Canadians in Ottawa and even sponsoring legislation (that has failed to pass into law) to have the federal government apologize to and compensate Italian-Canadians who were interned during the Second World War.
“When it comes to defending the integrity of the community against something outside, or somebody from outside, we become very protective,” Giordano said.
Pacetti, an accountant, won the seat in the 2002 byelection to replace Alfonso Gagliano, taking 84 per cent of the nearly 17,000 votes cast. He’s held prominent roles on the House of Commons finance committee and has won four elections since, although the 2011 effort was a more narrow win of 3,620 votes over the NDP candidate.
The decision that must be made in the lead-up to the next election, scheduled for the fall of 2015, could be agonizing both for Pacetti and for Saint-Léonard’s traditionally Liberal electorate.
Giordano predicts that Pacetti’s re-election would be a certainty if he is let back into the Liberal caucus.
But if he chooses to run as an Independent, voters will be forced to decide whether their loyalties lie with him or the Liberal party.
“If the Liberals put another Italian candidate, that could create problems for Pacetti,” said Giordano. “But if the Liberals choose a French Canadian or an English Canadian, Pacetti’s going to win almost all the Italian votes.”