"Everything Is Rigged": Will Exposing Corruption in Montreal Clean Up Politics-Or Scare Honest People Away?

By Chodos, Bob | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

"Everything Is Rigged": Will Exposing Corruption in Montreal Clean Up Politics-Or Scare Honest People Away?


Chodos, Bob, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A major mission of Inroads since its inception has been explaining Quebec to people outside the province. The evolution of cities has been another important theme of this journal. With these mandates in mind, we could not ignore the revelations of the Charbonneau Commission into the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry, revelations that continue to make headlines in Quebec. Casting a net that includes Montreal, other Quebec municipalities and the provincial parties, the commission has brought to light unsavoury aspects of politicians' and public officials' relationship with construction and related service companies going back at least two decades. Just before Inroads' press time, Quebec's anti-corruption squad arrested 37 people, including Gilles Vaillancourt, powerful ex-mayor of Laval, Quebec's third largest city.

Of course, corruption in Montreal is nothing new. In 1928, a dubious financial transaction preceding the municipalization of a water utility came to light. The ensuing scandal helped bring about the defeat of longtime mayor Mederic Martin at the hands of his younger rival, Camillien Houde. Twenty-six years later Houde was so entrenched in the mayor's office that he was known as "Monsieur Montreal." But incriminating revelations at an inquiry into underworld influence ended his long tenure, and one of the lawyers for the inquiry, Jean Drapeau, was elected to succeed him on a reform platform. Drapeau was to dominate Montreal politics for the next three decades, but his election simply moved the action to the suburban municipalities surrounding the city. In rapidly growing Ville Jacques-Cartier on the South Shore, the mayor in the early 1960s was a convicted criminal and his chief aide was an ex-boxer and bank robber.

And yet, nothing in this history prepared Montrealers for the swirl of revelations, reports, accusations, resignations and denials that began in October 2012. By early November, the mayors of both Montreal and neighbouring Laval had been brought down. Some of the more significant revelations, along with the origins of the Charbonneau Commission, are highlighted in the accompanying timeline. The timeline is followed by comments from five informed observers: Inroads co-publisher Henry Milner, Montreal journalists Irwin Block and Eric Hamovitch, political scientist Brian Tanguay of Wilfrid Laurier University and urban politics specialist Robert Whelan of the University of Texas at Dallas.

Each writer focuses on a particular ramification of the revelations. Whelan sees municipal corruption as a North America--wide phenomenon and puts it in historical context. Tanguay asks whether Quebec really is the most corrupt province in Canada and, if so, why. Hamovitch looks at how Montreal's relationship with the provincial government in Quebec City has contributed to its problems. Block highlights the vast scope of the corruption and sees it as a case of wilful blindness at Montreal city hall. Milner focuses on the role of former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay in the affair: is he villain or victim?

Only some of the underlying features of the scandal are unique to Quebec as a province and Montreal as a city. Similar scandals shook the Netherlands ten years ago, and now are affecting Spain--just to name two. The incentives inherent in the relationship between private construction companies and the governments they contract with to undertake large-scale projects and provide important public services inevitably invite under-the-counter side deals and outright corruption:

* These are typically very large contracts and the rewards to the winner are likely to be handsome provided competition for the contracts is limited; hence the incentive for the contractor to bribe. …

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