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October 7, 2011

Canada has history of construction scandals

Quebec has been gripped for the past several weeks by allegations of deeply entrenched collusion and corruption in the construction industry.

One might say the latest revelations are simply part of a long tradition of shadiness in the building business; you might even say Canada was built on building scandals. Indeed, the country's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was chased from office in 1874 over a railway financing kick-back scheme. (Sir John was back four years later, though.) Even the construction of the new country's Parliament buildings was mired in corruption.

In Quebec, a succession of leaders have found themselves fending off accusations of wrong-doing relating to the construction of something or other. This dates back to the late 1800s, when Honoré Mercier, a hero of Quebec history, was dismissed from the premier's office and eventually dragged in front of a judge on charges of profiting from — once again — railway construction cash. He was cleared of all charges but shortly thereafter died a broken man.

In more recent times, then-premier Robert Bourassa's mega-project in the 1970s to tap the electricity potential of the mighty rivers of Quebec's vast north spawned a massive scandal and a public inquiry into the violent and corrupt tactics of union officials. (That probe, incidentally, launched the public career of future prime minister Brian Mulroney, one of the inquiry's lawyers.) While it was not specifically the James Bay construction imbroglio that led to Bourassa's defeat in 1976, the affair left a taint on his government.

Subsequent Quebec governments have adopted measures to keep big union construction jobs free of collusion and organized crime. But the latest disclosures that have surfaced paint a disturbing picture of how such controls appear to have failed.

Three weeks ago, a report leaked to the media caused an uproar with its allegations of mob involvement and political kickbacks in major transport construction contracts. While not naming names, the report contained sufficient detail and certainty to spark a chorus of calls for a full public inquiry.

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