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.
The man at the centre of the storm is Jacques Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief. Ever since his report on collusion and corruption in dealings with the transport ministry unofficially became public, Duchesneau has been on what might be called a media tour, culminating in a five-hour appearance last week before a committee of the National Assembly in Quebec City.
Duchesneau himself has now come under fire from his boss who heads the anti-corruption unit — modeled on New York City's Department of Investigations — set up earlier in the year by Premier Jean Charest in response to a wave of reports of wrong-doing in dealings with the government.
This week, Robert Lafreniere responded to Duchesneau's criticism of the anti-corruption unit and his call for "private public inquiry" with a list of what investigators have accomplished in rooting out crooks. That list includes dozens of arrests and the recovery of millions of dollars in defrauded taxpayers' cash.
Just as the Department of Investigations has been kept busy since its creation in 1872 in the wake of Tammany Hall scandals, the Quebec government's anti-corruption squad is a permanent institution mandated to weed out and ward off criminal intrusion into the workings of government.
Charest, arguing that a public inquiry is not the best type of investigation to ferret out and expose criminal activity — how to protect informants and moles, for example — has held his ground. The premier says let the police do police work.
Charest is, of course, mindful of how a few years ago a commission into political corruption involving the federal Liberal Party became a media sensation. That probe left the Liberals gravely wounded in the province and contributed to their relegation to third-party status in the federal election earlier this year.
Nevertheless, Charest's party will debate the question of a public inquiry at an upcoming convention.
Charest, still with two years to go before an election call, is betting he can rebuild the public's confidence in the construction industry, and his government, before that summons to the polls.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.