She’s not the only honest politician in Quebec, but some days it feels like it.
In a province riven by scandal and the arrest of dozens of politicians and their operatives on allegations of corruption, Nathalie Simon, the mayor of the Montreal suburb of Chateauguay, was set apart to end 2013 when police celebrated her for reporting an attempted bribery.
Three weeks after the arrest of four men in connection with an alleged plot to bribe her with tens of thousands of dollars, Ms. Simon paused during the holidays to remark on the fuss that followed when she picked up a phone and reported the bribery suspects to police.
“It’s sad that an honest act can be seen as the exception, as a gesture of courage,” Ms. Simon said in an interview. “I was a little taken aback, but I guess the tendency these days is to blame elected officials for every ill. And the police want people to realize how much they value such behaviour, to encourage people to speak up.”
How unusual was such an act of citizenship and good conscience from an elected official in Quebec? In recent years, former Quebec provincial politicians from current NDP Leader (and onetime provincial Liberal) Thomas Mulcair to Serge Menard and Guy Chevrette of the Parti Québécois have described how they long ago refused wads of cash from allegedly dishonest operators, but never went to police.
“It’s a rarity,” said Robert Lafrenière, the head of the provincial anti-corruption squad, who held a news conference to praise Ms. Simon. “This is a courageous act.”
Ms. Simon arrived in municipal politics in 2009, just as Quebec’s corruption scandal came to a full boil, after a 20-year career in community journalism. By the end of her first mandate last year, the Charbonneau commission was in full swing revealing the details of a widespread conspiracy to rig public-works projects among the mob, construction barons and operatives in the political and bureaucratic apparatus in and around Montreal.
Ms. Simon was trying to fill holes in tendering processes in her own town while the anti-corruption squad, known as the acronym UPAC, was circling around in adjacent towns conducting raids and making arrests – 118 in all since the unit was established in 2011.
In September, two months before the municipal vote that would see Ms. Simon re-elected, police allege four men including a former municipal councillor, a real estate developer and a former federal Liberal operative once named at the sponsorship inquiry, allegedly tried to buy her off.
Investigators say the attempted bribe was part of a conspiracy to rezone lands to allow real estate projects in return for cash and other favours. “I can’t say much about it, there is an ongoing investigation, I’m going to be a witness,” said Ms. Simon. “But it’s all part of the greater system we’ve seen exposed in recent years. It’s all part of a piece, all interconnected.”
Going to police was “in line with what I’ve taught my two teenaged children growing up to tell the truth,” Ms. Simon said. “At a certain point, you have to lead by example.” At the same time, cleaning up shady practices is not as simple as it may sound, Ms. Simon said. Imposing stricter oversight on public works risks causing paralysis in a municipality And while she’s been celebrated in many quarters, not all of the reaction has been so positive. Ms. Simon said she’s had her share of dirty looks and angry comments. Four men may now face charges, but many other people around town benefited from a system of favours that existed for a decade, she said.
“It upset certain people who might have benefited from the system,” Ms. Simon said. “It’s a city, but in some ways it’s still a little village. People talk, they know people, they’re friends, neighbours, cousins. All interconnected.”
At the same time, she hasn’t felt threatened since going to police. “I see there are people who are not happy, and are showing it. But don’t go any further than that.”