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Former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Montreal’s corruption culture ‘needs to be wiped out,’ whistleblower says Add to ...

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

A man who helped blow the lid off of years of corruption in Quebec says one major chore remains in 2013 if Montrealers want their city to have a chance at a squeaky-clean slate.

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Every single elected official who has been around Montreal city hall for more than a few years must be thrown out of office, according to André Cédilot, a long-time crime writer who first blew the whistle on corruption in the greater Montreal region in the early 1990s. He was also responsible for some of the more recent major scoops that led to the Charbonneau Commission and the establishment of an anti-corruption police unit.

In 2013, Montrealers will have their chance to throw the bums out. A civic election will take place in November, punctuating a year that will see both the Charbonneau Commission and the province’s anti-corruption squad hit full stride while the first kickback prosecutions go to trial. The revelations of 2013 may make 2012 look like a mere preface.

One after another, officials from the now-resigned mayor, Gérald Tremblay, on down have maintained they did not know what was going on among corrupt officials who fixed contracts, signed off on inflated bills and overlooked fraud in return for bribes. The systematic theft went on for years and cost taxpayers in Montreal and across the province hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mr. Cédilot doesn’t buy the denials. The former journalist made his living busting corruption and splaying it across the front page. Just before he retired, he co-authored a definitive book on the mob in Montreal, Mafia Inc., with his partner in crime coverage, André Noël, who retired to become an investigator with the Charbonneau Commission. Mr. Cédilot has known about the rot going back 25 years, and cannot believe any long-time councillor who still haunts city hall could have not noticed it.

“It’s become a culture that needs to be wiped out,” Mr. Cédilot said. “We need an entirely new generation of politicians if we’re really going to change anything. In Laval, too.”

Even since the departure of Mr. Tremblay and the resignation of the mayor of Laval, Gilles Vaillancourt, Mr. Cédilot and other city watchers have noted a remarkable inability to change among civic leaders in and around Montreal.

In Laval, the interim administration is coaching city staff on how to answer questions from investigators in the wake of at least nine raids by police on City Hall and the mayor’s office and home. Montreal’s interim mayor, Michael Applebaum, whose election by city council was noteworthy because he is a rare anglophone in the office, has presided over a city hall that has descended in record time into factionalism, backbiting and halting efforts at transparency.

“Honestly, I’m completely gutted by what I’m seeing, after all we’ve been through,” Mr. Cédilot said. “This is grave corruption, the people are indignant, and they’re still blowing smoke in our eyes.”

For months now, Montrealers have batted around ideas for thwarting corruption, from bureaucratic suggestions such as independent oversight committees to watch municipal official to quixotic legal manoeuvres such as suing mobsters and other fraudsters to try to get the millions back.

Some have suggested abolishing the city’s party system. Rare in Canadian municipal politics, Montreal’s civic parties tend to come and go with mayoral candidates and have more to do with building expensive electoral machines and raising money than joining ideological forces.

Cathy Jackson, a 54-year-old Montreal nurse, said she has become quite cynical about it all and regrets that she and her fellow citizens have failed to get more forcefully involved in how their city is run. Montreal, like many municipalities, has habitually dismal voter turnout.

Even the resignation of the mayor leaves her little hope for change. “It’s a big cleanup we need, and what we get is more smoke and mirrors. I don’t really think anything is going to come out of any of this,” she said. “The leaders have to want to clean up the act here. We’ll see about that. We also need some people to go to jail.”

More than anything, the grassroots has to rise up in the same way the city’s student movement mobilized opposition to tuition hikes and the Charest government, she said. She wishes the student protests had expanded and persisted as a forceful call for change on corruption. “A lot of us are just too busy working and paying taxes,” she said.

Many people underestimate how difficult it will be to loosen the grip of the violent mobsters who are behind much of the exposed rot, Ms. Jackson said. “The reality in the whole mess is that these bad guys are really bad. They do threaten, they do hurt. They know exactly how to do it. They’re thugs with their own set of rules, they’re well entrenched, I’m not sure how a citizen can resist.”

More than anything, Montrealers seem to long for strong and new leadership. Early potential candidates bandied about in the city include the popular and populist federal Liberal Denis Coderre and Gilbert Rozon, the businessman who founded the Just for Laughs comedy festival.

It’s far from clear either man, the former an experienced political operator in the city’s backrooms, the latter an enthusiastic Montreal booster, would ruthlessly wield the heavy shovel required to clean out the mess at Montreal City Hall.

Benoit Gignac, a novelist who worked for former mayor Jean Doré and wrote a biography of his long-serving predecessor, Jean Drapeau, said there is no leader with iron will on the horizon.

“We require a mayor who can strike fear into the hearts of provincial politicians. I don’t see anyone who has the weight to do it, but any new blood will help,” Mr. Gignac said.

Even if there was, there’s no guarantee the new mayor will have his eye on the right priorities, he added.

Mr. Drapeau’s decades in office are a handy lesson. Mr. Drapeau was indeed an imposing character when he began his second term in 1960, but he spent much of his political capital building baubles and trying to make Montreal a player on the international stage. The 1976 Olympics and Expo 67 were on his watch. By the time he left in 1986, the city’s economy and infrastructure were crumbling away.

“By the time Mr. Drapeau’s strategy started falling apart in the 1980s, we had all these sewer lines rotting away beneath all those sparkling [Expo and Olympic] pavilions,” Mr. Gignac said.

If Montreal gets any respite from the corruption spotlight in 2013, it may be because anti-corruption crusaders have broadened their hunt from city hall to other cities and towns and other government spending. The province’s daycare system and the Hydro-Québec and Plan Nord economic development projects are all on the radar. “It’s everywhere in Quebec,” said Robert Lafrenière, head of the anti-corruption squad, in an interview. “We will be looking for new stratagems organized crime is using, including by moving out into other regions, and not just in construction.”

Shared misery makes for scant consolation. But when Mr. Gignac examines the coming years in Montreal, he’s far more optimistic than many city watchers. He said corruption is a cyclical problem of governance in a city where most citizens are getting on with work and taking advantage of the city’s vibrancy.

“For the average citizen, the city is not going so badly. And what problems there are have more to do with economy, infrastructure and transportation,” he said, pointing to major projects to overhaul a freeway and build a new major bridge and new hospitals that are nearly complete.

One of the two major hospital projects, the McGill University Health Centre, is under investigation by the province’s anti-corruption unit. But when complete, the city will still have a shiny new hospital, Mr. Gignac pointed out.

Infrastructure, Mr. Gignac insists, remains a far greater problem in Montreal than corruption. “A series of major public works will take us through 2020, and when we get there we will have an extraordinary city.”

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