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Is the worst yet to come in the Charbonneau inquiry?

Photographers take pictures of Chairman France Charbonneau off the closed circuit television in the media room at the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Monday, September 17, 2012 in Montreal.


The Charbonneau inquiry has only touched the surface, delving into the grimy workings of one small office in the sewer department of Montreal. But all around the inquiry hearings, corruption brush fires burn: Mayors have fallen, ministers have frantically proclaimed their innocence and the apparent death of ethics in the political system has sickened Quebeckers.

Madam Justice France Charbonneau, whose inquiry resumes Monday, is barely a sixth of the way into her mandate to root out corruption in the multibillion-dollar Quebec construction industry. She has yet to train her intimidating stare on Laval – which all signs, including a long list of police searches, point to being even more mind-bogglingly corrupt than Montreal. Another remaining target is the Quebec Transport Ministry, a provincial department that issues billions in contracts that make Montreal sewer and water seem like a child's allowance.

Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned Monday and Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt quit Friday, but this is only the start.

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"The shit is going to hit the fan," said Jean Cournoyer, 78, the labour minister who struck Quebec's last corruption commission in 1974. That one examined intimidation, bribery and violence among unions fighting over control of construction jobs.

In Quebec City, current Parti Québécois government officials are rubbing their hands together at the prospect of the inquiry examining how provincial construction money was spent over nearly 10 years of Liberal rule.

"It's unfortunate that we have to go through this kind of self-flagellation, but it's necessary," said Mr. Cournoyer. "And given we've seen it all before, it's enough to make you despair."

In 1960, shortly after the death of Maurice Duplessis, the brand-new Liberal government of Jean Lesage struck the Salvas Commission, which exposed the favouritism, kickbacks and underground political financing system of Mr. Duplessis's Union Nationale government.

In 1972, an inquiry to examine organized crime dragged gangsters into hearings and exposed the criminality that was running much of Montreal's underground economy.

Two years later, warring unions were derailing Quebec's major hydro-development projects, causing Mr. Cournoyer to strike the Cliche Commission.

The twists and turns of the 1974 Cliche inquiry launched careers (commission counsel Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard rose to prominence there) and helped end others (Mr. Cournoyer and the government of Robert Bourassa fell to the fledgling PQ two years later.)

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Looking back, the legacy of these public airings of dirty laundry is mixed. While some criminal prosecutions followed, most wrongdoers escaped anything like the justice they deserved, according to Mr. Cournoyer. His government had little time to act after the Cliche Commission. "We lacked time, but we also lacked courage," Mr. Cournoyer said.

All those inquiries have led Quebec right back to Charbonneau, which is in many ways a combination of the previous three. Its goal is to expose how politicians, bureaucrats, unions, gangs, and semi-legitimate business combine to rob taxpayers. Mr. Cournoyer fears it may, once again, lead to sullied reputations and little else.

"The people who are in front of this commission will probably never be pursued. I think in the end there will be very pious vows, recommendations that will state what should be obvious, such as if you are guilty of robbing the government, you shouldn't be allowed to do more business with the government," he said. "But ultimately if you are a dishonest person, you will continue to be dishonest."

Mr. Cournoyer says his main wish for Charbonneau is that the inquiry scrupulously corroborate the damning testimony it hears, such as the allegation that Montreal's mayor knew his party was involved in illegal campaign financing, which was the final straw that triggered his resignation last week.

"If you don't corroborate, you just leave the impression the entire province is corrupt. This would not be just. But it seems the commission knows exactly where they are going. There is a plan. [Ms.Judge Charbonneau] said she's not there to sully reputations indiscriminately. There's no reason to doubt her."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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