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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


Steeped in graft, and no one blew the whistle Add to ...

Months into the Charbonneau inquiry investigating corruption in Montreal, there’s no smoking gun. Rather, there’s smoke everywhere from many guns.

What Quebeckers know so far is that corruption was widespread, deep and long-standing. The practices in municipal government grew up over many years. They were known, accepted and used by many actors, inside government and in industries.

There were Mafia figures, construction company executives willing to pay bribes, middlemen collecting money for political parties, kickbacks, shoddy work, civil servants on the take, envelopes stuffed with cash, holidays underwritten by contractors eager for city work – in short, massive and pervasive corruption.

And so the necessary question arises: Why didn’t anyone blow the whistle years and years ago? Were there no honest men and women?

How could it be that the government of Quebec’s major metropolis, and Canada’s second-largest city – the centre of Quebec life – became so thoroughly accustomed to these kinds of practices, yet no one screamed? The same question arises for Laval and other municipalities where similar practices reigned. And maybe the same question will be posed when and if the commission begins looking into provincial contracts?

Of course, some people insist they didn’t know anything. That’s what Gérald Tremblay, who resigned as mayor of Montreal in November, will insist. As will others. Whether they did or not, plenty of other people knew indirectly or directly what was going on. Yet the web of connections, the network of practices and the whole edifice of kickbacks and bribes and favouritism and payoffs continued, year after year, administration after administration.

Perhaps, as Montreal friends suggest, the Mafia had so much power, or was thought to have so much power, that fear kept people from spilling the beans. Certainly some very courageous Quebec journalists wrote books about the Mafia families and their role in Montreal, and paid for their bravery with physical attacks on themselves. What happened to them might have spread a sinister chill over officials.

Perhaps the widespread “black market” throughout Quebec whereby small contractors routinely ask for cash and are paid in it (to avoid taxes) created a certain climate that, when extended to City Hall, produced an acceptance of corruption and illegality that seemed part of the norm rather than something morally wrong.

Perhaps practices had gone on for so long, without anyone being outed, that others were encouraged to go along to get along, taking a little on the side because the risks seemed low to non-existent. It was, after all, the system. And a system involves so many people that there’s a weird kind of safety in numbers.

One can only hope that the Charbonneau commission will explore the reasons for the corruption and why no one stood against it. The explanations will undoubtedly be quite painful and not easily brushed aside, because they were obviously part of a larger culture to have persisted for so long.

The vast majority are not corrupt. Theirs isn’t a society where tax evasion is a national sport, or a place where telling the truth is a rare and precious practice, or one where faith in government has been so eroded that people take matters into their own hands.

That the Charbonneau commission exists, as did the Cliche commission decades ago investigating corruption in the construction industry, testifies to a willingness to shine a light on bad practices.

How does the evidence unveiled in the Charbonneau inquiry stack up in the annals of Canadian corruption? Construction of the Parliament Buildings involved kickbacks, as did many, if not most, big public contracts for building in the 19th and early 20th century. There’ve been corrupt practices in liquor commissions, road contracts, snow removal, advertising and government preferments episodically in this century. (Patronage is something different than corruption.)

It would be hard to recall, based on what has thus far been revealed, anything quite so deep and pervasive in recent decades. Yet no one squealed. Why?

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