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The misery of Charbonneau-era Montreal Add to ...

For the past seven months, Montrealers have been living in a Coen brothers film, haunted by a host of shadowy characters who seem taken directly from the famed duo’s acerbic scenarios: There’s the Mafia, the corrupted city engineer, the cash-carrying contractor, the trattoria owner shot in his garage, the party official who took cuts of public contracts, the mayor who looked the other way.

Although I’m a long time aficionado of Joel and Ethan Coen – I love their wicked irony – I’d rather not see my native city as a set for one of their films. Alas, I recently saw Miller’s Crossing, a 1990 film I’d missed when it came out. It’s about city corruption and gang warfare. Instead of just enjoying the movie, I couldn’t help making parallels with Montreal.

The Charbonneau commission – the most popular TV show in Quebec – has been focusing almost exclusively on Montreal. This week, the expected star witnesses will be former mayor Gérald Tremblay, who resigned last fall after a party organizer told the inquiry that Mr. Tremblay knew his party was requesting illegal donations; his former right-hand man, Frank Zampino, who was charged with fraud last May; and Bernard Trépanier, the former head fundraiser for Union Montréal, the mayor’s party, who was nicknamed Mr. Three Per Cent because, according to inquiry testimony, he asked for a 3-per-cent cut off the top of every municipal contract that construction and engineering firms won.

After this episode, the commission will aim its guns at another target. This won’t be one day too soon. Montreal’s reputation is in tatters, while its inhabitants’ moods swing from anger and disgust to depression and cynicism. And this unhealthy climate is not about to end, since the Parti Québécois government of Pauline Marois extended the commission’s mandate for 18 months.

Why such a long mandate? The inquiry should be near the end of its useful life. It helped people understand how systemic corruption works. It exposed the dark underbelly of the province’s major city. Moreover, its very existence served as a powerful spur for the police to intensify their operations. Why not, at this stage, let the police just do their work?

Of course, it’s in the PQ government’s interest to allow the muddy allegations to flow for as long as possible, since it hopes that, at one point, the Quebec Liberal Party will be shown to be a major player in the corruption scandal.

Until now, not a single senior elected official at the provincial level has been mentioned in commission testimony. Nearly all of the financial scandals unearthed these past few years by investigative reporters, the police or the Charbonneau inquiry took place at the municipal level.

Actually, I’m not surprised by the absence of big political names in the commission’s hunting bag. Far from sharing the common knee-jerk reaction that says all politicians are rascals, I’ve always believed that, on the whole, Canada’s (including Quebec’s) political class is among the least corrupt in the world, maybe a few notches below the Scandinavian countries.

In Montreal, meanwhile, spring is bringing forth its annual yield of potholes, a tangible effect of the substandard work produced by fraud and corruption. But wait. The city might decide not to repair the potholes because some of the companies that furnish the asphalt have been mentioned at the Charbonneau inquiry. Isn’t this a scenario made in heaven for the Coen brothers?

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