It would be easy to dismiss all the fuss about corruption as a uniquely Quebec problem.
"Doesn't affect me," people may say, as they gloss over the latest shocking headlines out of Quebec's Charbonneau Commission or the scandal engulfing Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
That's dangerously shortsighted.
Here are three good reasons all Canadians should care:
- It’s your money.
- A cloud hanging over a flagship company affects all Canadian companies.
- What happens in Quebec may not always stay in Quebec.
There are federal tax dollars at stake. Federal money went to many of the dozens of municipal construction roads and sewers now facing collusion and kick-back allegations.
At least 15 projects probed by the inquiry received federal funds under a federal-provincial infrastructure program that expired in 2008, according to a Canadian Press investigation.
And that's before the Conservative government launched its $47-billion Economic Action Plan, which doled out cash for infrastructure projects across the country. It doesn't stretch the imagination to wonder if some of that money was similarly squandered on corrupt projects.
A 2011 report by the Auditor General of Canada disturbingly warned that the "fragmented" information from departments on Action Plan spending has "made it difficult for parliamentarians and Canadians to obtain an overall picture of results achieved against performance expectations and public resources spent."
Put simply: the A-G isn't sure if all the money has been well spent.
Eager for shovel-ready projects, Ottawa often relied on municipalities to take care of the details. We now know that in Quebec, at least, systemic collusion inflated costs for decades.
The recent arrest of former SNC-Lavalin chief executive Pierre Duhaime also has reverberations in Ottawa. Mr. Duhaime is charged with alleged fraud involving the company's work on the $1.3-billion McGill University Health Centre "superhospital."
Ottawa has sunk at least $100-million into the project. The Canada Foundation for Innovation, a federal agency, committed $100-million to help pay for a cutting-edge research facility at the site. The Quebec government matched the contribution.
But the far larger problem for Canadians may be the damage to its reputation.
Canada generally rates amongst the cleanest countries in the world. Canada was 10th best in the world in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perception Index – a measure of how others rate the ethics of our public officials. That's tops among Group of Seven countries.
The country's squeaky-clean reputation opens doors for Canadian companies and workers around the world.
Until Mr. Duhaime's arrest, the SNC-Lavalin scandal centred on allegations of illicit payments made to win work in some of the darker corners of the world where corruption is endemic anyway.
Now the taint of corruption has hit home – just a few kilometres from the company's Montreal headquarters, in fact. Canada's flagship engineering firm and a frequent partner of the federal government, both internationally and domestically, is under a cloud.
SNC-Lavalin has 28,000 people working on 10,000 projects in 100 countries.
People will rightly ask the question: If SNC-Lavalin wasn't clean in its dealings here, where can it be trusted? And more broadly, can Canadians be counted on?
Once tarnished, a good reputation is tough to get back.
And finally, there's another good reason Canadians should pay close attention to what happens at the Charbonneau Commission when it resumes its activities in the New Year. The culture of corruption that infected Quebec's construction industry may not be unique.
It may be nice to compartmentalize the country, but this isn't Vegas. It defies logic that corruption would be a way of life in one province and virtually absent in the rest of the country.
Experts say it's there. We're just not looking hard enough.
"A large number of offences of corruption go unreported and undetected" in Canada because police aren't looking for them and "there is no national mechanism in place that monitors and assesses the effectiveness of anti-corruption legislation and policies," concluded a report earlier this year by the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy at the University of British Columbia.
Governments across the country should be looking in the mirror and asking themselves if they're as clean as they think they are.