Last week, former City of Montreal engineer Gilles Surprenant took the stand at the Charbonneau Commission and began to describe a 20-year career of inflating the cost estimates of public contracts in return for cash.
Not a momentary slip. Not an isolated incident of morals sidelined and questionable decisions made; only to soon be replaced by remorse. Nope. Twenty years of continuous underhanded dealings. Twenty years of stealing from every taxpayer who's ever received a hefty tax bill in the mail and groaned or silently worried about how this one, too, would be paid.
The man who was quickly dubbed “Mr. TPS” (taxe pour Surprenant) by the media for being responsible for the additional “tax” on all public contracts, had the gall to turn defiant on the stand and exclaim: "‘I’m not a villain. I’m a bureaucrat who was corrupted."
Aside from the fact there’s no need for the bombastic: you’re not Bane, this isn’t Gotham, all you’re really trying to say, my poor man, is this: I’m not to blame. I’m only an intermediate link in a perverse chain of action truly beyond my control. I was powerless.
It’s, of course, easier to think that way. Living your life while telling yourself that you’re just an insignificant pawn in the grand chess game of life (who can figure out what all those complicated moves are, anyways?) may make it easier for you to relinquish accountability, but it still doesn’t set you free from personal responsibility.
Surprenant wasn’t powerless. None of us are. Barring an earthquake, or a tidal wave, we all have some choice in how we react to our circumstances. There will always come a point in our lives when we have to choose between something that’s easy and something that’s right. Right is usually much harder, but choosing it always ensures you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning.
Like my grandmother used to tell me when I was a kid, don’t do something you have to excuse yourself for later. Remember kindergarten? Pick up your mess. Share. Don’t tell lies. Don’t be mean. Don’t take what isn’t yours without asking. Basic stuff... It still holds true after you’ve learned to tie your shoelaces.
Too many of us have managed to navigate through life without ever coming to terms with one basic truth; the buck stops with us. No, don’t look behind you. No, no… Not that guy on the left with the suspicious smirk on his face, or that woman looking away. With you. Always. That will never change.
Like Ivern Ball once said: “Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it's addressed to someone else.” Surprise! It isn’t.
Unless you’re a sociopath and have absolutely no conscience, you know what’s right. You know what makes you cringe, second guess, question, and hesitate. You know that little voice in your head that tells you not to do it. Sometimes it’s for innocuously silly things. That slice of chocolate cake you’re scarfing down when you promised yourself your diet starts today. That drink you’re accepting when you know you’ve already had one too many. Those “sweet nothings” you catch yourself saying to someone when you know you have someone waiting at home. And sometimes it’s about the lies you tell yourself as you spend day after day, for 20 years, selling your silence.
“You do not wake up one morning a bad person. It happens by a thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest.” Robert Brault
Corruption is an insidious temptation. “You do not wake up one morning a bad person. It happens by a thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest.” (Robert Brault)
There’s no question that this lack of accountability is a Catch-22. The more people see a lack of responsibility in the public domain, the more cynicism and alienation increases, and the more they want to get a piece of that tasty corruption pie.
And while I can understand the inclination, where does the Blame Game end and personal accountability come into play? When do we start pointing the finger at ourselves?
Sometimes the fault – and ultimately the solution – rests with personal liability, and personal accountability. Enough with playing the victims! We’re ultimately responsible for our actions. And if we question public servants’ moral compass, it’s our democratic duty to ensure that measures enforcing public accountability are enacted and enforced.
On that related note, I salute the PQ government’s recent decision to finally move ahead on its commitment to create a civilian oversight body to probe incidents involving police. Despite recommendations by the provincial Ombudsman and Quebec Human Rights Commission to create a special investigations unit like the one in Ontario, the former Liberal government never went along with the idea. Cases like the one I wrote about a few weeks ago, on Constable 728, illustrate clearly the need for such independent units to police the police. It’s high time this happened!
Only when citizens feel that everyone’s playing by the same rules, and opportunities for those with less of a moral backbone to stray, have lessened, can some type of faith be restored. And while it’s vital that increased transparency restores whatever faith citizens still have in our government (municipal, provincial, and federal), it’s a logical fallacy to accept the notion that every time laws are broken, it’s an overall and far-reaching societal problem that reflects on all of us. Sometimes it just reflects on the person breaking the law.