Corruption casts a dark shadow over Montreal

Toula Foscolos
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As the Charbonneau Commission continues...

I started off following every single detail of the Charbonneau Commission on TV, in print, and on my Twitter feed, but lately I find myself drifting away – mainly for my own sanity.

Toula Foscolos

To use an unsavoury metaphor, it’s like a gigantic bag of sh*t was unleashed in front of my living room fan, and as I watched it inevitably splatter all over my walls, I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mess, I didn’t even know where to begin to start cleaning. So I just walked away.

If Montrealers are experiencing a mixture of disbelief, paranoia, cynicism, and nauseating anger these days, no one could blame them. If they’ve even reached the point of indifference, because nothing surprises them anymore, and the details and personal struggles of their own lives takes precedence, that wouldn’t surprise me either.

The Charbonneau Commission details revealed are just proving to be plain bad for our collective sanity at this point. While we all knew that dirty dealings were taking place, I still think many of us are shocked at the sheer magnitude of this corruption and the extent to which some construction companies have started looking almost indistinguishable from the mafia.

It’s unfathomable to me that civil servants (how deeply ironic is that term right now?) accepted constant bribes and somehow, over the years, convinced themselves that it was ok, because everyone was doing it. The kind of wilful blindness that cowards and small corrupt people will always use to justify their moral failings…

Gilles Surprenant accepted bribes totalling close to $500,000 over the course of 20 years. Retired engineer Luc Leclerc also admitted to accepting half a million dollars in bribes, along with bottles of wine, hockey tickets, and golf trips to the Dominican Republican with alleged mafia boss Vito Rizutto, whom he described (I can’t make this stuff up, if I tried) as a “really fun guy with a great sense of humour.” It’s all fun and games until someone crosses the line, of course…  

Leclerc also had the gall to let us know that he never compromised on the quality of the construction materials used, because, after all, he, too, had his standards, and that meaningless information somehow made the fact that he was complicit in this massively orchestrated rip-off, ok. He continued his testimony by assuring us that he loved his job and the social aspect of it. Thank God, because as a Montreal taxpayer, whose over-inflated municipal tax bill will soon be jacked up by another 4.4%, I wouldn’t want Leclerc and people like him to feel unfulfilled in their jobs. It would make me sad.

Martin Dumont’s straight-out-of-Goodfellas testimony about his days in municipal politics and his memories of Bernard Trepanier, the partisan fundraising official accused of collecting kickbacks from construction companies on behalf of the mayor’s Union Montreal party had everyone talking about safes that were so full of cash that they wouldn’t close. If someone’s not furiously working on a book about all this, I’ll be very disappointed.

If Montrealers are experiencing a mixture of disbelief, paranoia, cynicism, and nauseating anger these days, no one could blame them.

Most disconcerting, however, were the testimonies alluding to cuts of 2.5% of all construction contracts going to the mafia, and 3% to politicians. This is mass-scale corruption here; the kind that blindsides you from every possible angle. The kind of corruption Maclean’s magazine alluded to in 2010, when a cover story by Martin Patriquin made headlines and caused the ire of all Quebecers; including then premier, Jean Charest. Featuring Bonhomme Carnaval carrying a suitcase full of money, the headline pointed an accusatory finger at Quebec, calling us “The most corrupt province in Canada.”

While there’s no denying that the National Post routinely engages in sophisticated Quebec bashing, two years and countless damning testimonials later, Patriquin must be busy doing his “I told you so” dance right about now.

In the meantime, #bagofshame #sacdelahonte has been trending on Twitter ever since La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé decided to adopt a picture of him with a brown bag covering his head as his Twitter avatar to express his shame over what's going on in Montreal. When all else fails, humour is one way of defusing tension and anger. Sometimes it’s the only way.

Currently, Premier Marois is busy proposing anti-corruption legislation, as if Quebec is somehow bereft of this. Pauline, it’s called laws. They already exist! What took place over a span of 20 years is already illegal!  We don’t need more commissions, forums, meetings. What we need is for existing legislation to be enforced, and strengthened if need be. But mainly enforced!

I don’t claim to know what the solutions are here; I only see what people’s reactions are, as well as the inevitable consequences. As Willie Stark said in All the King’s Men (a classic, if there ever was, on politics and corruption) “Dirt's a funny thing. Some of it rubs off on everybody.”

The thing that worries me the most is that this ubiquitous dirt will rub off even on the ones who are clean. Pervasive, massive corruption of this magnitude saps people’s confidence in politics and public officials. If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it appears to be, then citizenship becomes a game for fools and there is no reason to try and stay involved or invested in anything. That, in itself, would be the saddest – and most dangerous - of all repercussions to come out of this corruption scandal. If people simply stopped caring…

Organizations: Charbonneau Commission, National Post, La Presse

Geographic location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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Recent comments

  • chuck
    November 03, 2012 - 09:21

    it is certainly clear that kickbacks, payola and percentages taken are endemic in the construction business. The commission has brought the nasty side of things into the living rooms of quebec and yet, I cannot help but thinking once all is said and done and the furor has dies down it will be back to "business as usual" at city hall. I may be too cynical but to me it is simply how business is transacted in quebec. Corruption is too much a way of life for these people and it will continue at taxpayers expense.

  • John Matheson
    November 01, 2012 - 18:14

    Organized Crime, Official Corruption, and Stock Market Fraud - the real 1%. Yes, Toula, you even wonder about the point of existence itself in the light of all of this....

    • Steve from Alberta
      November 02, 2012 - 14:02

      Corruption has been rampant in Quebec for as long as it's conception. This is well known world wide and it will be forever. It is the entitlement philosophy ingrained into your society.