We believe Quebecers deserve better, and they seem to agree

PLUS: The House of Commons is profoundly sad at Maclean’s

Francis Vachon/CP

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Last week, Maclean’s ran a cover story about politics in Quebec entitled, “The most corrupt province in Canada.” In an accompanying column, Andrew Coyne predicted that our work, like most criticisms of Quebec society coming from outside the province, would be attacked by its political class as “Quebec bashing.”

Quite so. The story was loudly and stridently denounced by every politician within reach of a microphone.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe claimed the story was “xenophobic.” The head of the sovereignist organization Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal called it “hateful and defamatory.”

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, fresh from his appearances before a corruption inquiry,  sent us a letter demanding that we “apologize to Quebecers.” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff joined the chorus apparently without having read the article.

In fairness, some of our critics did give serious attention to our argument about political corruption in Quebec. Some denied any empirical basis for proclaiming Quebec the worst offender in Canada. Other provinces, they noted, have corruption—maybe Quebec is simply better than other provinces at exposing its own malfeasance.

It’s true that we lack a statistical database to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Quebec is an outlier among the provinces. But that does not mean we are required to suspend all judgment in the face of a preponderance of evidence—scandal after scandal at every level of government in the province, all of them involving not just one or two bad actors but systemic corruption. In the last five years we’ve seen the sponsorship calamity, with all its fraud charges and jail sentences and sinking of the Liberal Party of Canada; reports of price-fixing in Montreal public works projects, not to mention Mob influences that had Mayor Gérald Tremblay fearing for his safety; and most recently the myriad credible allegations of campaign finance chicanery and influence peddling aimed at the government of Premier Charest.

RELATED: The House of Commons is profoundly sad at Maclean’s

Yes, there is political sleaze in every province and party. Anglos do it, federalists do it, even NDPers do it. That’s not the point. No province but Quebec has managed such a comprehensive litany of embarrassments over the same period of time. It’s worth noting that none of our critics has mounted a credible case that any other province better deserves the title of worst in class.

Once the initial din of wounded and opportunistic politicians subsided, more thoughtful voices acknowledged the substance of our arguments. La Presse, the province’s leading broadsheet, wrote that our claim that Quebec has a higher number of scandals is “undeniable.” As to why: “We should have been asking ourselves this question a long time ago.”

Political columnist Vincent Marissal said: “I don’t see anything that’s inaccurate or exaggerated. Every Quebec media outlet has drawn similar conclusions in recent months.” When CBC TV went looking for public reaction to the Maclean’s cover in Montreal, it mostly found people who admitted that what we said is correct. “It’s sad. But it could be true,” noted one glum-looking man on the street, about his province’s standing.

Quebec does have a problem. Quebec’s political system is failing its people. But let’s be clear about this: it is a political problem, and a reflection on the province’s politicians and its political culture, not a condemnation of the character of the province or its people. Premier Charest’s letter to this magazine claims that we said “Quebecers are genetically incapable of acting with integrity.” Like all of the “Quebec-bashing” allegations, that is not only false but cheap in that it implicates the citizenry in the misdeeds of the politicians and their cronies. It is bad enough that the people of Quebec have to put up with corruption in public office—they shouldn’t be smeared by it as well.

Quebec voters have proven time and again they have little patience for corrupt politicians—frequently tossing out governments tainted by scandal. That is cause for optimism for the future of the province’s political culture. Another ray of hope is the robust state of investigative journalism in the province. Much of the iniquity we described in our article was diligently probed and exposed in newspaper and broadcast reports.

If Quebec’s people and its press continue to expect the highest standards of ethics and probity from public officials, change will come. We sincerely believe Quebecers deserve better.

One final note. Additional outrage has followed our use of the Quebec Winter Carnival’s Bonhomme on our cover. For instance, Henry Aubin, columnist for the Montreal Gazette, said we had turned the popular mascot into a “symbol of sleaze.” This strikes us as a bit rich, given that francophone artists over the years have used and abused Bonhomme in an array of satires and political cartoons. Like all Canadians, Maclean’s remains a strong supporter of the Carnival and the great tradition of Quebec hospitality it represents.

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