‘A new scandal all the time’

Allegations of wrongdoing keep piling up in Quebec

'A new scandal all the time'
Arsenault, the FTQ head, wants an inquiry into the construction industry; Laval Mayor Vaillancourt responds to bribery accusations | Mathieu Belanger/Reuters; Ryan Remiorz/CP

La Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) has never been keen on having eyeballs, governmental or otherwise, peering in on its affairs. Part of the reason is pragmatic: as the largest union federation in the province, it represents the lion’s share of workers in Quebec’s construction industry, a notoriously rough-and-tumble industry in which big egos and strong arms traditionally rule the day.

No longer. Last week, FTQ president Michel Arsenault essentially reversed his federation’s year-long opposition to become part of the growing cry for an inquiry into the construction industry and more. With the FTQ now onside with a growing list of fellow unions, political parties, legal and law enforcement organizations and citizens’ groups, there remains one ever-stubborn holdout: Premier Jean Charest, whose governing Liberals this week are expected to (barely) survive a non-confidence motion from the opposition Parti Québécois. Apparently, Charest’s intransigence is hurting him: nearly two out of three Quebecers believe their elected officials have something to hide, while roughly 75 per cent believe their province is corrupt.

The PQ has called for an inquiry into both the construction industry and the financing of political parties in the province. “And this includes the Parti Québécois,” PQ MNA Bernard Drainville told Maclean’s earlier this fall. “The point is, we have nothing to hide, because we think that for the most part our financing was done correctly.”

“Public inquiry” has become the buzz term du jour in Quebec—one that, while not entirely sexy, has teeth. After all, there’s a history of crusading public figures taking on crime and corruption in the province. In the mid-1970s, a retired judged named Robert Cliche teamed up with two young lawyers named Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard; the Cliche commission took on the seedier elements of the construction industry, and many believe Quebec is ripe for something similar today. “I have the impression that we as Quebecers are on the verge of a burnout, a nervous breakdown,” said radio host Paul Houde on the talk show Tout le monde en parle recently. “We deserve better.”

The FTQ seems to believe so as well. “Our members, and the public in general, are not satisfied with the slow pace of the police investigations” into construction industry corruption, Arsenault said at a recent press conference. “Every day there is something new emerging, and it has practically become a reality TV show.”

Certainly, Quebec’s political scene has been graced by plot twists and skulduggery, not to mention near-satirical levels of alleged corruption, over the last month. To wit: Gilles Vaillancourt, the long-reigning mayor of Laval, was accused of attempting to bribe then-Péquiste Serge Ménard in 1993 and provincial Liberal Vincent Auclair in 2002 with cash-stuffed envelopes. (Vaillancourt denied Ménard’s allegation, and said the envelope he handed Auclair contained a pamphlet on door-to-door campaigning in Laval.)

Cash-stuffed envelopes were de rigueur as recently as the 2008 provincial elections, according to David Grégoire. The Liberal candidate for the Masson riding northeast of Montreal recently said he received $3,000 cash from the director general of the town of Mascouche.

Three other Montreal-area mayors, St. Jérôme’s Marc Gascon, Richard Marcotte of Mascouche and Terrebonne’s Jean-Marc Robitaille, are being investigated by the province’s Municipal Affairs Ministry. Gascon’s home was transformed from humble cottage to plushy spread thanks to construction firm l’Archevêque & Rivest—the same firm that received several contracts from Gascon’s municipality. Gascon has refused to step down during the investigation; the same can’t be said for Marcotte and Robitaille, both of whom recused themselves following conflict-of-interest allegations involving nearly $65 million in contracts with construction entrepreneur Normand Trudel. (Trudel denied the allegations.)

Meanwhile, Paul Sauvé, president of L.M. Sauvé, a large construction firm, recently testified that he paid Gilles Varin, a political operative with ties to the federal Conservatives, $140,000 to obtain the $9-million contract to renovate Parliament’s West Block. Quebec, Sauvé testified, “has a grave problem [with] organized crime, whose tentacles proliferate large unions, including the FTQ.”

If this is true, then the head of this tentacled beast was recently cut off. The assassination of Mafia kingpin Nicolo Rizzuto earlier this month has worsened the power vacuum within the city’s organized crime factions. According to several La Presse reports, the Rizzuto clan devised a system by which the largest construction firms in the province—the so-called “Fabulous 14”—paid the family in exchange for preferential bidding rights on large construction contracts. Coincidentally or not, several Italian-owned Montreal businesses have since been the target of arsonists. Not even Westmount, home to much of the province’s political and financial elite, is safe; Cavallaro, a popular deli in the swanky Montreal burg, was firebombed last week.

Finally, the man Charest appointed to head up the province’s anti-corruption squad was himself embroiled in a scandal. Former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau temporarily resigned from his post pending an investigation by the province’s electoral office. According to a televised report, Duchesneau used “prête-noms” (front men, essentially) to guarantee a bank loan used to pay back a debt following his failed Montreal mayoral bid in 1998.

Even if true, the charges are relatively minor—so much so that Le Devoir suggested that they were made public because Duchesneau’s ability to root out corruption was working too well. “The work Mr. Duchesneau was doing was very good,” a senior Liberal source told Maclean’s.

The sheer level of corruption allegations wafting about the province has left one anti-corruption veteran dumbfounded. “There’s some new scandal all the time,” said Jean Sexton, chuckling ruefully, “a new bone in the soup every week.”

In 1974, at the age of 28, Sexton joined the Cliche commission, and two years later helped write the report that single-handedly stymied crime, graft and rampant strong-arm tactics within the construction industry.

The FTQ is apparently still stung by Sexton’s work: to this day, the union federation considers the Cliche commission to be an example of “a muzzling of union power,” according to its official history. Still, Sexton says the FTQ recent volte-face on another public inquiry doesn’t surprise him. “I think there was a huge pressure from within the FTQ to change its views on the subject of a public inquiry,” he says.

There are certainly similarities between the mid-1970s and today. Then as now, Sexton notes, the province was in the midst of a major overhaul of its infrastructure, particularly large Hydro-Québec projects in the province’s north. “The state is far more involved now than in 1972. Back then, 40 per cent of the construction industry was funded by public money,” he says. “It’s at 60 per cent today.”

And it isn’t as though Jean Charest himself is against the idea of inquiries into corruption. In 2002, as opposition leader, he called for a government inquiry, as well as for the resignation of PQ minister Sylvain Simard, for allegations of influence peddling in Bernard Landry’s government.

Sexton doubts a Cliche-style public inquiry would do much good, though. Quite simply, organized crime has become too big to be pinned down. “Look at the Mafia. It’s remarkably comprehensive. It happens in the construction industry, yes, but the brown envelopes and organized crime aren’t only in construction. They’re in the restaurant industry. They’re in the ports, they’re in trucking, the drug trade. They are in cigarette smuggling. They’re in the clothing industry. They’re all over the place. Same as the Hells Angels.”

The bigger problem, Sexton suggests, is that Quebec political culture itself needs to change—which isn’t something you can put to an inquiry. “It’s a hypothesis, but is it true that the more a government is implicated, the more there is the possibility for corruption? I don’t know. But it’s a question that I humbly suggest should be asked.”