In Quebec, the police are political—and that's a big problem

Quebec police are facing a scandal over tapping journalist's phones. Here's why it raises troubling questions.

Montreal Chief of Police Philippe Pichet is recorded with a mobile device as he speaks to the media about the tapping of a newspaper reporter's smart phone at a news conference, Monday, October 31, 2016 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Montreal Chief of Police Philippe Pichet speaks to the media about the tapping of a newspaper reporter’s smart phone on October 31, 2016 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Patrick Lagacé is a columnist with La Presse, arguably the most respected French newspaper outside of France. He has written about matters of love, language, money and murder, to name but a few topics. He has a regular radio gig, and co-hosts an interview show on Télé-Québec, the province’s public broadcaster. He once convinced Justin Trudeau to jump down a flight of stairs on camera.

Lagacé also writes about the police. One of his recurring bugaboos is what he referred to in a 2010 column as police politique (“political police”). The Sûreté du Québec, the province’s provincial police force, “never bites its political masters,” Lagacé wrote in 2011. Because the SQ director-general is appointed by the premier, Lagacé posited, the SQ bends to the whims of the government in power.

The last two weeks have proven Lagacé was not only correct in his suspicions, but that the “political police” moniker extends to the province’s second-largest police force as well. First, Lagacé found out through sources that the SPVM, Montreal’s police force, had monitored his phone since the beginning of the year. He also found out that the SPVM had secured a warrant allowing the police service to listen in on conversations between himself and La Presse journalist Vincent Larouche, who also covers police matters. The police were able to secure warrants by convincing a justice of the peace that the journalists had illegally obtained material detrimental to cases pursued by the force. None of the warrants led to charges.

Finally, Lagacé found out the SPVM had tracked his phone yet again, in 2012, after he’d made inquiries about then federal Liberal cabinet minister (and current Montreal Mayor) Denis Coderre had used his position to get out of paying a traffic fine. In the same week, three other journalists—Félix Séguin (TVA), Monic Néron (a radio reporter) and Fabrice de Pierrebourg (a freelance reporter formerly of La Presse)—found out that the SPVM investigators pored through police employee records with the aim of finding out who was talking to the press.

In yet another case, the SQ was found to have secured a warrant allowing the retroactive monitoring of six investigative journalists between Nov. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2013—precisely at a time when many of these journalists were investigating corruption within the ranks of the FTQ, Quebec’s largest union federation.

La Presse journalists Patrick Lagacé (left) and Vincent Larouche were the object of a warrant that allowed police to listen to their 'private conversations.' (Jaela Bernstien/CBC Licensing)

Patrick Lagacé (left) and Vincent Larouche (right), both of La Presse, had their calls monitored by the Montreal police (Jaela Bernstien/CBC Licensing)

The timing of the revelations about the two police forces, seemingly coincidental, nonetheless reveal two similar traits between the leadership of Quebec’s biggest police forces: a keen awareness of the boss’s whims, and a near-maniacal obsession with secrecy and image. It shouldn’t need to be said, but monitoring journalists to flush out supposed threats to law enforcement isn’t generally a mainstay of advanced democratic societies. Such practices are more akin to Cuba, Venezuela and other sundry teetering nation states.

In the case of the SQ, the focus was almost entirely on journalists investigating the FTQ. In October 2008, Marie-Maude Denis had just broken a story about Jocelyn Dupuis, director of the FTQ’s construction wing. Maude, an investigative reporter with Radio-Canada, uncovered Dupuis’s extravagant (and falsified) expense reports. A month later, she broke another story about Dupuis’s various connections with the Hells Angels and the Mafia. (Dupuis has since been found guilty of fraud.)

In the months and years following, Denis and colleagues Alain Gravel, Isabelle Richer, along with La Presse’s André Cédilot and Denis Lessard, wrote and broadcast many of the stories that made corruption in the province’s construction industry a cause célèbre. They are arguably the reason why, in 2011, then-premier Jean Charest reluctantly called a commission of inquiry into the construction industry. And, in 2013, FTQ leader Michel Arsenault, wrote to PQ public security minister Stéphane Bergeron demanding that journalists be monitored. Bergeron did just this. In his letter to Bergeron, Arsenault said he believed journalists gained access to wiretaps that the police themselves had placed on him in the course of investigating the FTQ. (Bergeron resigned as opposition public security critic in the wake of the SQ revelations last week.)

“It was a huge fishing expedition. Five years was way longer than I was breaking stories on the FTQ,” says Denis today. Also included on the list of journalists monitored by the SQ was the Journal de Montréal’s Éric Thibault, who hardly wrote about the FTQ but happened to be married to Denis. “What other possible reason was Éric included on the list than to see if I was using his phone to talk to police sources?”

The premiers of Ontario and Newfoundland, the two other provinces with provincial police forces, also have a large say in the naming of police leaders. In Quebec, the partisan lines are particularly apparent: since 1995, every change in government has roughly coincided with the naming of a new director general of the SQ.

“It’s always the same. The first thing a government does when it comes in is throw the old guy out and install its own man,” says Isabelle Richer. “You can’t accuse the other party when you do the exact same thing when you’re in power.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. (Photograph by Roger Lemoyne)

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. (Photograph by Roger Lemoyne)

When it comes to the naming of the top cop, what is true for the SQ is also true for the SPVM. Though it is the provincial government that appoints the chief, it does so on the recommendation of the city’s public security commission. Five of eight of the current commission were appointed by Coderre. Amongst many officers, current SPVM Chief Philippe Pichet has an unfortunate nickname: “Coderre’s puppet.”

The curious aspect of the SPVM crackdown on journalists has been the relatively low stakes involved. Police became interested in Monic Néron’s case after she published a story about the sudden departure of police spokesperson Ian Lafrenière. In Lagacé’s case, police monitored his phone after he inquired about the mayor’s $444 fine for failing to renew his vehicle registration.

The story turned out to be untrue, and went unpublished. Days after saying “politics should never interfere with police operations,” Coderre was forced to admit that he’d asked then police chief Marc Parent to look into Lagacé. (Coderre said he did so “as a citizen.”)

There is a reason that SPVM has sprung so many leaks. According to an SPVM sergeant contacted by Maclean’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the atmosphere amongst the SPVM ranks is “toxic” and “like the Soviet Union.” Members of the force, the source said, were often compelled to air the force’s laundry in public by way of the media because of their dislike of Coderre, who wants to lower public contributions to police pensions.

In one inadvertently hilarious case, SPVM assistant director Mario Guérin assembled 50 of the force’s top managers last April, following an embarrassing leak about the SPVM’s handling of a riot at one of its stations. “We must break the culture of leaks,” a furious Guérin said. Someone in the room leaked a recording of Guérin’s hour-long speech to TVA’s Félix Séguin. “Many, many police officers want to talk,” Séguin says. “I’d be lying if I said this didn’t help my work.”

The SPVM has resorted to tracking (and possibly listening to) journalists for what amount to embarrassing stories about the police force and Coderre. The SQ, meanwhile, has tracked journalists for investigating systemic corruption within the ranks of the province’s unions, and its political class—tasks the SQ itself is meant to take on. Either way, there are serious implications to the police politique.

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