Does being in politics mean never having to say you’re sorry?

Two years after our cover story provoked a defensive uproar, evidence of the deep-seated corruption has continued to pile up
The latest edition of Maclean’s magazine is seen at a news stand in North Vancouver, B.C. Friday, Sept. 24, 2010. The Quebec government called a news conference to denounce Maclean’s magazine and formally demand an apology for what it described Friday as an attack on all the province’s people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Jonathan Hayward/CP

Two years ago, a Maclean’s cover declared Quebec “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada.” In the story inside, Quebec bureau chief Martin Patriquin presented a litany of examples, both historical and current-day, revealing the deep-seated record of corruption running through municipal, provincial and federal governance in the province.

We never argued Quebec was the only province to be visited by corruption or compromised politicians, merely that the scale and persistence on display in La Belle Province outdid anything we could find elsewhere. We argued further that this record constituted a tremendous disservice to honest Quebec taxpayers. Finally, we noted the heartening provincial tradition of promptly tossing out elected officials tainted by scandal.

The reaction to our efforts at lifting the veil on corruption in Quebec and encouraging voters to clean house? We were viciously and repeatedly attacked in numerous and unprecedented ways.

Quebec nationalists claimed our evidence was “hateful and defamatory.” Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said we were “xenophobic.” A public letter from then premier Jean Charest argued we had met “none of the basic standards of journalism” and demanded we apologize to the entire province.

And in an extremely rare (as in once or twice every hundred years) move, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion of censure against us, declaring “this House . . . expresses its profound sadness at the prejudice displayed and the stereotypes employed by Maclean’s magazine to denigrate the Quebec nation, its history and its institutions.” While the motion was sponsored by the BQ, it received tacit support from the Conservative government. It was a reprehensible all-party effort at stifling free and open debate in the media.

Finally, even our parent company, Rogers Publishing, expressed its “regret” over any offence that our cover may have caused—the cover illustration being an editorial cartoon of the Quebec Winter Carnival’s Bonhomme carrying a briefcase overflowing with cash. (To be clear, we said nothing to disparage the Carnival, nor did we suggest in any way that it was connected to the story about corruption.)

So, has anything interesting happened on this file since then?

Two years after our cover story provoked such a defensive uproar, evidence of the deep-seated and shocking level of corruption embedded in the Quebec political culture has continued to pile up. If anything, the details are getting more sordid.

After long resisting an inquiry into the allegations contained in our cover story—and attempting to turn the entire issue into evidence of our alleged xenophobia—last year Charest finally called the Charbonneau commission into “the provision and management of public contracts in the construction industry.” The details thus revealed support for everything we outlined, including testimony about brown envelopes of cash to city engineers, systematic bid-rigging, illegal campaign contributions and plenty more. It’s not mere happenstance that road construction in Quebec costs 30 per cent more per kilometre than in any other province. It is proof of ingrained corruption.

Charest then chose to call an election rather than face a completed Charbonneau report. Not only did the Liberals lose this past September, but Charest himself was tossed from his own seat in Sherbrooke. As we said before, Quebec may be the most corrupt province in the country, but time and again its voters have demonstrated little patience for scandal-plagued politicians. The same thing occurred with the federal Liberals following the sponsorship outrage.

And this week Montreal’s long-serving mayor, Gérald Tremblay, resigned abruptly. Tremblay has long insisted he knew nothing of the corruption rife within his administration. Perhaps. His political adversaries claim his sin was one of “wilful blindness.” Regardless, the Charbonneau inquiry recently heard a story from a former political staffer regarding a safe at Tremblay’s Union Montreal headquarters that was so tightly packed with dollar bills that the door required several people to heave it shut.

Given the preponderance of evidence—the mayor of Laval is currently on sick leave and is also expected to resign shortly after repeated police raids on his home and office—is there now any doubt Quebec fully deserves the title we awarded it in September 2010? And if it is the most corrupt province in the country, what of the trumped-up outrage over our efforts to make all this public knowledge two years ago?

Members of Parliament once claimed “profound sadness” over our coverage of Quebec politics. Surely mounting and incontrovertible evidence that Quebec politics is indeed deeply riven by corruption, bribes and assorted other illegal activities ought to make them feel even sadder. Perhaps a motion is in order.