Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 17, 2012
Jean Charest might be onto something when, about corruption, he is purported to have said: “These are issues that have existed before this government and exist all over the world” (“Charest offers little excitement on trail”, Gazette, August 11, 2012, A-4).
Indeed, the constant talk of corruption on the campaign trail of this September’s provincial election might give an outsider the impression that this lamentable phenomenon is something new on the Quebec political landscape, or, as it happens, that of all of Canada. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. In fact, when one takes the time to look back, the problem appears to be, if not institutionalized, then at least cyclical.
For instance, a little over a hundred years ago, when the administration of the City of Montreal was passing through a particularly bleak period with regard to scandals of all sorts, the provincial government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate and make recommendations in this regard. The enquiry, designated the Cannon Commission, uprooted disturbing illustrations of bribery and wrongdoing at all levels of the city administration between 1902 – 1905. The five hundred-page report issued by Mr. Justice Cannon in December of 1909 revealed that 25% of public moneys were wasted mostly to the benefit of 23 particularly shady aldermen who were in political life exclusively for themselves and their friends. Yet, despite its many recommendations, the situation was little different when Camilien Houde retired as Mayor of Montreal in 1954 – nearly half a century later.
At the provincial level, anyone with a smattering of Canadian history from their high school years knows full well that the various administrations of Maurice Duplessis were riddled with fraudulent activities. Ironically, in the full circle that is so often politics, Duplessis was first elected in 1936 as a reformer who promised to clean up the wicked ways of the Taschereau Liberals. By the end of his very first mandate in 1939, Premier Duplessis’ government was almost as adverse as the previous regime.
Maurice Duplessis died in office in September of 1959 and only nine months later the provincial Liberals were elected in a hard fought race. Within a few months, the new premier, Jean Lesage, established the Salvas Royal Commission to investigate the rampant corruption of the Duplessis years. The final report, when released in January of 1963, was, if nothing else, scathing in its indictment of the disreputable practices of the numerous Union Nationale administrations from 1944 – 1960.
Maurice Duplessis , 1890 – 1959
Now fast forward to the 1976 Olympics and the nefarious scandals that forced the Quebec Government to take over the unfinished site only seven months before the opening ceremonies. Subsequently, in July of 1977, the Lévesque Government appointed Judge Albert H. Malouf to investigate and report on the questionable installation costs at the Olympic grounds. Malouf filed his conclusions in June of 1980, blaming Drapeau for most of the disarray. While the Montreal mayor promised to respond to the judge’s accusations, he never did although he had ample time. Jean Drapeau died in 1999.
Also implicated in the cost overrun affair was Drapeau’s right-hand man, and Chairman of the Executive Committee, Gerard Niding. Niding eventually pleaded guilty to breach of trust and accepting a bribe for having issued untended Olympic contracts in exchange for a home that was built for him, gratis, in Bromont.
At the federal level, of course, there are many examples of corrupt habits, some not even involving Quebec. The most infamous of all was perhaps (again, from our high school history days) the Pacific Scandal that eventually forced the resignation of Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in November of 1873. The scandal involved some big money, a little pretty heavy duty political bribing, and the always-contentious issue of the building of the railway. Despite the indignity of being caught up in a major impropriety, Macdonald triumphantly returned to power in 1878 and completed the railway to British Columbia.
More recently, quite naturally enough, the federal Sponsorship Scandal comes to mind. In this case, the Gomery Commission was assigned the complex task of attempting to track down two or three million dollars that went AWOL in federal spending in the period immediately following the 1995 referendum.
The Gomery Commission itself, it should be noted, cost fourteen million dollars.
The point is quite simple: while we should all unwaveringly fight corruption in government, we should at the same time recognize that some dubious behaviour in political life is in itself not an uncommon thing. In fact, it seems to be a constant down through the years.
Surprisingly, despite all the recent misconduct, Canada still rates high up on the 2011 Corruption Perception Index of the Berlin – based Transparency International NGO. In fact, Canada rates 8.7 while the United States ranks at 7.1.
Iran, the birthplace of Québec Solidaire leader, Amir Khadir, comes in at 2.7