Why the Charbonneau Commission must continue

The Charbonneau Commission has been unearthing all manner of municipal corruption for six months, but it still has a lot of ground to cover.

When I started this column seven months ago, I began by talking about corruption. “As the French love to say, the accusation brings out  ‘les vierges offensées’ among the elite, but who can take their protests seriously when Quebec Inc. giants like SNC-Lavalin admit their top officials played key roles in bribing and propping up dictatorships abroad?

“Are we supposed to believe they don’t shit in their own backyard?

“We’re standing in their shit. We can’t always see it, but we smell it when we discover the cost of city contracts and Transport Québec contracts dropped by up to 40 per cent when the corruption floodlights were turned on by former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau.”

Well, after six months of the Charbonneau Commission, we’ve seen a lot of shit. More, frankly, than even a cynical hack like me expected. Testimony this week and last that many of the major Quebec engineering and construction firms helped fill the treasure chests of the provincial Liberals and Parti Québécois — as well as governing parties in Montreal and Longueuil — shows that these backroom deals were an open secret. Donations weren’t only laundered by CEOs and V-Ps. Everyone from managers to secretaries were recruited to make “donations” that they knew their bosses would repay.

And although testimony to date has mostly implicated the parties’ fundraisers in setting and collecting the illegal corporate bounty, their political bosses — our political leaders — could only be ignorant of the malfeasance by willfully shutting their eyes.

Political donations are the fuel that powers the vehicle. Do you really believe that the driver had no idea who was filling the tank?

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So far, the corruption probe has placed much of its focus on Montreal. Charbonneau has yet to examine neighbouring Laval, a city of 400,000 whose former mayor Gilles Vaillancourt held power for 23 years. Nor has it looked to see if federal political parties engaged in the same type of illegal fundraising as their provincial counterparts. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t place a dime on the chances that Vaillancourt or the federal parties come out of this unstained by similar charges of corruption, collusion and graft.

Justice France Charbonneau asked for and this morning received an 18-month extension on her original two-year mandate, indicating she believes the commission needs to do a lot more probing to evaluate how deeply and widely the cancer has spread. Without the additional time, the inquiry would have the same effect as treating just one tumour in a body riddled with disease.

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We’ve been told for years that Montreal’s aging water infrastructure is so rotten that we lose 40 per cent of our treated water through leaks every year. Ironically, this was one of the major incentives for the $355-million water-metre contract  that the city was forced to cancel after Gazette reporter Linda Gyulai exposed a scandal over how the contracts for the project were awarded.

Corruption in public works in Quebecis just like the leaking pipes. It does no good to plug one hole when a new one will appear farther down the line a few days later. Meanwhile, enormous volumes of public resources are being siphoned off by corrupt contractors, engineers, planners and public officials.

We have to resist the urge for quick fixes and hasty patches. Give Charbonneau the time to do her job properly and trust that her commission’s recommendations will offer real solutions. Meanwhile, get used to the idea thatQuebecwill be airing its dirty laundry for many months to come.

But make it a point of pride, rather than embarrassment, that we’re finally coming clean. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every second Tuesday in this space. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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