A couple of years ago Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story that labelled Quebec the most corrupt province in Canada. The cover art depicted the beloved Bonhomme Carnaval lugging a briefcase overflowing with cash, leaving a trail of dollar bills in his wake. Reaction to the story was widespread and furious, eventually leading all parties in the House of Commons to pass a motion expressing “profound sadness” at the magazine’s Quebec-bashing.1 But in light of the past months of lurid testimony before Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission about corruption and collusion practices, in Montreal especially, perhaps we need to acknowledge that Martin Patriquin, the author of the article, got more right than his outraged critics.
Gobsmacked viewers of the Charbonneau Commission’s proceedings have heard witnesses testify to a panoply of patronage techniques reminiscent of the bad old days when Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale ruled the province like a personal fiefdom. We heard of secret meetings during which bagmen shovelled wads of cash into their socks for safekeeping; a safe belonging to the city’s governing political party stuffed so full of cash that its door wouldn’t close; a fundraiser for that same governing party who earned the nickname of “Mr. Three Per Cent” for his habit of skimming a portion of municipal contracts from businesses that won bids to do city work; a construction boss who allegedly threatened to bury a city official in one of his sidewalks, for which he was given the moniker “Mr. Sidewalk”; construction and engineering firms that routinely showered city and provincial officials with gifts, including concert tickets (to see Céline Dion!) and access to corporate boxes at Habs games.
Recent public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Quebecers believe that their province is corrupt. At the same time, anywhere from half to two thirds of respondents also feel that the other provinces are no different – and certainly no better – than Quebec.2 The empirical evidence, what there is of it, suggests that this is wishful thinking on the part of many Quebecers. It is certainly true that unholy alliances between developers and city politicians are endemic across the country. One veteran observer of city politics in Winnipeg and other cities in English Canada speaks of a “recurring pattern, in cities across the country, of land deals and development agreements that raise questions too serious to be dismissed, but that fall short of providing solid evidence of wrongdoing.”3
To take one example: A recent exhaustive study of the funding of candidates in elections in ten municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area found that real estate developers were “by far the most important financier of winning candidates’ campaigns.” The author conducted an in-depth case study of decision-making by Vaughan city council, which demonstrated that councillors “frequently vote on development proposals submitted by those who financed their campaigns.”4 Such practices undoubtedly lead to subversion of the democratic process and to the silencing of a wide range of citizen voices at the municipal level in Canada. However, it does not compare to the Duplessis-style corruption we are hearing about in Montreal. What distinguishes Montreal from other big cities is just how organized the corruption has been, with a highly formalized system of kickbacks from construction firms to the coffers of municipal political parties and leaders.
The question then becomes: Why do we find systemic corruption in municipal politics in Montreal? We will not get very far if we simply ascribe the institutionalized political corruption unearthed by the Charbonneau Commission to a character flaw in Quebecers or to some component of their political DNA. This is the kind of pseudo-explanation that will justifiably get Quebecers and the House of Commons riled up. Instead, we need to focus on a number of factors, including the peculiarities of the construction industry in Quebec – a longstanding problem, as the Cliche Commission confirmed in the mid-1970s – and the distinctive morphology of organized crime in Montreal.
We also need to push even further into sensitive territory, as Patriquin himself did in his 2010 Maclean’s article, and ask whether the endless debate over sovereignty might have played some role in encouraging a particularly lax attitude among political elites to the question of party financing. When political actors are convinced that the very survival of their country is tied to the electoral success of their party, might they not be inclined to overlook how that party finances itself or spends its funds? Think of the reaction of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to the sponsorship scandal: “Perhaps there were a few million dollars that might have been stolen in the process, but how many millions and millions of dollars have we saved because we have reestablished the stability of Canada by keeping it a united country?”5
Revelations before the Charbonneau Commission suggest that a disturbing number of politicians at every level of government in Quebec have adopted a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” attitude toward violations of party finance regulations, which are among the strictest in the country in limiting contributions by individuals and corporations.
In reaction to the revelations, the current Parti Québécois government has tightened party finance regulations even further, restricting the amount individuals can give to political parties to a maximum of $100 per annum (and an additional $100 during an election year). This will create even greater incentives for those seeking government contracts to find clandestine ways of getting money to politicians. Instead, what is needed is a system of transparency of public accounts posted on the Internet, about whose money is going where, and who is making the decision, whenever government at any level spends money.
Rather than complaining that their province is being unfairly singled out on the issue of political corruption, Quebecers should demand that party elites devise practical solutions to put an end to this scourge. Then Quebec might once again become a model of what to do rather than of what not to do when it comes to party finance.
1 For the original story, see Martin Patriquin, “Quebec: the most corrupt province,” Maclean’s.ca, September 24, 2010, retrieved from here. For an update of the story in light of revelations before the Charbonneau Commission, see Martin Patriquin, “Now that you mention it, maybe it is time for an apology,” Maclean’s.ca, October 31, 2012, retrieved from here
2 Some of these survey data are summarized in Jean-Herman Guay, “Ouragan politique au Québec,” Policy Options, December 2011–January 2012, p. 37. See also the Angus Reid website, “Political corruption prevalent across Canada, say Quebecers,” February 11, 2013, retrieved from here
3 Christopher Leo, Senior Scholar, University of Winnipeg, personal email communication, March 21, 2013.
4 Robert MacDermid, Funding City Politics: Municipal Campaign Funding and Property Development in the Greater Toronto Area (Toronto: Centre for Social Justice, 2009), pp. 9–10.
5 Quoted in Shawn McCarthy, “Shut down campaign, PM orders Martin,” Toronto Globe and Mail, May 31, 2002, p. A1.
Brian Tanguay is professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.