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

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.




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

  1. The sound of milking…

  2. It is my understanding that at Macleans the story writer is different from the headline writer and the cover designer.

    Personally, I didn’t find much to offend in my quick read of Patriquin’s piece. I can see however where the choice of headline and image would and did offend. I don’t think this distinction is unique.

      • Thanks for the link. I note : “While critics note that measuring perceptions of corruption is not the same as measuring corruption itself, the latter is almost impossible to do – as the corrupt are usually keen to cover up their tracks, hard data on graft and bribery is notoriously difficult to come by.”

        Maybe the designation for Quebec should read “Perceived to be the most corrupt province”. Or as M. Patriquin writes, merely that the scale and persistence ON DISPLAY in La Belle Province…

        And how can it be that the most peaceful countries are the least corrupt, while the biggest military superpower is in the green zone of the least corrupt? Perceptions, again?

    • I suspect the reaction had more to do with the image of Bonhomme than the headline or article itself. Probably unintentionally, the image suggested that corruption was inherent in Quebec itself, that it was part of the culture. A lot of people who might otherwise have said, “Hey, you’re right, our government is corrupt—let’s vote the bums out!” instead looked at the picture and thought Maclean’s was saying francophone Quebeckers would forever and always be corrupt.

      • I live here in Quebec and have lived in other provinces. Corruption IS part of the culture here — let’s not conflate language with culture. It has always been so. When my parents moved here in 1967, they were flatly told to pay the driving instructor $300 to get a driver’s license. They did. Neither actually took the test, but they got licenses. That was 45 years ago, and I see no evidence of the endemic culture of corruption in Quebec changing.

        As for the sponsorship scandal, what was hilariously Quebec about it was not the payment for propaganda, it was that the Quebec company faked its reports! In other provinces companies may take kickbacks — only in Quebec will they take kickbacks and still NOT ACTUALLY DO THE WORK. That’s so Quebec!

  3. To answer your rhetorical headline question: I used to write correspondence for cabinet ministers, and never NEVER do they apologize for anything. I was told that they may ‘regret’ lots of stuff, but they don’t apologize for it (and they don’t take accountability either).

  4. Martin Patriquin’s article was great. However, you had to read it to understand that the headline and accompanying picture bore no relationship to what was in the written article, completely misrepesenting Martin’s good writing and throwing him to the wolves (assuming as most of us regulars do, that the writer has no say in the pictures and headlines). So how about a little transparancy and accountability yourselves, Macleans Editorial Board or whoever you are? Who chose the headline and who chose the picture, and if the Macleans apology consists of “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.” while simultaneously using a picture of the Carnival’s mascot and a headline claiming Quebec corruption as opposed to Quebec political corruption as if you’d never heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A look in the mirror would be good for you about now.

  5. During the late 1960′s I ran several large construction projects in Quebec as a subcontractor. It became quite apparent that anything I needed could be had for a bottle or two of liquor. Nothing has changed !

  6. I live in Québec for 6 months. When I read that article for the 1st time from outside Canada, considered MacLeans biased. However, 6 months later and living here, I always refer to it to support my arguments about corruption here.

    I WAS SCARED WHEN I LANDED IN MONTRÉAL – it’s dirty, has a lot to traffic and holes everywhere. And a lot of them!! Is it Canada? Funny is that always heard here that those holes on the streets are because of the snow! So, when I 1st traveled to Ontario and later to NY, the 1st thing I noticed: where are the holes!? Then I asked myself: so here it may snow *less* than in Québec ‘cos I don’t see holes (LOL). Also, bridges, viaducts, hospitals, daycares, deficits, eq payments, problems all over. The province is broken. Worst: still have to hear that lady talking about independence. Which investor will put money here? Result: year after year, Québec drowns on its own problems. We see it in the numbers.

    Anyways, am optimistic and hope that this Charboneau commission proves anything. At least, 2 less corrupts we already have. Hope it serves to expose that corrupts are everywhere.

    Today, MacLeans and Ontario’s papers are my main source for information because Radio Canada here and the french press are on the same boat – it’s like a brainwash here: don’t talk about the problems as they didn’t exist! It’s bizarre!

    Today, I avoid reading about corruption in Québec because who’s getting sick is me! An there won’t be a place for me in the hospital for the next 10 hours! lol

  7. Quebec lacks real pride, if they were their own country, they would police themselves better, re: their budget, and their excessive corruption, The Plains of Abraham was a very short battle, and it should not have happened. (If France had sent provisions to Quebec fort in the Spring, instead of sending provisions to the Palace of Versailles….).
    I like Quebec and enjoyed visiting there 2 years ago, just as much as I enjoy visiting other countries and their cultures.

    If Quebeckers thought of themselves as Canadians 1st, then fine, but they don’t, so as much as I like Quebec in confederation, I say now, cut them lose. I’ll still be a tourist, and they’ll have the same pride in their country that I do.

  8. Interesting how, when comments that could possibly be taken as charges (particularly when true) are made, the recipients do NOT move to refute them, but instead become strident and counter-challenging… on whatever issue. This is true nationwide. Is this what the old bard had in mind when he penned the immortal words, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”? The reaction is often how to judge the accuracy of a statement. Kudos to this publication for sticking to its guns!

  9. Isn’t Ontario worse. We don’t even care enough to vote out the corrupt politicians. We are standingby while Dalton’s oligarchy chooses our new overlord.

  10. I don’t understand why other provinces do not investigate the corruption inside their governments instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. What’s happening in Quebec now should be used as an example for others. Laughing at and insulting Quebecers for this is ridiculous.

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