Cleaning house after Charbonneau

The final report from the Charbonneau commission won’t be the end of the war on corruption in Quebec
Justice France Charbonneau delivers her final remarks as she sits on the closing day of the Charbonneau Commission, a Quebec inquiry looking into allegations of corruption in the province’s construction industry in Montreal, Friday, November 14, 2014. CREDIT: Graham Hughes/CP
CREDIT: Graham Hughes/CP
CREDIT: Graham Hughes/CP

The year 2015 will be a notable bookend to one of the more ignominious chapters in Quebec’s recent history. In April, Judge France Charbonneau will table her report on corruption in the province’s construction industry; given her reputation, it is likely be a frank, unwavering synthesis of the nearly 300 witnesses that Charbonneau, and the commission she oversaw, have heard over the last three years.

It will outline how some of the biggest construction and engineering firms colluded with one another to inflate government contracts; it will show to what extent the Italian Mafia was ingrained in the bricks-and-mortar business of street and sidewalk construction; it will demonstrate how certain local construction unions regularly used the threat of violence to keep its own members working. Finally, Charbonneau will show how various provincial political parties courted these vested interests by way of illegal donations.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as one expert sees it, is that the four-year barrage of bad headlines has brought about profound institutional and societal change. “There has been a ‘Charbonneau commission effect’ that has changed Quebecers’ mentality,” says Denis Saint-Martin, a Université de Montréal political scientist who testified about political corruption before the commission. “The commission has been a collective education about how corruption isn’t a victimless crime, how every time it happens it might mean one less spot in a subsidized daycare. It has helped destabilize corruption in Quebec for at least 10 years.”

The commission was born in 2011, after two years and some 10 motions and 300 calls to establish it during question period from the opposition Parti Québécois. Though he first balked at the demands, then-premier Jean Charest relented in the face of sustained public pressure; in the end, the commission helped cause the downfall of his government.

The Charbonneau commission has been an indictment not just of Quebec’s Liberal party but of the political class in general. The Liberal party reaped upwards of $7 million in dodgy donations from 12 large Quebec engineering firms between 1998 and 2011, according to commission estimates. Though the PQ led the charge for a commission, they also received donations from the very same engineering firms. “The reputation of Quebec’s political class was undermined, that’s for sure,” says Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée.

In 2015, Vallée says her government will bring in a law allowing it to go after any business or individual that has overcharged the government for any service in the last 20 years. Though she would not give an exact figure, Vallée estimates the government will recoup “tens of millions” in fraudulent claims.

The previous PQ government limited campaign donations to $100, and compelled companies with which it did business to pass a background check. But should Vallée’s bill pass into law in 2015 as expected, Quebec will have some of the strictest anti-corruption measures in North America. “There is no other jurisdiction in Canada that has done as much. And these laws wouldn’t have existed without the Charbonneau commission,” says Saint-Martin.

But there are still problems. The construction industry remains a cash cow for the Mafia—particularly in the building of sidewalks. “There’s proper competition in water mains and sewers. In asphalt there’s competition. I’m told that sidewalks are under control [of the Mafia], though. It’s not a free market on sidewalks,” former construction maven and Charbonneau commission witness Lino Zambito told Maclean’s this summer.

In September, the former company of Nicolo Milioto, dubbed “Mr. Sidewalk” for his canny ability to score contracts for Montreal’s walkways, was given the green light to bid on contracts—despite having been a known associate of Montreal Rizzuto Mafia clan. (His daughter, Elena, now runs the company.)

Yet organized crime and other corrupt elements in Quebec have been severely diminished thanks to the commission—a point that will be again hammered home upon the release of Charbonneau’s report. “I think Quebecers will be more attentive to corruption from now on,” says Saint-Martin. “People involved in corruption are seen as even worse now, and I think the commission is responsible for that.”