What lies beneath Quebec's scandals

COYNE: The factors behind the province’s penchant for money politics


No, Quebec is not the only province where political scandal sometimes erupts. Governments and business have been corrupting each other across this country since pre-Confederation days. But in no other province does it feel quite so . . . inevitable. British Columbia has thrown up the odd chiselling premier, Atlantic Canada is famously steeped in patronage, but there is no comparison to the kind of octopussal industry-union-mob-party configuration lurking just below the surface of politics in Quebec. Toronto may have been scandalized by the cronyism of the Mel Lastman era, but only in Montreal would a candidate for mayor publicly confess to being afraid for his life. When a senior adviser to Ontario premier David Peterson was forced to resign after it was revealed he had accepted a refrigerator from a party donor with ties to a developer, puzzled Montrealers phoned their friends in Toronto, asking, ‘What was in the fridge?’ ”

The roots of corruption run deep in the province. Scrounging for funds to carry him through the 1872 election, the eminently corruptible Sir John A. Macdonald didn’t have far to look: Montrealer Sir Hugh Allan, said to be the richest man in Canada, was even then angling for the contract to build the CPR. Fifty years later, with Prohibition in force and Montreal a flourishing centre of the cross-border smuggling business, Mackenzie King saw fit to put Jacques Bureau in charge of the customs department, with comically debauched results: the scandal that ultimately led to the King-Byng affair.

Fighting corruption has often proved the best opportunity for it. The young Maurice Duplessis made his name denouncing the venality of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau’s government (Taschereau was eventually forced from office on charges of abusing public funds, the third Quebec premier to suffer this indignity), much as Brian Mulroney rose to fame for his work on the Cliche commission—and just as Jean Chrétien came to power promising to clean up the mess left by Mulroney. Sponsorships, Shawinigate, the ghostly voters of the Gaspésie, Airbus: there’s a pattern here, and it’s useless to deny it.

What explains Quebec’s unusual susceptibility to money politics? Deeply entrenched deference to authority? A worldly Catholic tolerance of official vice? There is no grand unified theory: at different times and in different situations, different forces have come into play. Nevertheless, a few broad factors emerge:

Power corrupts, but so does impotence. Healthy political cultures are marked by contestability: results are unpredictable, success is incremental, and neither victory nor defeat are ever far from view. But the tendency, in federal politics, for Quebecers to throw their support to one party or another en bloc—and the province’s outsized importance, therefore, in deciding elections—has given rise to a peculiar set of pathologies.

On the one hand, the Liberal party’s decades-long dominance in Quebec contributed to the usual habits of abuse that accompany too much familiarity with power. On the other, the Tories’ equally long history of futility in the province made them all too willing to do almost anything to break through—and made them vulnerable, when they finally did, to every main-chancer that walked through their doors.

People do the worst things for the best reasons. In healthy political cultures, politics is at least tangentially about ideological differences. Then again, it’s still only politics: it’s not war. But in the last five decades, what Quebecers call “the national question” has more or less shoved normal ideological debates off the table, whether at the federal, provincial or even municipal level.

With the very survival of the country—or the birth of a new one—at stake, politics in Quebec took on, even more than usual, a wartime mentality: it became all too easy to justify to oneself, or to others, practices that might otherwise be seen as garden-variety sleaze. (That, at any rate, is the most charitable explanation for the sponsorship scandal.)

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The scandal is what’s legal. Outright corruption, as Michael Kinsley’s aphorism suggests, is only the tip of the ethical iceberg. People in politics are given to seeking refuge behind the law: so long as you do not actually commit a crime, you haven’t done anything wrong. Mere patronage or pork-barrelling is excused, so long as you don’t actually pocket the money.

In any case, it’s a false distinction. Once you get in the habit of spending the public’s money as if it were your own, it’s all too easy to forget whose money it really is. And, ethical standards having been so easily breached, you may find the guard rail of legality incapable of braking your momentum.

This is all the more likely if politicians are operating in a general climate of public acceptance of such activities. The long “bidding war,” as Brian Crowley has called it, for Quebecers’ affections—federalists versus separatists, Ottawa versus Quebec City—educated Quebec voters, already used to Duplessis-style bossism, to expect such “booty,” even to demand it.

Moreover, the distended role of the state in the economy under the Quebec Inc. model, its heavy use of subsidies and other tools of intervention, created a strong incentive to win the favour of those in power, by fair means or foul. Indeed, the state is not the only example of centralized power in Quebec: big government, big business, big labour—the enormous megaprojects of which all three are inordinately fond—all maximize the potential for improper collusion and blurring of lines. Even the crime syndicates seem more concentrated.

One other factor must be mentioned. Every society has its critics: successful ones thrive on them. But constructive criticism in Quebec, given the francophone majority’s perception of itself as an embattled minority, all too often leads to a closing of the ranks against what is invariably described as “Quebec-bashing.” If from outside, it is put down to ignorance of Quebec’s particularity; if from a non-francophone Quebecer, a failure to identify with the goals and values of the majority; if from a francophone, a traitorous readiness to advance on the backs of his fellows. One half expects to hear the same in this case.

CLARIFICATION: The cover of last week’s magazine, with the headline “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada,” featured a photo-illustrated editorial cartoon depicting Bonhomme Carnaval carrying a briefcase stuffed with money. The cover has been criticized by representatives of the Carnaval de Québec, of which Bonhomme is a symbol.

While Maclean’s recognizes that Bonhomme is a symbol of the Carnaval, the character is also more widely recognized as a symbol of the province of Quebec. We used Bonhomme as a means of illustrating a story about the province’s political culture, and did not intend to disparage the Carnaval in any way. Maclean’s is a great supporter of both the Carnaval and of Quebec tourism. Our coverage of political issues in the province will do nothing to diminish that support.

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