September 15, 2014

Commentary | February 7, 2013
Long live our civic shame
Montreal is a cesspool of corruption
Written by | Visual by Amina Batyreva

The carnival of corruption that is the administration of Montreal is, by turns, both disgusting and hilarious. While the city is currently undergoing a serious purge of criminal fraudsters at the top level of its bureaucratic and political hierarchy, the problem is much older than one might think. In fact, it’s at least 125 years old. Kristian Gravenor (BA, 1986), the indomitable scribbler of all things Montreal, recently discussed the Boodle Commission of 1888 on his blog, Coolopolis. According to Gravenor, little has changed: like the current Charbonneau Commission, the Boodle Commission was tasked with sniffing out the rotten, collusive deals between the municipal government and construction companies. Allegations were made that involved the mayor, James McShane, tarnishing his reputation irreparably, and helped him to lose the election of 1893. But that inquiry didn’t solve much. In fact, over the following century, the history of corruption at City Hall becomes even dirtier, culminating in the outrageous, but believable, allegations made every weekday at the Charbonneau Commission.

The 20th century saw the population of the island of Montreal grow from a few hundred thousand in 1900 to 2 million in 1970, after which it started to fall into decay, a state from which it is arguably yet to emerge.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would propose a simple formula: civic growth equals construction, and construction equals graft. For example, in the booming 1950s, when the economy was growing and suburbs both on- and off-island were being thrown up left and right, Mayor Camilien Houde apparently saw “corruption of the city council, police and the press as a fact of life,” according to his biography in the Canadian Encyclopedia, which also mentions that Houde argued against fighting the Nazis, because he admired the nationalism of Mussolini and Vichy France. What a guy! Despite Houde’s fascistic tendencies, and his fatalistic attitude toward corruption, we named the beautiful road that runs over Mount Royal after him, just as we will, apparently, name the street leading to the new superhospital “Arthur Porter Way.” Whatever qualities are required of someone in order to be preserved in Montreal street nomenclature, civic virtue certainly isn’t one of them.

Camillien Houde was followed by Jean Drapeau, the man who fought for the Expo and the Olympics, and who bestowed upon the city much of the shitty infrastructure that we are now demolishing. Drapeau, who spearheaded a commission that examined police corruption under Houde, was elected with popular acclaim in 1954. Ruling the city as a kind of soft dictatorship, Drapeau promised Montrealers that he would clean up city government, and build them a world-class métropolitain. He definitely delivered on one of those points, giving the city one of the most well-decorated and costly subway systems this side of the Iron Curtain. (As a side note, Drapeau shared some of the worst tactics of the 20th century’s autocrats: in 1970, he used the excuse of the October Crisis and violent separatist actions to jail his opponent before the election on trumped-up allegations.)

Unfortunately, the long-term problem of systemic government fraud proved intractable, and Drapeau stuck to providing beautiful distractions, famously declaring, “What the masses want are monuments!”

As it turns out, corrupt politicians, construction companies, and the mafia like monuments even more than the “masses” do. In 1970, underdog candidate Montreal won a bid to host the 1976 Olympics against bids from Moscow and Los Angeles. Drapeau personally selected Roger Taillibert, the architect of Paris’ Parc des Princes, to design a stadium unlike the world had ever seen. As one might expect, it was a cash cow for the local mob. André Pratte, author of the landmark history of the Montreal mob, Mafia Inc., noted the well-established link between the mafia and the delay- and cost-overrun-ridden construction of the stadium and the Olympic Village. Similarly, Allan Fotheringham wrote in Maclean’s magazine in the late 1990s that Drapeau’s Olympics were a “blueprint for corruption.” Due to the aforementioned overruns, the city finished paying off the cost of the stadium a mere thirty years later, having paid in total a cool $1.5 billion. Aside from serious motocross fans, I doubt anyone would contest the nomination of the Olympic Stadium as the city’s most unloved monument.

The 21st century seems to have brought no significant change to the city’s status as a corrupt metropolis. Currently, the commission presided over by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau is conducting a wide investigation into the links between government, the construction industry, and the mob. Although it is ongoing, and testimonials from those who have appeared at the commission are often contradictory, the commission has already revealed significant information about how collusion robs the city of its tax revenue.

Basically, corruption occurs at the level of contracts. For example, did you notice the poor quality of Montreal’s water system, say, just over a week ago? Although that has something to do with the age of the city, many much older cities seem to experience fewer water main-related disasters, and fewer of the constant, disruptive repairs Montrealers have grown used to.

Here’s one possible reason this pattern seems to repeat itself: city bureaucrats have been taking bribes and overpaying contractors while essential infrastructure is neglected for lack of funds. For years, aqueduct-related contracts were handed out by Gilles Suprenant, a city engineer who deliberately inflated the cost of repairs, and gave overpriced contracts to construction firms in return for a significant personal kickback. According to his own testimony in French, 97 per cent of Surprenant’s contracts were “faked.” Moreover, Surprenant received $437,000 in cash and valuables such as Canadiens tickets from construction entrepreneurs.

Enter a shadowy figure known in municipal politics by the jovial nicknames of “Bagman,” and “Monsieur 3 per cent.” His real name is Bernard Trepanier, and according to the testimony of engineer Michel Lalonde, Mister-three-per-cent went around making sure that the construction companies that won municipal contracts were the ones whose bosses had already agreed to pay back 3 per cent of the contracts’ value in often-illegal donations to Union Montréal, the city’s former ruling party. Bagman made sure that Union Montréal was defrauding citizens to ensure a successful reelection campaign. Eventually, evidence of Trepanier’s wrongdoing – including remarkable testimony from Martin Dumont, whom Trepanier allegedly called to his office to help close a safe that was overstuffed with cash – helped destroy the rotten organization that was Union.

Unfortunately, that was cold comfort to Montrealers. The millions in lost tax revenue are yet to be fully counted, and the “barrel of snakes,” a term used by Gazette columnist Henry Aubin to describe the ongoing revelation of allegations, is yet to be untangled.

For the record, Mayor Applebaum, the replacement for Gérald Tremblay, who was recently pressured to resign, was implicated vaguely by Le Devoir in certain “doubtful transactions” while he was the elected representative for a western borough [Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce]. Applebaum responded strongly in support of his own innocence, and no hard facts have come to light as of yet. But I warrant that Montrealers, hardened to years of government crime, aren’t feeling particularly generous at the moment.

How much change can we, as citizens, expect from the Charbonneau Commission? To her credit, the commissioner has worked fiercely and tirelessly in her interrogation of the witnesses, and her report is expected to shine a great deal of light on the sins of municipal government, and send several of the worst offenders to jail. But as our history shows us, there is a resilient culture of corruption in City Hall, and none of the commissions launched between 1888 and now have been able to resolve the problem. Those who claim that there is just as great a degree of corruption in other major Canadian municipalities should check their civic pride, and glance down at the cracked pavement they stand on: Montreal is rotten.

Quebec is a highly political place by Canadian standards, and as we are embroiled in discussions over the cost of education and what measures should be taken to protect the French language, we owe it to ourselves to reflect on how we can help end the rampant collusion in Montreal’s administration. The public should be more strident in demands for transparency: the Charbonneau Commission would have been launched much sooner had the kind of direct-action tactics used in the student struggle been applied to demanding such a necessary inquiry. We should also reflect on the appearance of a new political bloc on the municipal scene, Projet Montréal, which is less integrated in the established municipal system, and which has fresh ideas to help rejuvenate our city. And finally, we must resist the sort of ossifying, complacent, plus-ça-change attitude that comes from observing all of the graft in politics.

Long ago, Mayor Drapeau notoriously assured us that “the Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby.” If we already beat those odds, what’s the problem with ending a 125-year-old culture of corruption?

Kaj Huddart is a U2 History student and Daily Culture editor. He can be reached at kajhuddart@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.

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