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Quebec corruption report shakes university campuses

Investigating the ethics curriculum in McGill Engineering

report leaked to the media last week confirming suspicions of widespread corruption, collusion and mafia connections in the Quebec construction industry has prompted questions concerning the ethical instruction students receive in Quebec university engineering programs.

The report, compiled by the Ministère du transportation du Québec’s anti-corruption squad, the Unité permanente anticorruption, was first leaked to Radio-Canada and La Presse last Thursday.

“In short,” the report reads, “criminal organizations are taking advantage of legitimate companies, in which they are silent partners, to funnel public funds, controlling the construction world.”

For civil engineering students at McGill, the exposed corruption is especially damaging. “It reflects badly in the public’s eyes on civil engineers,” said Ethan Landy, President of the McGill Civil Engineering Undergraduate Society (CEUS).

Engineers in Quebec are required to be members of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ) and to adhere to their code of ethics. The code includes duties and obligations towards the public, clients, and the profession.

“I don’t like it that this is reflecting badly on the profession when the profession is required to uphold such a high code of ethics, in theory,” Landy said.

The report gave an example of the kind of unethical behaviour Quebec construction companies engage in: “An engineer foresees 1,000 loads of contaminated soil when he knows full well that [the removal of] only 100 loads is necessary. By communicating that information to a certain company he can [tip the construction company off] to a savings of 900 loads, which can be advantageous to his offer,” reads the report.

The OIQ code of ethics stipulates that an engineer “must charge and accept fair and reasonable fees,” and that an engineer “shall not resort to dishonest or doubtful practices in the performance of his professional activities.”

The Faculty of Engineering incorporates ethics into their curriculum, requiring that all of its students take two courses that deal with professional engineering practice. Mohamed Meguid, Associate Chair of the McGill Civil Engineering Department, said students will learn “more information about engineering as a profession,” the “expectations from professionals,” and “the obligations that are attached to the profession” from the courses.

Ghyslaine McClure, a professor in the Civil Engineering department, who also acts as a liason between the OIQ and the Engineering Faculty, said that the ethics curriculum at McGill has been recently revised. Students used to take one course in their first year. The course has now been split into one 100-level course and one 400-level course.

“At the end of your program you have a better understanding of what it means to be an engineer and [of] the difficult decisions you have to make from a technical perspective,” she said.

The two courses are replacing MIME 221, Engineering and Professional Practice. Landy, who took the class several years ago, said it was a discussion-based course looking at cases of engineers’ unethical behaviour. Landy said the situation surrounding the Quebec construction industry was not discussed.

“We looked at a lot of different cases, one of which was the Challenger space shuttle, and it had to do with a fault in the [engineering] process,” he said.

“There was a whistleblower, essentially. The person, the whistleblower, suffered consequences because they took a stand against it.”

According to Landy, the class discussed whether engineering ethics encouraged or discouraged whistle-blowing.

“I don’t remember, so maybe it is me, but I didn’t come out with a strong impression, a strong yes-or-no, what’s-right-what’s-wrong, in that respect,” he said. “It would be good to know.”

Landy stressed the importance of educating engineers in the ethical issues that surround their profession.

“It’s really important for a civil engineer – especially for someone who’s going to be graduating soon, moving into the industry – to establish their view on this,” he said.

Alain Azar, now a Masters student in Civil Engineering, thought the one course he took on ethics as an undergraduate was “more than enough,” and that the questions he faced in the class were “really straightforward.”

McClure pointed out that students are educated about ethics long before they arrive at university.

“It has to do with your own values,” she said. “Are you willing to compromise and tell a few lies or not?”

“I always tell the students that the most important thing that you have as a professional, and that you never lose, is your reputation,” she continued.

McClure hasn’t read the report, but from what she has heard, she said its revelations don’t surprise her.

“I know people who have to work in those situations, and this collusion thing,” she said. “It does exist, and I think in a way it must exist in many other professions too.”

The report cites a decline in enrollment in civil engineering programs over the last decade in Quebec as a contributing factor in the corruption scandal engulfing the province’s construction industry. Enrollment in McGill engineering programs, however, has remained steady.

“I’m not sure [the corruption] is a factor that plays a role into directing students or scaring students away from engineering,” said Meguid.

— with files from Henry Gass