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Graft and loathing in Montreal


In the past several years, media outlets in Quebec have brought to light evidence of serious corruption among politicians at the provincial and municipal levels. Amid crumbling infrastructure, citizens of Quebec have complained that awarding of public municipal contracts to private companies has cheated the population for the sake of kickbacks and graft.

After two years of provincial Liberal inaction, ostensibly out of fear of political fallout, former Premier Jean Charest created a commission to investigate government corruption related to the construction industry in November 2011. The commission, presided over by Judge France Charbonneau, began its investigation last March in a series of public hearings. Although it has come far too late, the Charbonneau Commission is a necessary first step in the process of ending institutionalized corruption.

The dramatic events unfolding around the Charbonneau inquest have confirmed many Quebecers’ fears about their province. In late September, a police detective testified to the Charbonneau Commission that construction companies paid up to 5 per cent of the value of municipal contracts to the mafia to ensure that “everything went smoothly.” According to the testimony of Lino Zambito, former vice-president of construction company Infrabec, the awarding of city contracts was privately organized by ten companies who agree to take turns at offering the lowest bid. Zambito also testified that Union Montréal, the party of mayor Gérald Tremblay, receives a 3 per cent cut of every large public works contract. If Zambito’s testimony is true, then the entire system by which municipal taxes are spent on large projects is a sham, designed to line the pockets of construction companies and to protect the role of the mafia. This is only one sample of the shocking testimony that the Charbonneau Commission has witnessed.

On October 4, police raided the offices and home of Gilles Vaillancourt, the mayor of Laval, Montreal’s largest suburb. Last Tuesday, the Montreal Police Brotherhood, a union that represents police officers but is separate from the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM), denounced the Union Montréal government, alleging that the administration has “zero credibility.” Meanwhile, the city’s public works projects have ground to a halt as the extent of the corruption is being investigated. The Commission will not conclude until 2014.

Despite the persistence of a defeatist plus-ça-change attitude toward the pervasiveness of corruption in Montreal, the Charbonneau Commission has helped to galvanize the population to express their outrage. In contrast to the low turnout rate for municipal elections, a recent poll commissioned by La Presse found that 43 per cent of respondents demanded the immediate resignation of Mayor Tremblay. Last Friday, demonstrations took place at City Hall to demand that Tremblay resign. If citizens are to take control of Montreal from the hands of the mafia and corrupt politicians, then Montrealers must demand accountability from their representatives, through direct action and the vote. Regardless, to begin this process, Tremblay must resign.