MONTREAL (Reuters) - Half a century ago, a new crop of Quebec leaders sparked the so-called Quiet Revolution to eradicate the “Great Darkness” - decades of corruption that kept Canada’s French-speaking province under the dominance of one party and the Catholic church.
The revolution’s reforms, including cleaning up the way lawmakers were elected and secularizing the education system, seemed to work, paving the way for decades of growth, progress and prominence as Canada emerged as a model of democracy.
Fifty years later, a public inquiry into corruption and government bid-rigging suggests the province’s politics are not as clean as Quebecers had hoped or believed.
Since May, when the inquiry opened in Montreal, Canadians have been getting daily doses of revelations of fraud through live broadcasts on French-language television stations. Corruption involving the Mafia, construction bosses and politicians, the inquiry has shown, drove up the average building cost of municipal contracts by more than 30 percent in Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city.
Last month, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay resigned as did the mayor of nearby Laval, Gilles Vaillancourt. Both denied doing anything wrong, but said they could not govern amid the accusations of corruption involving rigging of municipal contracts, kickbacks from the contracts and illegal financing of elections.
Tremblay has not been charged by police. Vaillancourt’s homes and offices have been raided several times by Quebec’s anti-corruption squad, which operates independently of the inquiry, but no charges have been filed against him either. Police said the raids were part of an investigation but they would not release further details.
“Quebecers lived for several years under the impression that they had found the right formula, that their parties were clean,” said Pierre Martin, political science professor at the University of Montreal. Now, he said, “people at all levels are fed up.”
The inquiry must submit its final report to the Quebec government by next October. It has exposed practices worthy of a Hollywood noir thriller - a mob boss stuffing his socks with money, rigged construction contracts, call girls offered as gifts, and a party fundraiser with so much cash he could not close the door of his safe.
“Even though we are in the early days, what is emerging is a pretty troubling portrait of the way public contracts were awarded,” said Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in Montreal.
Quebec’s Liberals, the force behind the Quiet Revolution, launched the inquiry as rumors of corruption swirled. The government then called an election for September, a year ahead of schedule, in what was seen as an attempt to stop damaging testimony hurting its popularity.
The tactic did not help. Jean Charest’s Liberals lost to the Parti Quebecois, whose ultimate aim is to take the French-speaking province, the size of Western Europe, out of Canada.
‘IT WASN‘T COMPLICATED’
According to allegations at the inquiry, the corruption helped three main entities: the construction bosses who colluded to bid on contracts, the Montreal Mafia dons who swooped in for their share, and the municipal politicians who received kickbacks to finance campaigns.
In Quebec, the Mafia has been dominated by the Rizzuto family, with tentacles to the rest of Canada and crime families in New York and abroad. But recently the syndicate has been facing challenges from other crime groups in Montreal, according to the Toronto-based Mafia analyst and author Antonio Nicaso.
The reputed godfather of the syndicate, Vito Rizzuto, has been subpoenaed to appear before the commission, but the date for his testimony has not been set.
The hearings have zeroed in on four construction bosses and how their companies worked with the Mafia, bribed municipal engineers and provided funds for mayoralty campaigns in Montreal, the business capital for Quebec’s 8 million people.
“It’s not good for the economy,” said Martin. “It’s not good for any kind of legitimate business that tries to enter into any kind of long-term relationship with the public sector.”
Quebec’s anti-corruption squad has arrested 35 people so far this year, staging well-publicized raids on mayoral offices and on construction and engineering companies. The squad has arrested civil servants and owners of construction companies, among others.
“I now must suffer an unbearable injustice,” Tremblay said in a somber resignation speech earlier this month after a decade as mayor of Montreal, saying he could not continue in office because the allegations of corruption were causing a paralysis at City Hall.
Some of the most explosive allegations at the inquiry, headed by Quebec Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, came from Lino Zambito, owner of a now bankrupt construction company, and from a top worker for Tremblay’s political party, Union Montreal.
Zambito, who is seen as one of the smaller players and who also faces fraud charges, described a system of collusion between organized crime, business cartels and corrupt civil servants, with payments made according to a predetermined formula.
“The entrepreneurs made money, and there was an amount that was due to the Mafia,” Zambito told the inquiry. “It wasn’t complicated.”
Zambito said the Mafia got 2.5 percent of the value of a contract, 3 percent went to Union Montreal and 1 percent to the engineer tasked with inflating contract prices.
Tremblay did not respond to emails requesting comment on the allegations of corruption at city hall.
A former party organizer, Martin Dumont, alleged the mayor was aware of double bookkeeping used to hide illegal funding during a 2004 election.
Dumont said the mayor walked out of the room during a meeting that explained the double bookkeeping system, saying he did not want to know anything about it.
Dumont also described how he was called into the office of a fundraiser for Union Montreal to help close the door of a safe because it was too full of money.
“I think it was the largest amount I’d ever seen in my life,” Dumont said at the inquiry.
The inquiry also saw videos linking construction company players with Mafia bosses. In one police surveillance video, a Mafia boss was seen stuffing cash into his socks.
A retired city of Montreal engineer, Gilles Surprenant, described how he first accepted a bribe in the late 1980s after being “intimidated” by a construction company owner. Over the years he said he accepted over $700,000 from the owners in return for inflating the price of the contracts.
Another retired engineer, Luc Leclerc, admitted to bagging half a million dollars for the same service. He said the system was well-known to many at city hall and simply part of the “business culture” in Montreal. He also got gifts and paid golf trips to the Caribbean with other businessmen and Mafia bosses.
Gilles Vezina, who is currently suspended from his job as a city engineer, concurred.
“It was part of our business relationships to get advantages like golf, hockey, Christmas gifts” from construction bosses, he told the inquiry in mid-November.
The gifts didn’t stop there. Vezina said he was twice offered the services of prostitutes from different construction bosses in the 1980s or early 1990s, which he said he refused.
The accusations are jarring for a country that prides itself on being one of the least corrupt places in the world, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International. But experts say corruption in Montreal was something of an open secret.
“The alarm signals have been going off here for 20 years and no one has done anything,” said Andre Cedilot, a former journalist who co-wrote a book on the Canadian Mafia.
Quebec’s new government has introduced legislation tasking the province’s securities regulator with vetting businesses vying for public contracts and allowing it to block companies that do not measure up.
Anti-corruption activist Jonathan Brun was not optimistic.
“You’ve got to use modern technology,” said Brun, a co-founder of Quebec Ouvert, a group that wants to make all information about contracts freely available rather than asking regulators to oversee individual companies. “You’ve got to change the entire system if you really want to fight corruption.”
Writing by Russ Blinch; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Mary Milliken and Prudence Crowther