2011 Charbonneau Commission: from scandal to indifference

Last week we learned that Judge Charbonneau would get another 18 months to shed light on the breadth and depth of corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.

Envelopes of cash changing hands during municipal elections; kickbacks to political parties and city employees; collusion among construction firms that systematically inflated municipal contracts by 30%; municipal property sold at a fraction of its value to developers with political ties: All of this was news long before the Commission of inquiry on the awarding and management of public contracts in the construction industry was established 18 months ago.

The Charbonneau Commission has shed light on the intimate, sometimes ridiculous details of systematic corruption: the city safe that couldn’t close because it was literally overflowing with cash; the city engineer who gambled away $300,000 in bribe money trying to return it to government coffers. Gleefully reported in the media, these episodes serve as a kind of comic relief in an otherwise infuriating chronicle of betrayal.

But honestly, after delving into the corruption commissions of 1972195019241909 and before, it’s hard to believe that this will be the inquiry to end all Montreal corruption inquiries…

“Il semble que le déroulement d’une enquête soit un processus cyclique où l’on passe du scandale à l’indifférence.”

“It seems that inquiry proceedings are a cyclical process in which we pass from scandal to indifference” wrote Jean-Paul Brodeur in his 1984 book La délinquence de l’ordre, which was the source of much of the info posted this week. Revelations of corruption may lead to political upheaval, but rarely, it would seem, to real change.

And if that’s the case, then perhaps the Charbonneau commission has already done all it can do. Last October, Gerald Tremblay stepped down as mayor of Montreal and finally dropped the pretense that he’s been innocent of the storm of corruption that surrounded his party. Two other mayors have also left their positions. Quebec’s Liberals, led by Jean Charest, who reluctantly launched the commission in 2011, were out of office before the most serious of the allegations were heard in court.

But if the saga of corruption commissions in Montreal reveals anything, it’s that politicians, criminals, and justice crusaders alike have a pesky way of being reshuffled into the deck and turning up again. The only sense I can make of this (and I’ve said it before) is that if we hope to bring about any change at all, voters need to stop focusing on the train wreck at City Hall, and to start paying more attention to the survivors.

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