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The Sorrows of Wise Charbonneau: or, the need for a Canadian sequel

June 17, 2013

5-minute read

After a year of hearings, let’s stop and reflect on what we’ve learnt so far from the ongoing show on the Charbonneau Commission channel.


Though hearings began last year, in the midst of the Maple Spring, revelations regarding dubious links between the construction business, the mafia, and political party funding started making steady headlines in 2009, thanks to investigative journalism at Radio-Canada (Enquête), La Presse, Le Devoir, and the bygone Rue Frontenac.

A public inquiry was first requested in April 2009 by Sylvie Roy, a MNA elected under the banner of the ADQ, now dissolved into the CAQ. The Liberal Party was in its third mandate, and Jean Charest had absolutely no intention of giving in. Over the course of two years, he consistently refused to set up a public inquiry, favouring instead the formation of police squads. First came Marteau in October 2009, then an anti-collusion unit (UAC) within the Ministry of Transport the following February, and finally UPAC a year later to oversee both and to coordinate other (non-public) inquiries.

Act I: Duchesneau

The inquiry was finally set up in 2012. When former head of UAC Jacques Duchesneau spoke of a 70% rate of dirty money in provincial party politics, everybody thought the figure too big. It was simply outrageous: it must have been an exaggeration!

His first coup de théâtre had been to leak his report as head of UAC because he was concerned that it would never be made public otherwise. He repeated his conclusions —adding the literally incredible figure— at the inquiry, under oath. With this spring’s revelations, columnists have started writing that it might not be such an exaggeration.

It is worth pointing out that after being the inquiry’s first star witness in June 2012, Duchesneau ran for the CAQ in the following August’s elections. He is probably now the most prominent MNA of the new right-wing party.

Act II: Zambito

Jean Charest had timed his final bid to be reelected premier so that the elections would be over before the inquiry’s hearings started again in the fall of 2012. He might have lost his gamble, but after initial discussion of the Italian mafia’s different factions and modes of operation, it became clear that Charest had no other choice. Lino Zambito took the stand and implicated public servants, engineers, the former head of Montréal’s executive committee, as well as past Liberal ministers.

Construction entrepreneur Zambito joined Montréal’s mafia-led sewage cartel. He explained how collusion was facilitated by some of the city’s public servants, who shared privileged information about upcoming contracts and approved false extras in return for cash and other forms of gifts.

During the course of the fall, with testimonies from a number of public servants, it became clear that business was conducted in the public sector much as it was in the private sector, with the public servants seen as “donneurs d’ouvrage” (owners providing work) to be cajoled. City employees showed little allegiance to their true employer, the city of Montréal, as presiding judge France Charbonneau frequently pointed out.

Zambito also revealed that a fake billing scheme was necessary to provide cash to engineering firms. This spring’s testimonials confirmed that political parties were the money’s final destination. Construction entrepreneurs, to maintain good relations with the provincial government, were also attentive to ministers’ needs, delicately underscoring for instance then-deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau’s fortieth birthday by sending a bouquet of forty roses to her office. How touching!

Act III: Montréal

Witnesses from all hierarchical levels at the city of Montréal paraded before the commissioners, all the way up to former head of the executive committee Frank Zampino and former mayor Gérald Tremblay. Both claimed their innocence, in very different atmospheres, but the overall picture we are left with is that Zampino was the mastermind, closely involved in the contract-splitting schemes for both construction and engineering firms.

Zampino’s sidekick appears to have been Bernard Trépanier, chief fundraiser for the mayor’s political party, the now-dissolved Union Montréal. People in the industry called him “Mr. Three Per Cent” for the tax he collected on contracts granted to firms, but party officials say there were no such kickbacks. A number of witnesses have suggested that Trépanier just pocketed the money for himself.

As for mayor Tremblay, he probably did not know, but also did not seem like he was trying to. A plausible hypothesis links his hands-off attitude to his former position as minister in the provincial government, a job much less involved in day-to-day operations than that of mayor.

Act IV: Laval

Next up was Laval, Québec’s third largest city, the island just north of Montréal. The Commission turning its gaze onto Gilles Vaillancourt’s kingdom effectively put an end to his twenty-year near-dictatorship. Again, the contract attribution process was rigged, but this time, the mayor was in full control. He has even been accused of leading a criminal organization under gangsterism charges!

In addition, Vaillancourt’s legal adviser testified that virtually all of the city counsellors —the entire council was under Gilles I’s control— had received cash (collected from engineers) to reimburse their political contributions. The revelation of this large-scale “prête-nom” or frontman scheme led to Laval being put under trusteeship because Vaillancourt’s successor had participated, like the vast majority of the current city council.

Provincial scenes

The issue of provincial-level political contributions was broached upon many times. Engineers explained that they were contacted by fundraisers from both major parties (the Liberal Party and the PQ). The widespread frontman scheme required for sectoral financing was first documented by Québec solidaire in March 2010 and is now investigated by the Chief Electoral Officer (DGE), which believes it could reach $13M.

What the construction business has to gain by funding provincial political parties remained nebulous until party organizer Gilles Cloutier came to the stand. Engineer after engineer explained that they contributed to municipal elections to get contracts, but when questioned regarding their contributions at the provincial level, they all referred to a vague notion of “just in case”. No collusion at the Ministry of Transport, they all said, singing to the eerily same tune.

Cloutier detailed the specifics of the “networking” opportunities offered by a governing party’s fundraising events: participation provided privileged access to ministers, who had the power to accelerate bureaucratic processes. Hence, Cloutier got engineers to come to his events by telling them that they could lobby on behalf of their municipal clients, making sure that grant would go through, or to get that long-awaited environmental permit. Access to decision makers in turn gave engineering firms a competitive edge when vying for municipal contracts.

Act V: Québec?

It’s not as big as the corruption we’ve seen in Montréal and in Laval, but it still is damaging to both the Liberal Party and the PQ. And that’s just what we know so far. Indeed, the perks of participating in fundraisers —just a 5-minute chat with a minister?— don’t seem to be worth all the money that was being pumped into provincial parties, not to mention the fact that engineers were solicited for donations outside of events as well.

For further inquiries into the provincial ramifications of sectoral financing, we’ll have to wait next fall: the Commission breaks for the summer in a week’s time. However, engineers mentioned that the same sort of fake-billing used at the municipal and provincial levels provided cash for the federal level.

Illegal funding and the favours to be expected in return are thus far from being Québec-specific problems. When will Canadian investigative journalism uncover enough to force a federal Charbonneau Commission? Or is this not being questioned elsewhere because it’s legal? To be continued in our next post...

This article was written by Marie Léger-St-Jean, research associate at IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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