Almost always, the first book that journalists write deals with some big story they’ve already covered which they revisit to dig out new, preferably shocking, details and some fresh insights about what went on.
My version of this familiar genre was called “The Shape of Scandal” and described a series of political scandals during the period 1964-’65 that came close to defeating the government of Lester Pearson.
While the assorted misdeeds varied greatly, their common characteristic could not be missed: all of them happened in Quebec.
That was way back. Go further back, and it was the same, from the patronage-riddled rule of the dictator Maurice Duplessis in the 1940s and 1950s to the Beauharnois Scandal of the 1930s.
Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s brought in a professional, non-partisan civil service. But only up to a point. In 1968, the American historian Samuel Huntington judged Quebec to be “the most corrupt area” in the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada.
Time and again, this “area” has included what could be called “Quebec in Ottawa.” There was the sponsorship scandal that brought down the government of Paul Martin. Before him, six of Brian Mulroney’s Quebec ministers had to resign. Before that, in Pierre Trudeau’s term, there was the financial outrage of Mirabel Airport.
And now there’s the construction industry scandal.
It is, in fact, the worst of the lot. Rather than yet another political scandal, it is more of a cultural scandal, a massive, multi-decade, comprehensive program of systematic theft of public money by a coalition that encompassed politicians both provincial and municipal, civil servants, construction companies, trade unions and organized crime.
Much of this was long suspected. Yet Quebec’s public was mostly passive and its press mostly silent. Periodic calls for an inquiry were ignored.
At last, something happened. Except that it happened outside of Quebec.
The painful truth
On Sept., 24, 2010, Maclean’s magazine ran one of the bravest and most insightful articles in all our years since Confederation itself.
Its title was, “Quebec: The Most Corrupt Province.” It cited all the examples of corruption. And it posed the difficult, painful question whether “the factor most important to this history of corruption may be Quebec’s nagging existential question whether to remain part of the country.”
As was inevitable, Maclean’s was denounced for “Quebec-bashing,” for being “anti-Quebec,” for “racism.”
What the magazine was actually doing was, at last, telling the truth.
That truth is now being told in detail by the commission into the construction industry headed by Justice France Charbonneau. And it is being confirmed beyond the least doubt as big city mayors brought in to replace predecessors charged with taking bribes are themselves replaced and charged with taking bribes. Also as grossly overpriced, shoddily built bridges and highways and overpasses crumble.
Still to be addressed is the Maclean’s question about the contribution to the evil system by Quebec’s political class — not to its actual existence but to the prolonged indifference to and silence about it. To a significant extent, the disaster’s cause has been the obsessive, decades-long absorption of all those clever intellectuals with separatism and sovereignty-association and special status and the rest, rather than with the daily needs and practical problems of the province’s citizens.
Two encouraging signs exist. In the last federal election, Quebecers abandoned the separatist Bloc Québécois and voted overwhelmingly for the New Democrats. That’s an important step away from the theoretical to the practical.
Encouraging also is the silence that seems to have overtaken Quebecers. Rather than the silence of passivity, though, this is the silence of a people who have already made up their minds about what needs to be done.
And what needs to be done is a radical change of Quebec’s culture, one as radical as the Quiet Revolution was back in the 1960s.
Quebecers have done it once. They can certainly do it again.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears
every other Thursday.