While we wait for the Charbonneau Construction Inquiry to reconvene, I thought it might be a good idea to visit the Ghosts of Quebec Public Inquiries Past.
First, Quebec has seen no shortage of public inquiries, or calls for public inquiries. Some are well known and form part of our recent collective memory; the Poitras Commision’s inquiry into the Surete du Quebec, the Oka Mohawk crisis, the Laval overpass collapse.
But who remembers Premier Godbout’s 1943 call for an inquiry into hospital nurseries? Or what about the call for a securities inquiry when The Royal Trust Company (became RBC) moved assets from Montreal to Kingston on the eve of a general election? A move critics claimed was designed to enhance economic fears of a destablized and independent Quebec (The Quebec St. John Baptiste Society called it “as reprehensible and with graver consequences than any terrorist action”.) Remember the Fredy Villanueva affair? Of course you do. But what about the Wagner report into police’s use of excessive force during the 1964 Queen’s visit to Quebec City? Remember the Otto Lang inquiry into fully bilingual air traffic control? I didn’t think so.
This one caught my attention. In 1970 Roy Fournier, then chairman of the Liberal justice committee, called for a major inquiry into underworld activities in Quebec, a notion that then Premier Robert Bourassa suggested “might be a good idea”. Fournier claimed the criminal underworld had become so powerful in Quebec that only a major public inquiry could really address the problem. Then justice minister Jerome Choquette concurred saying that up 30% of Montreal nightclubs were controlled by the Mafia.The previous premier Daniel Johnson warned that,
“the underworld has invaded an alarming number of legitimate businesses in Quebec and urged immediate government action to curb underworld operations”.
Ahh, what’s past is prologue!
Alright, I’ll stop being cheeky and get to what’s really on my mind. Yes, my point is that Duchesneau, Amato, Tenti, etc… are all singing a song of the past, but the real elephant in the room is the Malouf Commission’s Public Inquiry into Jean Drapeau’s 1976 Montreal Olympics, and did we learn anything from that?
Let me set the stage, and stop me when any of this starts sounding familiar. It’s 1977 and Quebec is waking up to the fact that they didn’t get what they paid for. Mayor Drapeau’s second act to Expo 67 was supposed to cost tax payers $120M, but the price tag for the Olympics reached $1.6B (that’s right, “The Big Oh”… debt finally retired in 2006). The Parti Quebecois are fresh off their first provincial win and Rene Levesque (himself having just dodged a public inquiry for the fatal hit-and-run of Edgar Trotier) launches an inquiry into the Games, appointing Justice Albert Malouf to head a three-man commission. Among the findings:
1. All construction contracts over $1M had to have special government approval. This safeguard was circumvented by contractors who simply asked for multiple contract increases under $1M.
2. The project was completely controlled by one man, French architect Rober Taillibert.
3. The company that won the contract for parking with a bid of $3.7M filed multiple contract increases and ended up getting paid $9.7M. And the contract was not executed until 6 months after the Games were completed.
4. The chief contractors, Formes du Quebec-Stationnement Viau, Les Formes du Quebec Construction, Sabrice Ltd, Dube and Dube, Bombardier, Roski Ltd, Stratinor, all ended up earning profits disproportionate with the services rendered.
5. Roski Ltd., a subsidiary of Bombardier, won a contract for providing seats for the Games even though its bid did not meet the specifications set by the City of Montreal.
The whole mess is best summed up by Ian MacDonald who in a 1978 column wrote,
Government-appointed commissions in Ottawa and elsewhere often conform to the Canadian dictum of solving a problem by making it go away, Quebec inquiries typically assume a spectacular life of their own.”
MacDonald goes on to confirm what we already know; Public Inquiries are spectacularly staged acts of political theater. They cost a lot, and usually wind up scapegoating the wrong people, and sidestep solving real problems.
In the Case of the Malouf Commission, the recommendations came on the eve of the Montreal municipal election. It found fault with Mayor Jean Drapeau, and largely excused everyone else, including the Liberal provincial government in power at the time of the Games, much to the dismay of Rene Levesque (some civil servants got spanked)…
AND DRAPEAU STILL MANAGED TO WIN THE ELECTION.
In the next year, while we watch as witness after witness is dragged before the Charbonneau Commission, as the PLQ, CAQ, PQ jockey for position, as we wait for the recommendations from this Kabuki dumb-show, we might want to look to the past and not set our hopes too high.