Downward Spiral – L’Affaire Matticks and the Poitras Commission / WKT3 #15

“Of course there have been blunders within the SQ. But we have to look at things clearly here. The government may be trying to get a message to the SQ as to who’s boss. But the primary impression I have is that ordinary people are being taken for fools by a government that’s trying to convince them public commissions solve problems.

Since the ’60s, we’ve been having public inquiries and what do we have to show of it? Nothing. It’s always been the same damn thing. Commissions take place long after the events that sparked them, usually after measures have already been taken to make sure the events don’t recur or when most of the people involved are no longer in the same position. And when at last they produce a report, those results are usually consigned to the wastebasket. “

Andre Parent, Allo Police, 1997

Andre Parent / Allo Police

The specific commission in question by Georges-Andre Parent was the Poitras Inquiry. Former chief justice of the Quebec Superior Court, Lawrence Poitras, had been charged by the Quebec provincial government to look into the investigative practices of its police force, the Surete du Quebec. Specifically there were allegations of evidence tampering during a drug investigation, and indications that the SQ’s high command attempted to derail an internal investigation into the matter that has simply become known as The Matticks Affair.

This is Who Killed Theresa?

Today I am going to attempt to CANsplain to you what was the Matticks affair and the Poitras commission. And – I know – some of you will say, “John, no, don’t do it, it’s a suicide mission” . This might be – in parts – some dry stuff, I’ll try to keep in moving and entertaining. But it’s important stuff, the implications and meanings had and still have far reaching effects. Like most things, I’m not going to tell you everything, you have to do some of the work because Matticks and Poitras informs and is informed by a lot of the cases we’ve focused on in the last few years on the website and in this podcast.

Places can be characters in stories. Buildings and bridges can be characters. The Saint Lawrence is a character. Montreal is a character. In today’s story, the institution itself, The Surete du Quebec, and its representation in the city of Montreal, the looming headquarters overlooking the Jacques Cartier bridge at 1701 Parthenais is a character. In this episode there isn’t a couple of bad apples on which we can focus and vilify, the rot comes from the entire institution.

We will get to the Matticks Affair, but first some background. As we saw with L’Affaire Dupont, this was not the first time Quebec police had been called into question for their practices. L’Affaire Dupont consisted ultimately of three separate inquiries spanning four decades. Just two years prior to Poitras, in 1995, there had been an inquiry into the SQ’s conduct when they conducted a raid on the entire police force of the town of Chambly over allegations of corruption and links to organized crime. There had also been an inquiry in 1983 into the death of SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay during an exchange of gunfire at the Mohawk barricades during the Oka crisis in 1990. Finally, many were voicing concern that Poitras was a duplication of efforts as there had just been in 1996 an inquiry which assessed the efficiency of investigative branches of all Quebec police forces. The Bellemare commission concluded that police detectives needed to be better educated, better trained, and more closely supervised.

Quebec loves its Public Inquiries

Quebec has seen no shortage of public inquiries, or calls for public inquiries. Here’s some past bromides:

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 moved assets from Montreal to Kingston on the eve of a general election? 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? Didn’t think so.

My personal favorite is the Malouf Commission’s public inquiry into the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Albert Malouf

I’ll set the stage. 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. The Parti Quebecois are fresh off their first provincial win and Rene Levesque 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 Gazette column wrote,

“When it comes to commissions of inquiry Quebec is truly not a province like the others.

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.

AND DRAPEAU STILL MANAGED TO WIN THE ELECTION.

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Back to Matticks, Poitras, and the Surete du Quebec

Allo Police editor Andre Parent, who always had a knack for seeing the big picture, continues with a brief history of the Surete du Quebec:

“Back in the ’50s, they were [Premiere] Duplessis’s police force, it was as simple as that. In the ’60s, they called in police from the RCMP (to reform the SQ’s practices) and some distance from the politicians was established. But then the Parti Quebecois came along and maybe wanted to have their “police nationale” (in an independent Quebec).

Finally, before they went from one brand of political interference to another the SQ cut itself off and said ‘we’ll no longer be at the mercy of politicians’ and found a way to work outside (government) control”

And now we have to ask ourselves if the SQ is not functioning as a state within a state, when it reached the point where no one felt they had to tell the public security minister they were moving in at Oka.”

So what… was… the Matticks Affair?

In May 1994 police charged two leaders of the West End Gang, Gerald and Richard Matticks, and five others, with importing 26.5 tonnes of hashish valued at $360 million that was hidden in a container ship called Thor, sailing under a Norwegian flag from Uganda and Mozambique that was docked at the Port of Montreal. A joint effort with the Surete du Quebec, RCMP and Montreal police, Operation Thor was initially ruled a great success, and was highly publicized in the media. At the time it was reported as being the largest drug bust ever conducted in Canada.

Operation Thor did not go as planned. Police initially placed the container ship under surveillance with the intention of sweeping up suspects when they showed up to pick up the containers. The plan went sideways when no one showed up to claim delivery.

At this point, police decided to seize the drugs and mounted a large scale police operation consisting of a series of raids on homes and businesses in hopes of gathering further evidence that would link more suspects to the drugs. Police seized an impressive amount of documents and evidence, including $800,000 in cash from the home of Gerald Matticks.

Gerald and Richard Matticks

One piece of the evidence were shipping waybills that were said to have been seized from the offices of a customs brokerage, Werner – Philips International. It turned out that in fact these waybills had been planted by police. The documents had actually been faxed to the Surete du Quebec three weeks before the raids by a Canada Customs official. The Surete du Quebec claimed it was all a “genuine mistake”, but Judge Micheline Corbeil-Laramee wasn’t buying it.

Reviewing the evidence, Judge Corebeil-Laramee threw out the case on the grounds that the four waybills gathered by investigators had probably been tampered with, and planted, upon which Quebec’s Public Security Minister, Serge Menard demanded a full explanation from the Surete du Quebec.

Menard preferred an external inquiry, but the Surete du Quebec decided to handle the matter through internal affairs.

In the summer of 1998 Bernard Arsenault, Louis Boudreault and Hilaire Isabelle are appointed to conduct an internal probe to, “shed light on the responsibility of members of the Surete du Quebec in respect of a drug importation case better known as the Matticks Affair”.

Even before the first witnesses were questioned, the investigation was doomed to failure. Isabelle would later testify that at a cocktail party later that summer he was accosted by top SQ officials who tried to intimidate him into backing off from the investigation. Isabelle reported the incident to the head of the SQ, Serge Barbeau. Barbeau does nothing, later arguing unconvincingly that he did not want to interfere with the investigation.

Frustrated with their pointless mission, Arsenault, Isabelle and Boudreault would eventually file a motion in Quebec Superior Court asking for a public inquiry. The three lost their court bid, and were rewarded by being suspended indefinitely with pay. Eventually Barbeau steps down as head of the Surete du Quebec, and is temporarily replaced with a civilian, Guy Coulombe, who launches the Poitras Commission.

As for the original Surete du Quebec officers from the Matticks raids in 1994 – Pierre Duclos, Michel Paltry, Dany Fafard and Lucien Landry – were suspended and eventually charged with perjury and fabrication of evidence. In the summer of 1996 they are all acquitted.

The Poitras Commission

The Poitras Commission consisted of three members, Lawrence Poitras,  Louise Viau and Andre Perrault. Their initial investigations studied many past inquiries, not only local affairs such as the Oka crisis, the Chambly report, Bellemare’s SQ inquiry, but extending outside the province; the Campbell report on the indictment of Paul Bernardo, the Wood report on New South Wales Police, the Giuliani and Barton report concerning corruption among New York Police. The public hearings commenced on April 14, 1997 and consisted of testimonies and the filings of 891 exhibits and 65,000 pages of evidence.

The final report, released to the public on January 28, 1999 consisted of a 4 or 5 volume book entitled, “Report of the Public Inquiry Commission appointed to inquire into the Surete du Quebec – Toward A Police At The Service Of Integrity And Justice”.

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“A crisis of values has shaken the Surete du Quebec from the beginning of this decade. The concepts of loyalty, integrity and equality are poorly understood. Any criticism of the organization or its practices made by a member seems suspect.”

Some highlights:

  • The Surete du Quebec didn’t have a mission statement.
  • Witnesses were often threatened. One investigator said to a witness: “I’ll tell you something about how it works at the Surete du Quebec. Drugs get planted in your car, the police are called and you’re screwed.”
  • Police officers were pressured into “testilying” in court so as not to lose a case.
  • The report painted a picture of a police force that was reluctant to use new investigative procedures.
    That a “law of silence” existed in the force similar to that found in organized crime.
  • The report blasted Operation Carcajou – a joint police task force set up to end the biker war that started in the summer of 1994 – as a colossal waste of money. The commission wrote that Operation Carcajou was characterized by dysfunctional relationships, clashing egos, and bureaucratic in-fighting with the Monteal  only interested in making a power grab, and the RCMP and Surete du Quebec only interested in ensuring that the blame for the continuing biker war fell on the other service.

Some of the 175 recommendations:

  • A civilian oversight board.
  • In response to a comment made by Public Security Minister Menard that “there’s a strange conviction (among SQ officers) that to apply the law and justice you must sometimes go around the law.”, a 24-hour legal counseling service should be set up to advise police officers what was legal and not legal.
  • More resources be allocated to ensure proper training and that criminal investigators have university degrees.

The Poitras Commission left more questions than it finally answered.

The report ended with the ominous words,

“Who is policing the police?”

Lawrence Poitras

Whether any of these recommendations were implemented, who can say? Quebec police are not accustomed to displays of transparency. The better question is, in the aftermath of Poitras, did anything change? It’s a matter of opinion.

Lessons learned: If they didn’t listen to Lawrence Poitras, if they didn’t listen to 50 years of advocating from the Dupont brothers, then how were they ever going to listen to me?

The saga of Poitras 20 years later still feels like a shadow play. Quebec spent about 5 years and $30 million dollars on the whole affair, what did anyone get for it? It fees like a kitten with a ball of yarn. What was everyone ultimately talking about anyway? Certainly not just a 1994 drug bust in the Port of Montreal. Was that a stand-in for something else? There’s 175 recommendations here, but most of them were never implemented, including the main recommendation calling for civilian oversight. The hearings have the feeling of Kabuki theatre, everything staged and choreographed. Is there some hidden language here that was never deciphered? Who has the decoder ring?

Ever feeling like you’re missing major portions of the puzzle?

We may never get to the bottom of Matticks and Poitras, but let me try to summarize how this is all symbology of how the entire crime / justice engine churns in Quebec:

The Italian mafia controls the importation of drugs coming into the city. The Irish mop controls the ports and the receiving of drugs, and the bikers are in charge of distribution. In addition, the Mafia controls construction, and the bikers get prostitution. The politicians are beholden to all three because they are supplied with drugs and prostitutes (and kickbacks from construction), and constantly find themselves in compromising situations, or possibly set ups orchestrated by the underworld, or by rival politicians. The politicians are also beholden to the police, who constantly have to bale them out of this compromising situations. So your politicians are simply puppets working for the interests of the criminal industrial complex, and at the mercy of a police force who now answer to no one, and are more powerful than the leaders that are supposed to govern them.

Back in the day, the offices of Allo Police were right across the street from the Surete du Quebec headquarters on Parthenais, about where their car impound lot is today. So that tells you…

The Surete du Quebec is like a series of Matryoshka dolls, peel the onion and smaller version of the same doll is revealed.

We spent 30 million dollars over forged documents and some intimidating words at a cocktail party?

It’s like we’re are chained to the cave. Watching silhouettes on the rock wall. And who watches those watchmen?

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