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Making Meaning of Corruption

In recent weeks the city of Montreal has come to resemble an episode of the Sopranos, as allegations of corruption and organized crime have become a daily occurrence. Last week, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay announced his resignation after 10 years in office. The mayor’s somewhat inevitable resignation, followed by Laval Mayor Vaillencourt’s similar departure from politics, were the first real evidence of collateral damage caused by the Charbonneau Commission.

Martin Dumont, a former Union Montreal party organizer, is the one who brought forth these allegations against the Mayor. At the public inquiry Dumont testified that Tremblay was aware that his party was receiving kickbacks from various engineering and construction firms in the city. Dumont referred to several instances when he came across these infamous brown envelopes of cash circulating amongst city officials.

The Mayor’s resignation was a shock to Montreal’s political landscape, and has increased the public interest in municipal politics. All eyes are now geared towards the Charbonneau Commission to see what the inquiry will uncover next in the underworld of Quebec politics, and more importantly, who will take the fall. Some argue that this renewed interest in what goes on behind the closed doors of the city’s administration is a positive outcome of these recent events, and that “cleaning up” the city is just what Montreal needs. This idea of weeding out corruption is not new to Montreal, as the city has a long history of ties to organized crime.

Indeed, this whole scenario of a public inquiry brings to mind a similar situation that occurred half a century ago in Montreal. In 1950, a lawyer by the name of Pacifique Plante, or Pax Plante, brought forth allegations of corruption against several members of the city’s police department as well as against certain members of the city’s executive committee. Plante, along with another lawyer, Jean Drapeau, told the “behind the scenes” versions of the corruption riddled municipal politics in a series of articles published in Le Devoir. The duo then went on to create a public inquiry led by Commissioner Francois Caron. The inquiry resulted in close to 5000 charges against almost 60 police officers and city officials. However the most significant result was the election of a new mayor – Jean Drapeau.

This scenario does resemble Montreal’s current political vacuum, where a corruption fighter, a kind of national hero is working towards bringing forth the truth. Montreal’s former police chief and author of the initial corruption report, Jacques Duscheneau has been a key actor in creating the commission and one can even go as far as to compare Duscheneau to Pax Plante. Many have also recently compared Gerald Tremblay to the late Jean Drapeau, Montreal’s longest ruling mayor. However with Tremblay’s resignation, it remains to be seen who will rise to the challenge and attempt to mop up the mess at city hall. Will we see a new Drapeau like persona restore the city’s prestige and practice honest politics? Will this change come from opposition leaders Richard Bergeron or Louise Harel, or will Union Montreal be able to revitalize itself over the next year?

The fact that the city is once again in the middle of a large corruption scandal brings one to question the actual effect of these commissions. Are we really going after the right people? We are focused now more than ever on bringing corrupt individuals to swift justice without questioning the effectiveness of the methods used.

In the end everyone wants the good, honest political players to win, but as history has shown us in Montreal, the problem doesn’t seem to lie with these so-called bad guys. There are repeating cycles of corruption, which brings to question whether or not what’s need is not a change of players, but a systematic overhaul. Placing allegations against these politicians, engineering and construction firms has media benefits, and allows the population to feel as if justice has been served. However, what do these commissions do to improve the system? These individuals may be at fault for participating in corrupt activities, but it is the foundation of the political system as a whole that is fueling corruption.

Montreal presently faces uncertain political times. If history is any of an indicator of how things are going to unfold, the city’s problems are a lot deeper and more complicated than the resignation of a few key individuals.

 – Arielle Piat-Sauvé


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative WorksKevin Félix Polesello, Creative Commons, Flickr)


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