"Because what the politicians hadn’t counted on was that, armed with even a few facts, the people might one day rise up, and say “ça suffit.”
Secret Society: A hint of transparancy.A 2011 chronology of secrets kept and revelations made by Quebec’s power brokers – and why it matters:
Photograph by: John Kenney, Gazette files
This is how it is done, how it has always been done.
We don’t want to jeopardize negotiations, the politicians said. We don’t want to frighten people.
These reports are too complicated, ordinary people would not understand.
Enough. 2011 is the year Quebecers said enough.
Montreal’s bridges and highways were falling down, victims of neglect, flawed design and poor workmanship. Mobsters had already seized control of the construction industry, boosting the cost of roadwork by 35 per cent. Now there was talk of cozy deals for everything from asphalt to those sweet $7 spots in subsidized daycare. Universities dismissed top people with plump severance packages and bland explanations. The cost of mega-hospitals skyrocketed. Defence lawyers were beaten up. The city of Montreal got caught spying on its own auditor-general.
It’s tempting to try to make connections, to figure out how all the elements fit together. But like a thousand-piece puzzle where a cruel factory fairy left the picture off the box, key information was missing, off-limits, shielded by confidentiality laws, nervous cabinet ministers or bullheaded civil servants.
The binding thread was secrecy, a law of political omerta born of a culture of entitlement, a belief that the less the rest of us knew, the better.
Last February, The Gazette took aim at Quebec’s secret society, making it our business to demand more openness and accountability from government and public institutions.
Because what the politicians hadn’t counted on was that, armed with even a few facts, the people might one day rise up, and say “ça suffit.”
Citizens, enraged, disgusted and indignant – at the waste of their hard-earned money, paying for inflated contracts to line the pockets of criminals; at the waste of their time, in endless traffic jams – would begin to question the way things were, to demand explanations.
“Things need to change,” said Hani Beitinjaneh, who lost his wife Léa Guilbeault in July 2009 when a concrete slab tumbled 18 storeys off an office building on Peel St. and landed on the table where they were celebrating her birthday. Since then, he has invested countless hours investigating cases of faulty infrastructure, poor construction and neglect.
“You have to send an access request and then they send you documents, and then you find there are more documents. It’s like a puzzle. No one level of government has it all.”
All the while, the world was changing at the speed of Twitter. Inspired by WikiLeaks, by such populist rebellions as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and enabled by technology, it was increasingly difficult to keep anything secret for very long. For better, and sometimes, worse, privacy wasn’t what it used to be. Sooner or later, like it or not, the information was going to come out. The only question was how.
Here in Quebec, the secret society showed signs of cracking.
Probes into corruption and collusion in Quebec’s construction industry began years ago, as reporters at The Gazette, La Presse and Radio-Canada began turning over rocks and making troubling links between contractors, deals and political parties. It was arduous work. Montreal’s executive committee meets behind closed doors, its agenda and documents labelled confidential. What was discussed, how much was paid, even who asked questions or raised objections was off-limits. After deals were inked, contracts were difficult to obtain, tangled in the red tape of access-to-information requests and appeals that could take years.
But a couple of breakthroughs happened late last winter, the fruit of years of digging and needling by the press and mounting pressure from the political opposition and the public.
The Charest government named former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau to head a special anti-collusion unit, one flank of a permanent anti-corruption super squad.
Duchesneau, a one-time mayoralty candidate, was known to be fearless. This was a man who once arrested his boss for taking narcotics from an evidence locker.
In April, Quebec enacted a law that requires municipalities to post all contracts over $25,000 on an official government website.
The legislation wasn’t perfect. There’s no penalty for cities and towns that fail to comply and no one designated to police it. But it was a start, a place to track the big players and connect the dots.
By September, Duchesneau’s team said it had evidence of widespread corruption in the construction industry, with biker gangs and the Mafia throwing their weight around and playing a role in buying elections, particularly in smaller communities.
“Organized crime is comfortably installed,” said Duchesneau, insisting a full public inquiry was the only way to clear the air and root out the rot.
At first, Premier Jean Charest rejected a public inquiry, arguing it would thwart potential criminal prosecution.
But opinion polls showed four out of five Quebecers – and more than half of all Liberal voters – want a full investigation. When Justice France Charbonneau this fall requested and won subpoena powers for a public inquiry expected to take two years, Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier’s explanation was simply that the situation had “evolved.”
Meanwhile, Transport Quebec said it would set up an online registry where it would be possible to track construction firms that have been convicted of wrongdoing.
At least something good came of our long hot summer on “Coney Island.”
This was a very bad year for Montreal motorists to live on the other side of a bridge. Any bridge.
In January, federal officials met privately to figure out how to put a good spin on “alarming” inspection reports about the Champlain Bridge. In June, sections of the Mercier Bridge were closed with scant warning after engineering studies signalled dangerous wear to gusset plates.
Officials in Quebec and Ottawa refused to provide inspection reports. Transport Minister Sam Hamad said people would not understand them. Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel said he didn’t want to incite panic. There was nothing to fear, Hamad said.
“We never put the lives of users in peril. The state of Quebec bridges, the state of Quebec infrastructure, we’re taking care of it.”
And then, on a Sunday morning at the end of July, a 15-metre-wide concrete beam and overhead grids known as paralumes tumbled off the entrance to the mid-tunnel on the Ville Marie Expressway.
No one was hurt. But the risks were no longer theoretical.
That’s where Hamad was proven wrong. Falling concrete was one of those things everyone not only understood but cared about.
City, provincial and federal authorities were wary about releasing any details about what was wrong and why it had taken them so long to do anything about it. But by now, hundreds of thousands of people had already been inconvenienced by the emergency repairs. With plans for a new Turcot Interchange and rumours brewing of a bridge to replace the Champlain, traffic mayhem was expected to get worse before it got better.
Three days after the Ville Marie collapse, Hamad announced the government would soon release inspection reports on the Mercier Bridge and the Turcot Interchange. A day later, Montreal promised to release inspection reports for nearly 600 structures under its control.
Just after Labour Day, traditionally Montreal’s worst traffic day that doesn’t come with snow, Sam Hamad was shuffled out of the Transport portfolio. His replacement, a sharp, smooth-talking lawyer named Pierre Moreau, immediately shifted the tone from confrontation to conciliation, promising the government would be more forthcoming with updates and inspection reports. Two weeks later, Quebec launched a searchable online database that will house infrastructure inspection reports. “Quebecers want transparency, toughness and integrity,” Moreau said. “They are going to get it.”
In late November, Moreau’s office released 35 inspection reports on the Turcot Interchange. Findings were uniformly grim, the only question mark how urgently work needed to be done to keep the nexus functioning until a replacement was ready in 2018.
At least now people knew what was happening. So when Transport Quebec announced this week that it was banning heavy trucks from a Turcot ramp linking the Decarie Expressway to the Champlain Bridge after cracks were discovered, there was no longer astonishment. Just heavy sighs.
There were other indications that the cone of silence had been lifted, that the message was getting through that Quebecers were fed up with being spoon-fed just enough information to keep them complacent.
Under the direction of a new chief, Marc Parent, the Montreal police promised greater engagement with communities and a willingness to grapple with charges of systemic profiling of individuals because of their race, ethnic background or sexual orientation. In October, Fady Dagher, director of communications and community relations, promised a fresh and “surprising” approach in the SPVM’s policy directives, expected within weeks.
The department won praise for its smart and, compared with elsewhere, benign handling of the Occupy Montreal encampment at Victoria Square. And these days citizens keen to know what the police are up to can find out and talk back by tuning in to the Montreal force’s Twitter feed (@spvm).
In an effort to give open government a friendly push, The Gazette launched an online database in September to monitor who gets Montreal city contracts, for how much, and who made the decision.
But there is still room for improvement on the secrecy front.
At the beginning of the year, Quebec adopted a new code of ethics for members of the National Assembly. MNAs are now required to file declarations to the Commissioner of Ethics spelling out their business interests and real-estate assets, as well as those of close family members. Yet the salaries of senior government officials and civil servants remain confidential.
As the year ends, the city has yet to release the bulk of the reports on 600 Montreal-administered roads and structures that it promised after the Ville Marie collapse last summer.
Information in the city database for contracts is uneven, especially regarding the boroughs. Cities and towns are on the honour system to report what they spent and who got the contract.
Meetings of the city’s executive committee remain closed to the public, their discussions and who dissented off-limits even after decisions are made.
The same is true of many public and para-public bodies.
When the board of directors of the McGill University Health Centre met this week – behind closed doors, as they generally do – they accepted the resignation of its Chief Executive Officer Arthur Porter, four months ahead of schedule and just weeks after questions were raised about his non-MUHC activities and about the spiralling cost overruns for the mammoth hospital project at the Glen campus. The MUHC issued a prepared statement about Porter’s departure at 7:45 p.m. Neither he, nor anyone on the board, was available to explain the decision.
The hasty departure of Concordia University president Judith Woodsworth during the Christmas break triggered a winter of soul-searching at the university and an uprising by faculty, staff and students. After luring former president Fred Lowy back to restore calm, an external committee was assigned to propose changes in the structure and duties of the board of governors, which had been deemed secretive and exclusive. It’s not yet clear how effective those changes will be.
At McGill, demands for more openness have been blossoming this fall, sparked by the administration’s handling of a strike by non-academic personnel and the use of pepper spray on students who invaded principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s office during a demonstration last month against tuition fee hikes. Under the slogan, We Are All McGill, students and faculty held a rally demanding explanations. Munroe-Blum, who was recently granted a one-year extension on her second term as principal, said she was shocked by the police intervention and asked the dean of law to investigate.
This week, nine years after it was first promised, Quebec finally launched a public registry to record accidents, errors and medical mishaps in the province’s hospitals, community clinics and nursing homes.
Though a valiant and laudable first step, there are still kinks in the centralized database. At least nine hospitals failed to supply any results, blaming “technical difficulties.” And one-third of hospitals and nursing homes neglected to inform patients or their families of medical mistakes, although they have been obliged to do so since 2002.
There are still many unanswered questions: about the real story behind auditor-general Jacques Bergeron and email espionage at city hall; about why it took so long to realize our highways are cracked, our bridges are corroded and our waterworks are leaking; or how the 2005 World Aquatics Championships, which had secured $44 million in government funding, wound up saddling the city with a $4.77 million deficit.
As the year began, Quebec’s new Access to Information Commissioner, Jean Chartier, said he was committed to greater openness by the government and public agencies. “The more information is made public, the more citizens become conscious and interested in public issues. As long as people cultivate a climate of secrecy, the more it tends to create frustration.”
Yet he shared the view of his predecessor, Jacques St. Laurent, that changing mindsets in government’s upper echelons was a long-term project.
Indeed, more often than not, it still takes a tedious access-to-information process to find out something that as citizens and taxpayers we ought to know, whether it’s why renovating Hélène de Champlain restaurant is running $9 million over budget or what it would cost to electrify Montreal commuter trains.
But whether the politicians like it or not, our notion of what should and should not be public information has shifted, even since this year began. Folks at city hall or the National Assembly can surrender information willingly. Or they can waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to explain the daily embarrassment when something they tried to hide winds up in the newspaper, on radio or TV.
A 2011 chronology of secrets kept and revelations made by Quebec’s power brokers – and why it matters:
6-19: Federal officials meet behind closed doors to discuss “alarming” language in a “structural health assessment” by Delcan Corp. on the Champlain Bridge. Delcan engineers cite the risk of “partial collapse or collapse of a span.” Briefing notes say there are no plans to release the report, but cautions that “leaks are always possible.”
10: After three weeks of silence, Concordia University’s board of governors breaks silence on abrupt departure of Judith Woodsworth, the second university president in a row to leave midway through their mandate. Woodsworth is entitled to more than $700,000 in severance benefits. Board chair Peter Kruyt issues a written statement but refuses to meet reporters or answer questions. Two days later, 225 Concordia professors and staff sign open letter demanding a thorough public review of way university is governed.
19: Judge Michel Bastarache says judicial appointment process is “vulnerable to all manner of interventions and influence.” Though he rejects allegations by former justice minister Marc Bellemare of political meddling, the former Supreme Court justice says changes are needed to make judicial appointments transparent “to prevent executive discretion from undermining public confidence.”
25: Jonathan Brun and partners at Montreal Ouvert host city’s first Data Hackathon. They have begun pressing city to adopt Open Data concept and make scores of documents, reports and expenses accounts accessible in malleable open files.
3: Sylvie St. Jean, former mayor of Boisbriand, is one of seven people charged after Operation Hammer squad investigation into allegations of bribery in awarding of city contracts.
5: The Gazette launches Secret Society probe into Quebec’s behind-closed-doors approach to issues of great public interest, such as meetings and decisions of city’s executive committee and other public and para-public boards, public sector salaries, inspection reports.
An official at Quebec’s Access to Information Commission says different approach to privacy for senior public-sector jobs between Quebec and Ontario is cultural. “We do not ask someone what their salary is.”
Quebec Court of Appeal orders Access to Information Commission to re-launch a six-year-old request by The Gazette for financial records relating to the 2005 World Aquatic Championships. The games, which received $16 million in federal grants and millions in support and services from Quebec and the city, ended up with a $4.77 million deficit.
18: Quebec creates anti-corruption super squad that will combine Operation Hammer police investigators, Revenue Québec, the construction commission and a special anti-collusion unit, to be headed by former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau.
16: Robert Lafrenière named head of Quebec’s permanent anti-corruption unit.
17: La Presse newspaper obtains copies of Delcan Corp. inspection reports that say condition of Champlain Bridge is mediocre to deficient. Studies say deterioration is progressing “and risks to the bridge are increasing as time passes by.” Reports subsequently released by federal government.
18: Concordia University summons Bernard Shapiro, former principal of McGill, out of retirement to head external governance review.
21: A Gazette investigation shows Montrealers paying at least $30 million for studies on reconstruction of a short stretch of the Bonaventure Expressway. However, there is a discrepancy between city documents and financial statements by the Société du Havre de Montréal. The non-profit corporation does not issue annual reports and was criticized in 2010 for providing few details on its finances during hearings on the Dalhousie St. bus corridor.
1: New provincial law requires municipalities to post all contracts over $25,000 on SEAO, the official government website for tenders.
13: Quebec makes Montreal city hall focus of first investigation by anti-corruption squad. The investigation centres on allegations private security firms were awarded contracts without bids and that city comptroller Pierre Reid intercepted emails of council speaker Claude Dauphin and city auditor-general Jacques Bergeron. Public Security minister says results of the investigation will be made public.
10: Arthur Porter, chief executive officer of McGill University Health Centre, announces he will not seek a third term. Porter does not explain his decision and is not available for interviews.
14: Sections of Mercier Bridge closed without warning for emergency repairs after inspection reports showed some metal gusset plates had to be repaired.
17: A 30-centimetre wide pothole is discovered in a part of the bridge which is still being used.
The Gazette files access request with Transport Quebec for inspection reports on the Mercier Bridge.
29: Transport Minister Sam Hamad refuses to release inspection reports for the Mercier Bridge, saying the public does not need them and would not understand what they said. “There is no compromise with safety on any infrastructure,” he said.
15: Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel refuses to release studies on state of Champlain Bridge lest it cause unnecessary panic.
18: Canada Revenue Agency goes to Federal Court to seek an order forcing 150 Quebec municipalities to reveal all payments made to contractors and consultants over last four years. The move followed earlier probe into Montreal contracts. However the revenue agency refuses to say how that investigation is proceeding, citing confidentiality rules.
19: Transport Quebec rejects access request for inspection reports on Mercier Bridge.
31: A 15-metre-wide concrete beam and a section of supporting grid work falls off the entrance to the Ville Marie Expressway tunnel. No one is hurt, but tunnel is closed for several days.
3: Transport Minister Sam Hamad says department will soon release inspection reports on the Mercier span and the Turcot Interchange.
4: Montreal says city will release inspection reports for nearly 600 structures administered by the city.
10: The Gazette files request for access to public agendas and minutes of meetings of city of Montreal executive committee. City says it considers agendas for meetings drafts, which are confidential.
18: Gazette investigation reveals the Montreal General Hospital has acquired neighbouring land and plans to build outpatient clinics, although it did not obtain required authorization from the government, the city or the Montreal Health and Social Services Agency. MUHC officials refuse to disclose the financial terms of the purchase from businessman Vincent Chiara.
19: Transport Quebec refuses to release complete version of most recent Dessau Inc. engineering inspection on the Mercier Bridge, or previous detailed inspection in 2008.
30: Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Inc. rejects Gazette request for 2010 inspection report, with reference to exceptions when offences could be committed or valuable technical information disclosed. The Gazette files appeal with federal access commissioner. The city still hasn’t released the promised reports on city structures.
7: Embattled Sam Hamad shuffled out of the transport portfolio, replaced by Pierre Moreau, who promises greater transparency.
14: Report by Jacques Duchesneau’s anti-collusion unit leaked to select media outlets, cites widespread corruption and collusion in Quebec’ construction industry, linking construction contracts to the Mafia, biker gangs and political parties.
15: Transport Minister Pierre Moreau refuses to release Duchesneau’s full report, because it could interfere with police probe into corruption charges.
16: Premier Jean Charest says he will not call a public inquiry into charges of corruption and collusion.
16: Five months after new law on contract disclosure takes effect, only a fraction of the contracts awarded by Montreal and its 19 boroughs have been posted on the public database. There are no penalties for cities and towns that don’t comply.
19: Transport Quebec promises to launch searchable online database of inspection reports for thousands of provincial structures. “I want people travelling our roads to know what they could expect,” Transport Minister Pierre Moreau says.
22: Gazette launches documents.montrealgazette.com, an online database to monitor municipal contracts by contractor, amount, category and the decision-making body.
27: Jacques Duchesneau testifies before National Assembly committee, says a public inquiry into corruption in the Quebec construction industry is “the only way to reassure the public and correct problems that have become structural.”
However, Duchesneau suggested a first round of closed-door hearings, to protect witnesses from possible retaliation. Liberal MNAs say police work and more stringent laws are best way to push organized crime out of construction industry.
5: Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel announces plans to build a new bridge to replace the Champlain, at a cost of $3 to $5 billion.
5: Montreal’s executive committee turns down zoning request by Montreal General Hospital for outpatient clinics.
6: Gazette investigation reveals 10 suppliers – out of more than 12,600 – awarded nearly 25 per cent of city contracts over the last five years. The 10, primarily in the construction industry, accounted for work valued at $1.04 billion. Findings were result of municipal contract database developed by The Gazette.
11: Tony Tomassi, a member of the National Assembly and former family minister in Charest government, charged with two counts of fraud and one of breach of trust.
17: Fifty-seven per cent of Liberal voters say they favour a public inquiry into allegations of corruption and collusion in construction contracts.
18: Gazette investigation shows just three companies received more than 69 per cent of paving contracts awarded by Transport Quebec between October 2009 and July 2011.
20: Quebec announces dozens of measures aimed at routing out corruption and price-fixing in road construction contracts. “Quebec wants transparency, toughness and integrity,” Transport Minister Pierre Moreau says. In addition to hiring more engineers and penalties for cost overruns, government promises to create a registry by June 2012 that will provide details needed to block companies convicted of fraud, collusion and corruption.
8: Arthur Porter, outgoing CEO of the MUHC and chairman of Canada’s Security and Intelligence Agency, comes under the microscope over news reports detailing his involvement with a Montreal-based lobbyist on behalf of an infrastructure deal in Africa that was never built.
9: Under intense pressure from opposition, media and the public, Charest government grants full inquiry and subpoena powers to anti-corruption commission headed by Justice France Charbonneau.
13: The board of directors of the MUHC sets up a special committee to work with CEO Arthur Porter for the final months of his term. In a statement, the MUHC says Porter had disclosed his outside business activities but they appear to take up more time than originally anticipated. In addition to his work with the Canadian spy agency, Porter sits on several corporate boards and founded a cancer clinic in the Bahamas.
14: A confidential 2010 inspection report obtained by The Gazette through an access request shows two overpasses on the approach to the Champlain Bridge are in “mediocre” condition with concrete crumbling and corroding reinforced steel. The bridge authority had denied access to the report in August but released an abridged version of the inspection report after The Gazette filed an appeal. Names of engineers who conducted the report, estimated cost of repairs and other data were deleted.
17: Gazette inquiry shows prices for city construction work is beginning to inch back up after a 30 to 40 per cent drop in prices immediately after anti-collusion measures were introduced.
17: Agence métropolitaine de transport refuses to release a 2010 study on the costs and benefits of electrifying commuter trains, saying it would hamper negotiations and have “adverse effects on (AMT’s) economic interests.”
25: Transport Quebec releases 35 inspection reports detailing the sorry condition of the Turcot Interchange. Transport Minister Pierre Moreau says province will spend $254 million to repair and monitor the 18-kilometre highway network until a replacement is built and it can be demolished in 2018.
26-27: Concrete grids, known as paralumes, are removed from the Ville Marie Expressway.
30: Quebec’s auditor-general Renaud Lachance chastises Treasury Board president and former family minister Michèle Courchesne for the “subjective” way spots were allotted in subsidized daycare centres.
2: Gazette analysis shows Montreal’s two super hospitals will cost taxpayers nearly three times the original estimates. Together with major renovations at Ste. Justine, Shriners, the Jewish General, Lachine and the Montreal Neuro, hospital construction costs are expected to top $7 billion.
2: Quebec sets up independent bureau to observe police investigations of police. But the proposed legislation ignored appeals from the Quebec human rights’ commission and Quebec’s ombudsman that police should no longer be called on to investigate other cops.
5: Arthur Porter steps down as CEO of the MUHC four months ahead of schedule. Board chair David Angus delivered the news at a closed-door session of the board. Porter is not available for comment.
6: Quebec launches public registry to track medical errors in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, nine years after it first promised to do so. Quebec becomes the first province to set up a standardized database.
6: Heavy trucks are barred from a ramp on the Turcot Interchange after cracks are discovered. The ramp, which links the Décarie Expressway to the Champlain Bridge, had been scheduled for major repairs next year.
8: Fay Forbes, whose son Jason was killed at a St. Henri bar 10 years ago, talks about the culture of silence and lack of trust in police that stops many in Montreal’s black community from speaking out.