Was the Nicolet commission destined to fail? The commission was created last year to tell us what went wrong with Hydro-Quebec’s system in the 1998 ice storm.

The commission released its report last month. The conclusion: it couldn’t find out why Hydro’s lines failed prematurely.

To some observers, the Nicolet commission’s lack of results didn’t come as a total surprise. Roger Nicolet, the inquiry’s head, staffed his commission with a horde of former Hydro employees, The Nation has learned.

Every member of the commission’s electrical-engineering research unit was an ex-Hydro employee. The unit’s chief was Gilles Marinier, a former Hydro vice-president. (Marinier also pops up in our story on p. 11.)

The Bouchard cabinet appointed six other commissioners to assist Nicolet. Two of them, Hélène Denis and Louis Cloutier, once worked directly for Hydro. A third, André Dicaire, was an assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Energy and Resources, the department responsible for Hydro-Quebec.

Even Nicolet had a past association with Hydro. In the 1980s, his engineering firm, Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltd., gota subcontract to help renovate Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The stadium was at the time under the management of the James Bay Energy Corporation, a subsidiary of Hydro-Quebec.

Was this past connection a possible conflict-of-interest? No, said Nicolet. One of his partners, Franz Knoll, took care of the job “I never worked for Hydro-Quebec,” Nicolet told The Nation. The same Franz Knoll, it turns out, was also hired as a consultant to the Nicolet commission.

Nicolet was in yet another possible conflict-of-interest because of his role as president of the Quebec Order of Engineers.

Louis Champagne, head of H-Q’s engineers’ union, testified under oath at National Assembly hearings last year that Hydro-Quebec regularly erects high-voltage power lines without involvement of engineers, a violation of Quebec law. Five years of complaints to Hydro – and the Order of Engineers – had fallen on deaf ears, he said.

Had the complaints been heeded, could flaws in H-Q’s grid have been caught? Quebecers will now never know.