s a city, Montreal has had better months. Revelation after scandal after embarrassment has rocked this old town, especially during the closing weeks of one of its most closely fought municipal elections in recent memory (which concluded, mercifully, after press time last Sunday). One is left scratching one’s head wondering, can it get any worse?
Consider the headline on the cover of Maclean’s magazine last week: “Montreal is a corrupt, crumbling, mob-ridden disgrace,” it blared. And, for good measure, added as a subhead, “What was once Canada’s most glamorous city is now a disaster… Even the mayor fears for his safety.”
All this follows the growing exposure of how public construction contracts are tendered in the city and why taxpayers are continually hosed on overpriced, substandard public works. As the city media have finally unearthed the open secret that our political decision-makers are secretly bought off by the tycoons who then benefit from our largesse, the political feeding frenzy has become manic.
It all reached a crescendo when disgraced opposition figure Benoit Labonté gave a tell-all interview in which he alleged that a “mafia-like system” runs city hall. In it, he claimed, construction companies routinely kick back part of their profits to the ruling party. A senior bagman for Mayor Gérald Tremblay has even been dubbed “Monsieur 3%” for the proportion of any public contract that is apparently expected to be returned to the ruling party in return for winning the public tender.
It didn’t help Labonté’s credibility that his heartfelt tell-all came after it was revealed that his political career had been bankrolled by the man at the centre of the controversy, bigtime contractor Tony Accurso, whose oversized Caribbean-moored yacht appears to be constantly booked by freeloading politicians. Labonté had nothing to lose given that he had been already kicked to the curb by his party’s leader, former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Louise Harel.
Montreal’s main rival, Toronto, is eating it up, of course. In commenting on the provincial government’s announcement of a special police squad to investigate municipal corruption, the Toronto Star smugly editorialized that “Palermo-on-the-St. Lawrence has seen cleanouts before. Former mayor Jean Drapeau of Expo 67 and Olympic fame made his mark more than a half-century ago as a crusading prosecutor. But nothing is forever. The city looks to need tidying again.”
It’s all a bit rich coming from a burg where the cops get busted for drug dealing, but there are several points to be taken from the criticism. The most important of them is that Montreal is a wild frontier as far as political party contributions are concerned. The rules are lax, and non-existent when it comes to party leadership campaigns, where the biggest IOUs are written to the men with deep pockets and long memories.
Montreal needs a clear and strong system of public disclosure of how and from whom political donations are made, including party leadership campaigns. Once in power, a party and a mayor have enormous power over a multi-billion-dollar budget. The people who provide that cash, however, have precious little knowledge over how spending decisions are made.
It’s all a cautionary tale for Eeyou Istchee. As self-governance inches closer to reality, democratic oversight needs to be established early to ensure that political power and the power to distribute public budgets are not the private preserve of a small, secretive clique.
An essential tool for avoiding such an outcome is to let the sun shine in by establishing clear rules of political financing and public disclosure. There must also be hard limits to the amount each individual can contribute to a particular candidate during an election cycle.
And, while it may be a touchy issue, this effort should include a conflict-of-interest code for former Cree politicians. Just as there are cooling-off periods for federal and provincial politicians who want to do business with the governments in which they recently served, the public service of Cree leaders (which is well-remunerated) should not be tarnished by a revolving-door system of contracts for recently retired or defeated political insiders.
This needs to happen as much for individual band councils as it does for the Grand Council of the Crees. The James Bay Cree have an opportunity to establish themselves as models for First Nations self-government.
People need to have confidence in their political leadership and their political systems. Calling Montreal “Palermo-on-the-St. Lawrence” may be a tad rich, but that image will tarnish the city for years to come since perception is often as good as reality. Who would want to invest in such a place?
Likewise, at a time when Eeyou Istchee is emerging as a beacon of successful political and economic development for First Nations across the Americas, the Cree need to take careful steps to ensure that the ideal of self-government is not tarnished by those who put personal greed above the public interest.