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Quebec Corruption: Je me souviens!

November 21st, 2009 · 8 Comments

After a week of discussion/debate on some pretty serious issues … how about something completely different for the weekend!

When I began this blog, I promised readers some “inside” stories from my career and life from time to time … to help you understand my perspectives on journalism and politics … and sometimes just for your amusement.

Today… a rare opportunity to fulfill ALL three goals.

On Wednesday, a news report revealed a group known as Transparency International had ranked Canada as the 8th least-corrupt nation in the world.  Not too bad considering their survey covered 180 countries.

In case you missed it, the Top 5 LEAST corrupt countries were: New Zealand; Denmark; Singapore: Sweden and Switzerland. The BOTTOM five were: Iraq; Sudan; Myanmar; Afghanistan; and, Somalia.

Now, some of you may be wondering about why Canada didn’t place even higher than 8th??

Truth is we have NEVER been perfect in that regard, and I have long known that, especially having been raised in Quebec.  LOL!!

Just in the past few weeks .. once more … the news  in Quebec has been filled with stories of corruption: Montreal’s civic elections were rampant with reports, revelations and accusations of corruption, kickbacks and favoritism.

Quebeckers were fascinated by tales of “irregularities” in public tendering processes and even reports of Mafia involvement in the construction industry.

That’s why I could never  understand why so many Canadians, even federal leaders, were expressing such surprise a few years ago at the corruption that engulfed the federal Liberal party and its Quebec officials/connections/members/supporters in the Sponsorship Scandal.

Quebeckers weren’t surprised: they chuckled at the revelations … were angry maybe at the size of the ripoffs, but many, I suspect, were just indignant that they didn’t share in the federal waste and largesse!

Let me tell you about my experiences growing up in in Quebec.

As it says on their licence plates “Je Me Souviens”  (I remember).  Now I speculate that the Parti Quebecois replaced the phrase La Belle Province (The Beautiful Province) with Je Me Souviens to have Quebeckers never forget their glorious past as Nouvelle France and maybe even remember their discriminatory treatment at the hands of les Anglais who ran business in Quebec and shut them out for so long.

But I remember  (Je Me Souviens)  Quebec’s corruption!

As a new young car driver, one of the first things I learned was how to fold a $5 bill and place it between the two halves of my paper driver’s licence. This was to possibly grease my way out of any driving violations if stopped in Montreal. (for highway violations, a $20 bill was recommended.).

Now I was never stopped for a driving infraction in Quebec, so couldn’t test that out: but I was assured by others that it worked.

However, after moving to Saskatchewan to take my first newspaper job, I WAS stopped by an RCMP officer on the highway, for a minor infraction. I had only recently arrived there and had forgotten to place $20 with my new licence when I handed it to him .. but, after a warning,  he handed my licence back,  let me go and walked back to his car. No ticket!

I was so impressed I mentioned to a friend at The Leader Post that I hadn’t even had a chance to give the cop $20!  What?, he responded … half amused and half alarmed!  It was then explained to me that if I had handed the RCMP officer $20 to get out of the ticket, I’d have likely ended up in jail.  Hmmm, I thought: apparently quite different from Quebec!

But that was not all.

Before going to university, I worked in the purchasing department of a very large company that supplied restaurants/hotels/ships etc with food supplies.

As a junior clerk, working under a buyer, part of  my job was to call three major different food suppliers each week to get quotes on a very long list of produce etc.   But it wasn’t that simple. LOL!

The buyer each week would tell me which supplier to call first … and then, BEFORE calling the others,  return the first quotes to him, which he would take away somewhere. When he returned, he would give me back the quote list and I would then call the others: and, not surprisingly,  ONE of the others would then come in consistently, on most items,  one or two pennies below the first and similar other quotes … and therefore would get the bulk of the weekly order. Although each company did get some business.  :)

Now, you may wonder, why didn’t those getting the smaller orders one week complain?  Because although the routine was the same, the company I called first rotated each week, and so generally so did the “winner”.   So everyone shared and I always suspected so did the buyer, who would disappear for a couple of minutes every few weeks with different food supply managers who would drop by “to say Hello”. The buyer would then come back,  seemingly a  much happier man. (Once I came upon him suddenly, after such a brief sortee,  and saw him placing a white letter-sized envelope in his briefcase. Around 10:30 a.m …well before it was time to pack up and go home!  His face flushed bright red when he saw me watching.  Hmmm???

And that was not all.

While going to university, I  spent a summer working on the passenger trains that ran between Montreal and northern Quebec (that’s how/where I really learned much of my French) or Montreal and the Maritimes.

I was a “newsie”  (how appropriate!!) … a news vendor who sold soda pop, sandwiches, candy etc. up and down the aisles of the train, earning a small commission:  my regular route was between Montreal and Chicoutimi.

The Chicoutimi run was an overnight train in each direction and on leaving Montreal the “newsie”, supplied under contract with CN by a private company, was loaded up with enough cases of pop and food to sell in both directions, PLUS 35 mini pillows and 70 pillow slips to rent out for the trip. Pretty simple, eh?  Not in Quebec.

On my first trip north, I rented out about 25 pillows/slips:had plenty for my return. But Chicotimi was to be a learning experience!

After arriving in the morning,  the train would sit on a siding all day, awaiting its return to Montreal that night.  And during the day,  local workers cleaned the cars, mopped the floors etc.

As soon as one spotted me, on my break,  preparing to go to sleep on one of the coach seats, he asked me in French how many pillow slips I needed washed.

“None”, I replied, explaining I had enough to rent on the way back to Montreal.  It actually too him a couple of times (quite exasperated) to explain to this dumb Anglo that you rent the slips for 35 cents each , but his wife will wash,  iron,  fold them exactly as you received them and return them before the train leaves … for 5 cents each!  So you  supplement your income by pocketing “unreported” sales.

It sounds horrible … but that was quite apparently the “normal routine” for newsies on that run, at least,  in Quebec.

And even that wasn’t all.

After the worker took my soiled slips away (leaving me worried as hell what would I do if they never returned!) … a  Chicoutimi soda pop distributor pulled up right beside the train in one of those big soft drink delivery trucks.  His offer was to replace  cases of pop I sold on the way up with “new” stock, even though I didn’t really need any. The idea: you sold pop on the train at the inflated retail price set by the company, of course,  but then  replaced it with much cheaper wholesale stock … to sell on the way back .. again increasing your own income.  That was the regular routine.

The pop distributor even sensed my naivity to the point he repeatedly admonished me to sell HIS pop first on the return trip. Was it stale, beyond expiry of some kind?, I wondered.  NO… it was marked “Emboutille a Chicoutimi” (Bottled in Chicoutimi) on the cap!  Selling it first would get rid of the “evidence” , before turning in unsold pop back in Montreal.

And so it was All Aboard …  with my illicit pop, and yes, freshly laundered pillow slips … still warm, and which I re-rented on the way back to Montreal! The Chicoutimi run became my favorite.

That was how that job worked at that time in Quebec: I was even told, once I became a regular staffer,  that some “newsies”  brought their own candies or home made sandwiches to sell on the trains!  That was too much for me though: the rest was bad enough.

And here’s why I surmise that corruption worked so well in Quebec : everyone knew that it went on … the managers were all former newsies themselves … but the company still had decent sales, the  newsies made a living, the cleaner supplemented his income, the pop distributor increased sales and even the on-board train crew enjoyed free pop and candy in both directions. Sweet!  No one complained.

And yes, there was even more!

In Quebec, at that time in the early1960′s, sales tax kicked in on restaurant meals above $1.25 … so many corner diners offered $1.24 lunch specials.  Of course, if you added a pop or a dessert, that would mean sales tax! And all restaurant bills were issued on serial numbered official Quebec sales bills that could be tracked by the government. But where there’s a will, there’s a way: the Quebec solution … once they knew you as a “regular” customer, restaurateurs/waiters/waitresses  would give you TWO bills … one for $1.24, the other for the extra pop/dessert etc.  No tax!

And even when I travelled to Montreal during my working career, “receipts” handed me for restaurant meals were often higher than my actual bill … allowing better tax (or expense) deductions for business lunches.   In fact, I was most amused by this and discovered, when eating out with a “local”, that if you asked for “a good one” … the receipt you were given could even be DOUBLE your actual bill.

Can you imagine how many employers … not to mention the provincial and federal tax departments … have been ripped off by this practice!!

In fact, I still recall how surprised and amused BCTV’s newsroom accountant was when I would hand in Quebec restaurant bills marked, say, $42 … with a note on it that the actual cost and claim was only $24!   (I was always curious what others did with such receipts!)  LOL!

(In fact, I also wonder about the laxity in BC, allowing restaurants to issue bills on pieces of  scrap paper if they want to … many  just using those cheap receipt books that can be bought by the thousand at discount stores. I’m very curious if  all the cash sales actually make it onto the books?)

And that’s still not all!

During Expo 67, the Montreal World’s Fair hired a couple of thousand university students to work on the site. What a GREAT summer job .. doing the simpler jobs .. ticket taking, ticket selling, sweeping the site, helping organize lineups etc etc.

My job was as a ticket taker on La Ballade, a tractor-pulled three-car open air mini ”train”  (clearly I am a rail buff!) that actually ran along the road on tires , carrying visitors between the U.S. Pavilion, through St. Helen’s Island Park, to the La Ronde amusement area.

The operator of the La Ballade was a private entrepreneur, who hired his own drivers. However the ticket sellers and takers were all Expo employees … thus, more directly able to apply “the Quebec principle”

You know, the Quebec principle, a province-wide extension of the Chicoutimi mentality under which, for examples, toll collectors on bridges around Montreal used to palm hordes of quarters for themselves … a horror only discovered when a  new Liberal government, under Premier Jean Lesage, installed automatic coin collecting machines … and saw revenues skyrocket overnight.

The Quebec principle was also alive and well at Expo 67:  La Ballade ticket sellers often re-sold tickets palmed by co-worker ticket takers … over and over again … a scam apparently discovered after the contractor drivers’  passenger counts were wildly higher than reported ticket “sales”.   Hmm!

When Expo supervisors raided ticket sellers and takers’ lockers … hundreds of tickets stuffed into plastic bags were discovered.  (I’m happy to report that I had refused to take part in this scheme … far too larcenous, I felt, even in Quebec!) Interestingly, though, no one was fired … a couple of employees were suspended for three days, and then welcomed back!

And that was not all!!!

As I mentioned, most of the minor jobs at Expo 67 were great summer jobs for students.  But the supervisors and managers had largely been drawn from the Quebec and federal civil service  … full time government workers seconded to the Fair: a plum assignment to be sure.

Now for the fun part: most of the students I knew working there were, like me,  meticulous in keeping and filling out accurate records of our working hours: we sure didn’t want to underpaid.

But soon after we began working, it soon became very difficult to “justify” our hours against our pay: a couple of friends and I noticed quite frequently we were paid for more hours than we worked … not including actually worked overtime … sometimes several more hours.

No one complained, of course, as long as we weren’t underpaid! But the overpayments occurred often enough that we tried to figure out what was happening: some speculated that our supervisors might have been putting in for extra shifts for themselves, and of course, needed staff on paper to supervise? Nothing was ever proved in this regard, however.

Or maybe they just couldn’t add/calculate?  Maybe  the computer system calculating and handing out paycheques was “flawed” ???   But, again, no one complained! LOL!

And I’m sure none of us were surprised by post-Expo reports of  deficits/cost overruns!!

Of course, that was a long time ago.  Quebec has changed? Seemingly Not!   The stakes … and payouts have just gotten bigger!

A $355 million water meter contract for Montreal was just canceled Thursday due to irregularities in the tendering process.

To be sure, there are honest, upright Quebeckers who dismay, expose and fight against such corruption.

But PLEASE, don’t let our Prime Ministers, cabinet ministers  and federal MPs feign shock at revelations of corruption, kickbacks or strange contracts or tendering processes in Quebec.

It surely goes on elsewhere in the country too … especially in the form of favored suppliers and patronage appointments.

But greasing the palm has developed to such a fine art in Quebec, I’m surprised Canada still managed to rank as high as 8th in the world among least-corrupt nations.

As they like to say back East:  “Quebec Sait Faire!  (Quebec knows how to do it!)

Sometime. I’ll tell you about MY experience on the Youth Advisory Committee to Expo 67, while I was in University!  My first fun on the federal scene … and another real learning experience. :)

Harv Oberfeld

Tags: National

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 DMJ // Nov 21, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I think Canada is not as honest as one would think, only we are a polite society and do not want to embarrass politicians and bureaucrats with their financial indiscretions.

    Anyone who builds a house or does a renovation knows that the right contractor and the right ‘grease’ can do jobs in municipalities that other contractor can’t.

    A quote from a plumbing inspector to me sums it up: “Your plumber doesn’t know how to do business in……….”

    Because we didn’t ‘grease the right people in my muni, my reno was a year of hell, culminating with a threat of police action over missing permits and a complaint to the human right people over racial discrimination (this scared the ‘whats-its’ out of them but involvement of the local plod was a yawn!).

    Being involved with politicians and related to a Liberal Cabinet Minister, I soon knew how Canadian politics works and how the ‘lolly is spread and its not very nice – and that is in BC!

    I have grown cynical in my dotage and I believe Canada is a corrupt place, a $8 billion black market drug economy in the province is testament that we are not as honest as many people think we are. Canadians just overlook corruption, unless it directly affects them.

  • 2 Lynn // Nov 21, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    DMJ,
    Most Canadians overlook EVERYTHING unless is directly affects them. We fast becoming a short sighted peoples.

    Great story Harvey!
    Thanks for sharing. I hope there is more to come. I would love to hear anything you have on Mr. Pierre T.
    I loved his quirky character.

  • 3 RS // Nov 22, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton 1887

    Ah Ha! That would explain the venal shenanigans of the 18th Prime Minister of Canada, our boy from Baie-Comeau, The Right Unctuous Martin Brian Mulroney.

    After all these years of harbouring great distain for the man, and now this revelation! It really wasn’t his fault he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in plain manilla envelopes from a German arms dealer and lobbyist — he couldn’t help himself. Mulroney had been conditioned from an early age in the corrupt culture of Quebec — a product of his environment.

    In the vernacular of today’s youth — my bad.

    How could I have been so callow and quick to judge? One more thing to add to the ol’ bucket list: exonerate Mulroney.

    Is it possible my characterization of Premier Campbell as a charlatan all these years has been unwarranted and fallacious, and in need of reconsideration also? Nahhhhh!

    Possible dissertation or thesis for a phsycology student: Nature vs Nurture: Is the corruption and dishonesty prevalent in all forms of goverment throughout the world, whether it’s a Democracy, Kleptocracy, Monarchy, Plutocracy, Theocracy or other “flavourocracy of the day”, a result the genetic make up of politicians or their enviroment?;-)

  • 4 seth // Nov 23, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Nice work Harvey but as you know we have a NOT “corrupt” government in power here. If something is pushing the edges of the law they just change the law.

    Heres a list of items that seem a bit dodgy.

    1) Pirate Power the scope of this alone makes your Quebec stories look like peanuts. $55 billion dollars in 40 year contracts to buy a little over 1 gigawatt baseload equiv of power, BC Hydro doesn’t need and must sell for a 80% loss on the springtime spot market. For the same amount of power, nuclear would cost $3.0 billion today and $1.2 billion when mass produced reactor builds begin – 2 to 5% the cost of the 40 year contracts with party friends and insiders. These contracts have privatized and will bankrupt BCHydro. I notice no BC pundits outside of Rafe Mair will touch this issue.
    2 )Rewards to retiring politicians – Carole Taylor $350 K on board of TD, Geoff Plant big power contracts, Gary Collins a presidents job and board of directors – the list is long.
    3) Giveaway of $billions in BC lands by conversion of tree farm licenses.
    4) Unrecorded municipal between election campaign donations
    5) Taxi licenses costing a few hundred bucks but worth hundreds of thousands in the hands of big donators (don’t know how much) in Big Taxi – the only eligible licensee’s.
    6) More than half the $billions in contracts BC issues are unbid. Awards always seem to go to big campaign donators. So do you have to be a donator to get a contract or do you need to donate to keep it? The latest Pirate Power guy to lose his investment donated only $700 bucks. They tried to shut down the Park and Float guy down at Twassassen after he threw Gordo’s bagman out of his office.
    7) 3P’s with all details private so we can’t tell who is buying who for how much. Slick accounting practices keeping the $85 billion in debt they represent off the books.

    I could go on and on so you could you Harvey.

    Bottom line – NOT “Corruption” in BC is big bucks and certainly not illegal. In Quebec its small change and upfront.

    (Response: Just because people with high public profiles get appointed doesn’t make it corruption. Some may actually possess knowledge and expertise that makes them well-deserving of appointment. But I agree sometimes it just looks like the establishment taking care of/favoring their own. h.o)

  • 5 Robert // Nov 23, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Is it corruption that keeps a news story about a ship going aground in the stright off the news. Why to find out about it was it in a Washington state release? Where are our intrepid reporters? Why is it not news?

  • 6 Mike C // Nov 24, 2009 at 8:48 am

    The Quebec rot also includes Ottawa.
    Quebeckers run the place, shutting out Anglos from jobs in the various bureaucracies.
    Bilingual qualifications are a joke.
    The French need to barely speak English to get a job while Anglos must be fluent in French.
    My two years spent there were a real eyeopener.
    Everyone in government appears to be on the take.
    When they get caught, ala Muldoon, it’s no big deal and the judiciary and the tax department give him a bye while going after average Canadians who owe a few thousand dollars.
    Move the seat of the federal government to Winnipeg.
    After all, it’s in the centre of the country.
    The federal government needs a top down housecleaning.
    Do a Ronnie Regan on them.
    Fire all the mandarins and bureaucrats and their henchmen and women and start over.
    And don’t get me started on Gordo and his band of idiots.

    (Response: I tried MANY times to get statistics on the growth of “bilingualism required” jobs in Ottawa, which really places Westerners at a disadvantage. Met a brick wall everywhere … public service commission, national capital commission even languages commission said they didn’t have those stats. Bull! The civil service in the national capital is becoming the almost exclusive enclave of bilingual ..ie mostly francophones … workers from the Ottawa/Gatineau/Montreal area. h.o)

  • 7 the Dude // Nov 25, 2009 at 5:16 am

    Sacrament…. embissione pas su’l pain beni avec tes hitoire…

    ok. did you have to let the cat out like that? frankly! were you the one who brought to the attention of Expo supervisors what was going on with the tickets scam?

    Also where we live there is no culture native to here… people from here have no culture so you will not find a “BC” system like you have a “Quebec” system.

    that,s not to say that there is no strong culture that exists here… not at all. Chinese, indian, korean culture are triving more and more etc… not forgeting the gangster culture the neo “BC” culture.

    here does not have a “quebec” system… but how about the chinese system, the indian system, the korean system… etc… all child systems to the gordo system

    hey dont think that what you mentioned is not going on here because people like you and me are NOT organized, but others sure are and we are not in on those deals we are just the player or the victim…

    (Response: J’ambition jamais! No I didn’t expose the ticket scam; a driver did it! Of course, there are “favours” done here …but never so widespread and franklly, so openly. Too bad my blog on it went on so long ..I didn’t even have a chance to get into all those paving jobs that went on with provincial highways crews working on private church driveways, roads and properties … in return for a thanks from the pulpit at election time! LOL!! h.o.)

  • 8 ed // Sep 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    I’ve spent around 5 years now in Quebec. Your story would seem to be right on. Most trades people or service industry people who you call to your home first inquire to your method of payment..(ie: different price for cash as opposed to other means). My wife is a very experienced, qualified person who cannot get a job with any level of government in her field where others not remotely as qualified are hired. Why? They are Quebecois…she is from France. In our city we are required to have a permit for renovations. Do the inspectors inspect the electrical, plumbing or other work you do? No. They come when the job is completed. You can count on your next tax bill to be significantly increased. Speaking of taxes, Quebecers pay over 25% provincial portion of Income Tax…the next closest province is Sask at about 11%…considering the waits one has for medical attention, lack of facilities such as they have in other provinces, one wonders where that extra $$ goes….on it goes…gas stations for instance, in other provinces the prices vary, in Quebec City the second one price changes the others follow suit. And on it goes….

    (Response: Merci beaucoup. Vous avez raison! I particularly was interested in your remark about your wife being from France. I was at a really fine French Restaurant in London in May and spoke French: the maitre d’ complimented on my use of the language..and was shocked when I said I was from Canada, born in Quebec. She..and others I have met in France itself look at the French spoken in Quebec as “paysan” ..or peasant grade. And I have also found ordinary Quebecois to be quite xenophobic … unwelcoming to “outsiders” including people from France, as invading their “closed shop” society. C’est domage! h.o)