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. :)