On Tuesday, March 21, 2017, the Allard Prize and Vancouver MLA David Eby co-hosted the launch of the English version of Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission Report on corruption in Quebec’s construction industry (Volume 3). Sonia LeBel, lead counsel for the Commission of Inquiry, spoke to a crowd at the Peter A. Allard School of Law on important insights and recommendations from the intensive four-year inquiry, followed by a public conversation with Nicole Barrett, Executive Director of Allard Prize Initiatives, on the significance of the Commission’s Report.
The Charbonneau Commission was created in October 2011 after several years of extensive public and media pressure to investigate potential scandals within construction companies in Quebec. The mandate was wide-ranging, including examining the existence of schemes involving collusion and corruption in the awarding of public construction contracts, looking at the possibility of links to financing political parties, considering the possibility of organized crime, and making recommendations based on these findings. Over the course of four years, the Commission collected evidence from over 300 witnesses, met over 2000 people, and reviewed more than 3,600 documents.
LeBel employed an analogy of a bathroom water stain to exemplify the progression from the initial media stories on corruption in the construction industry to the Commission’s final findings. At the outset, “it appears to be small water stain, and then you open up the wall, and then you dig, and you find all of the rot.”
The Commission discovered bidding schemes through close examination of the market over a long period of time. The patterns, flags and anomalies that reflected collusion — with the same companies winning contracts — became almost predictable. Companies planned the amount to bid ahead of time and thus were able to set the market to their benefit. For example, in 2005 a handful of companies were sharing 95% of Montreal’s construction contracts and by 2010, they were able to “trick the market” and raise the prices at least 30% above market value. LeBel also mentioned corruption via political financing, which was found at all levels of government. The Commission concluded that political financing was an easy way for the private sector to acquire influence and leverage such as, in this case, through the awarding of contracts as payback for political constributions.
Nicole Barrett asked LeBel whether or not the report’s 60 recommendations held transferable lessons for other Canadian provinces. LeBel responded that the creation of a public authority to closely monitor the market, centralize the information, and help the ministries with the procurement process of public contracts was an important recommendation that could be tailored to any province. She added that collusion would be less likely, or at least easier to catch, with a public authority such as this.
When asked how this project impacted LeBel personally, LeBel said, “It was hard work. The hardest thing for us was to adapt to this instant […] stardom because for four years it became [like] a reality show in Quebec and you still wanted to be taken seriously because you were doing serious work. It was not a show, but because of the stories we uncovered, it became a show. I’m now trying to steer the report away from that impression.” She welcomes further opportunities to inform the public about the report and its findings.
The Commission’s Report is available by clicking the icon below.