Bonhomme strikes back / La réplique

bonhomme-4(Voici le texte intégral de ma réplique à Maclean’s. Elle est sur le site de Maclean’s et une version plus courte mais non moins cinglante apparaît dans le magazine anglophone en kiosque depuis ce jeudi.)

I was more amused than shocked by Maclean’s cover naming Quebec “the most corrupt province in Canada.” It certainly feels that way these days, and Martin Patriquin’s only challenge was to cram in a single story all the strands of allegations and shady shenanigans surrounding Quebec’s current Jean Charest government. All the facts in the story are public knowledge, and for the most part brought to light by an aggressive Quebec media and no less insistent opposition parties.

Granted, the blow—being named most corrupt province—was not as painful for me to take as for most of my brethren, since I am aware of Maclean’s penchant for take-no-prisoners covers. Thanks to the weekly’s headline writers, I have been informed these past few months that Lawyers are Rats, Hitler is Back, Toronto Sucks, New York is a Land of Constant Terror, Hillary Adopted an Alien Baby, and Bush was a new Saddam.

No wait! Maybe one of those titles came from another magazine. No matter. Having been a journalist for a couple of decades, I did try to find in last week’s issue the methodology used to grant Quebec its number one spot on the corruption scale. I was curious to know who was number two, and how wide the margin was—as in Maclean’s yearly university rankings. Did the writers use the number of corruption convictions of elected officials in each province since 2000? The cash amount proven to have changed hands illegally? Or, since no conviction is to be found in Quebec (yet?), the number of police inquiries in play? I was disappointed. Maclean’s has no comparison metrics whatsoever. The whole cover is based on opinion and perception alone. Hopes for a Pulitzer on this one are dim.

So, what is the fuss about? A screaming headline loosely based on facts? They’re a dime a dozen. They sell. And Maclean’s is in the selling business. So all would be forgiven, if it were not for Andrew Coyne’s scoop that Quebecer’s are impervious to “constructive criticism.” Let’s try.

Coyne to Quebec: I have some constructive criticism for you.

Quebec: Great, let’s hear it

Coyne: You are pathologically corrupt.

Quebec: Gee, thanks!

The story is not about the trifecta of: 1) alleged and probably rampant political-donation-for-contracts schemes of the current Quebec government; 2) alleged and demonstrably occurring strong-arm tactics and graft culture of one major element of one of many Quebec unions; and of 3) alleged and probably rife bidding-rigging system of a group of contractors (dubbed «the fabulous fourteen») in the Montreal area since earlier in the decade. That would have been sufficient for a cover.

No, Maclean’s writers purport to show—and clearly affirm—that Quebecers as a people are inherently, historically and systemically corrupt. “Deeply entrenched,” “inevitable” lack of ethics, with “roots of corruption [that] run deep,” “a pattern,” “a peculiar set of pathologies,” writes Coyne. “A long line of made-in-Quebec corruption that has affected the province’s political culture at every level,” writes Patriquin. (Yes, “every” level!)

Two arguments are marshaled to explain why Quebec stands “in a league of its own” in the corruption sweepstakes. The first is the size of government. The second is the corrupting impact of a nationalist culture intent on getting “loot” or “booty” from Ottawa.

Let’s deal with the voodoo economics first. According to Maclean’s, the bigger the size of government in the economy, the badder, and the sleazier. Quebec being the most left-of-centre government on the continent it should, of course, be the most corrupt. Am I allowed to use comparative figures in this rebuttal? Transparency International tracks corruption in the world. People are asked if they had to pay a bribe or if they feel that private companies have to. The last report, like the previous ones, does show correlation between size of government and graft: reverse correlation. European governments and the greatest spenders, Scandinavian governments, are deemed significantly cleaner than North American governments, who leave more of the economy to the private sector. Haliburton, anyone ? (A contender in my “best quote ever” file is from David Frum’s recent report on a major Republican consultant commenting on the last small-government Republican administration: “I thought we would get more done before becoming completely corrupt!”)

Then there is the “booty” paradigm. Here Quebec’s incessant requests combine with Canada’s victimization as the benevolent provider faced with ingrates. Pierre Trudeau can be thanked for having conceived and pushed this narrative. In 1950 he wrote that Quebecers “are turning into a disgusting bunch of blackmailers.” Ripping into the Meech Lake Accord 42 years later, he revisited the quote, in Maclean’s: “Things have changed since then, but for the worse.”

The “bidding war” [between federal parties to win over Quebec votes] tenet is now entrenched into the Canadian psyche. It will stay there, I am sure. But let me explain why it is wrong. Equalisation: yes, Quebec gets more in the aggregate—and less per person—than any other province. But newsflash: for decades we told Ottawa that we would rather have jobs than dole. And we tired of explaining that if the federal investment in the economy (capital, purchases, research, grants) were distributed in proportion to the population, Quebec would instantaneously knock off one point of unemployment off the chart, more so over the years, and get less equalisation.

Take energy. According to Stéphane Dion’s count, the federal purse sank $40 billion into Alberta’s tar sands industry. Fourteen of these billions came from Quebec. Add in the billions for Ontario’s CANDUs and Newfoundland’s sweet deal on Hibernia and you get quite a tab, a quarter of which was paid by the booty-hunters. Now let’s compare that with federal investment in Quebec’s hydro-power in the last, say, hundred years. The answer is zilch. (But we got Mirabel. Don’t get me started.)

There is an impact on Quebec. Call it blowback. According to a recent university study (not from a Quebec university), the loonie’s overvaluation, driven by oil gushing from Alberta and Newfoudland, has destroyed 55,000 jobs in Quebec manufacturing in just five years. A sign of things to come. But, not to worry, equalization growth has been capped for the future, so future oil damage to Quebec (and Ontario’s) manufacturing base will hardly be offset anymore.

The narrative is most entertaining when it comes to “buying” votes in Quebec. The Mulroney government will never shake the very political decision to grant Quebec’s Canadair, rather than Manitoba’s Bristol, the 1986 CF-18 maintenance contract. But does that reflect the whole picture? In November 1991, anti-booty nastiness in Parliament reached unprecedented heights. Then-Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle, charts in hand, felt compelled to admit to MPs that transfers to other provinces had grown 7 to 10% in the previous 15 years, but only 4% for Quebec. Only in Ottawa would a Quebec politician have to pledge to be stingy towards his home province.

Figures are clear for the referendum period. Yes, Ottawa illegally funded shady pro-Canada outfits during the campaign—that much has been proven. But the sums were paltry. Let’s look at the real figures. From its 1994 high point to the 1998 low point, federal capital investment—Ottawa’s most direct input—was reduced, overall, by 31 per cent in Canada. These were the dark days of deficit reduction. In Ontario, the reduction was 19 per cent. In Québec, 33 per cent. That makes Bonhomme Carnaval a pretty inept booty hunter.

But we’ve still got the dole, right? Consider this: In the same period, Ottawa moved to rein-in the financial flow to Quebec, over and above the severe across-the-board cuts in health, education and welfare funding. Respected economist Pierre Fortin figures that the EI reforms added a $100 million per year burden on Quebec. And the 1999 surprise reform of transfers wiped-out Quebec’s (and Newfoundland’s) redistributive advantage and reduced Quebec’s expected share of new funding by $1.8 billion over five years. And forget about compensation for GST harmonization or for the ice storm damage, where other provinces in strangely similar circumstances, and whose characters are not sullied on front pages, fared way, way better.

I lived these days from the inside (full disclosure: I was an adviser to Lucien Bouchard). We didn’t find no booty. We found a stubborn willingness on the part of the Chretien government to make things as hard as they could and to impede our (in the end successful) attempt at balancing our own books. Their take was that separatist politics hurt our economy—and they tried to make that happen. Our take was that a fiscally sound Quebec would be in better shape to become independent.

Among the Maclean’s issue’s most preposterous assertions is that Chrétien’s sponsorship scandal is a sign of Quebecers’ intrinsic black soul. Shouldn’t it be remembered that the Chrétien government was never elected by Quebecers? That was Ontario’s doing. We voted for something called the Bloc. For a long while, Chrétien’s only Quebec MPs were elected in non-francophone ridings, Chrétien himself having trouble keeping his own. When the sponsorship scandal broke, we coalesced around candidates whose slogan was “A clean party for Quebec,” and that was not the Liberals. In fact, in 2005, Quebeckers were so incensed about this scandalous Ottawa-based attempt at buying their loyalty, and grease the wheels of the rejected federal Liberal party in the process, that 55% were willing to secede from the corrupting machine right then and there. (Sadly, separatists were not in power in Quebec City at that point to make it happen.)

I have a great idea for a Maclean’s cover. Picture a Bonhomme Carnaval with a halo. No, better yet, a crowd of such Bonhommes as far as the eye can see. The title: Quebecers: Canada’s resilient corruption-busters.

The story would go like this. Eliot Ness-type figures battling corruption are a staple of Quebec culture. It seems to be in the national Quebec genome to rise up against graft and sleaze. Not that they haven’t been duped. In the forties, they loved Maurice Duplessis because he denounced and ridiculed the corruption of the preceding Liberal government. But he then became an even greater corrupter himself. In the 1950s, they turned to the incorruptible inspector Pax Plante and crusader Jean Drapeau, who cleaned-up Montreal’s Mob and brothels with a vengeance. Drapeau became a hero, then an autocratic, visionary, and at times inept—but never corrupt—mayor. In the 1960s, the new white knight was René Lévesque, who championed procurement reform in a Liberal “équipe du tonnerre” that equipped Quebec for the modern world. The decade was nearly scandal-free. In the early 1970s collusion between a mob-related union, the Construction wing of the FTQ, and the Quebec Liberal government saw the rise of new corruption-busters in a commission that was followed more closely than hockey night. Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard’s careers take their roots in this largely successful cleansing effort. (One of those lost his way on the road to power and large envelopes with cash. The other did not and remains a symbol of integrity, even stinginess.)

In 1976, scandal odours polluted Robert Bourassa’s government. That factor contributed to his being named Quebec’s most despised politician (he would recover). He was replaced by Quebec’s most revered (to this day) politician, René Lévesque, who would shield Quebec politics from graft with the then-tightest financing law on the continent. In time, both France and Canada would copy its path-charting vision. It would take 15 years for the corrupt to find ways around it, which they did.

But from 1976 to the early 2000s, the ingrained, visceral, culturally nurtured aversion of Quebecers to graft prevailed, and only low-level, small-scale lobbying mischief was to be reported from Quebec City or Montreal. This quarter-century of relative cleanliness must have weakened the collective antibodies of honest Quebecers. They have been reawakened by the new slew of corruption described above.

How are Quebecers reacting? They are angry as hell. Over 80 per cent want a full inquiry, 58 per cent want Charest out, and fast. Engineers, policemen, attorneys associations, the Montreal city council, all scream for an inquiry and a robust clean-up. Journalists are all on the prowl, cheered ahead by readers and viewers. Like an endless crowd of furious holy Bonhommes, Quebecers can’t wait to throw the rascals out, and the corrupt in jail. If elections had been held any time in the last 18 months, they would have had their wish. It is only a question of time before the long history of integrity of Quebec prevails, once again.

In reacting to the corrupt-Bonhomme cover, Gilles Duceppe quoted a definition of xenophobia from the European Council: “a systematic or irrational hostility towards one or many individuals, mainly motivated by their nationality, culture, gender, religion, ideology or geographic origin.” So. Let’s address the core question. Are Maclean’s writers, Coyne in particular, and its editors who have published his piece as sound journalism and commentary, xenophobic about Quebec? The answer lies in this question: Had Coyne written that Jews were pathologically greedy, Blacks pathologically lazy or Newfoundlanders pathologically goofy, the copy would have been thrown out the window.

I will not win this argument in the English Canadian media because the standard for anti-Quebec writing has been lowered since 1990 to make Quebecers fair game for wholesale put-downs.

Jan Wong famously wrote in The Globe and Mail that the Dawson and Polytechnique killings found their roots in Quebec’s language laws. That prejudiced nonsense was backed by The Globe’s editors (to Jean Charest’s very great chagrin). Lawrence Martin based part of his book demonizing Lucien Bouchard on a psychologist’s opinion that the separatist leader was mentally deranged. (Wait—aren’t those synonyms: separatist and deranged?) Mordecai Richler’s book about Quebec, at 85 000 copies sold the most widely read treatise on Quebec in the ROC, asserted that 66 per cent of my fellow tribesmen were “highly anti-semitic.” More than in Germany in the early 1930s. Even Peter Gzowski defended him. Diane Francis lamented that separatist leaders couldn’t be arrested and hanged. She was named Woman of The Year by the Toronto version of Chatelaine.

These are not rednecks mumbling about the devilish threat of bilingualism and of the metric system in farms out west. These are mainstream, respected writers in Canada’s major media. And they jumped in, earlier this month, denouncing Quebec for attempting to blackmail the Harper government for a stake in a sports arena. The request is debatable—I criticized it on my blog—but the knee-jerk and accepted reaction in the Canadian press and political elites is not to reject the claim on its merits, but to insult Quebecers’ character as a whole.

This is where we are. This is xenophobia. This is what Maclean’s salesmanship rides on and perpetuates as we speak. Yes, I am in favour of the independence of Quebec. Like about half of my fellow francophones these days, I want my nation to be fully responsible for its successes and failures—equalisation payments be damned. But on the too-long road towards that day, I sometimes tire. Then, I simply pick up the Toronto press and smell the now run-of-the-mill disdain and contempt routinely showered upon Quebec, to remember another reason why I want out. I dream of living in a country that respects me. That, I do not have.


Jean-François Lisée is the executive director of the International Studies Center of the Université de Montréal since its inception in 2004. Apart from having been an advisor to the Antichrist (Jacques Parizeau) and to the equally devilish Lucien Bouchard, he is a journalist and author. His last book (with Eric Montpetit) is entitled Imaginer l’après-crise. Although written by mere Quebecers, the book uses a good number of long words. Not only has Lisée received Quebec journalism awards—bestowed upon for, to quote Jeffrey Simpson “what passes for journalism in Quebec”—but sure-fire Canadian ones, too, like the Governor General’s award for non fiction and a number of Canadian magazine awards. Including a silver award this past year for excellence in column writing for, among others, a column on corruption in Quebec. And he actually wrote this rebuttal, himself, in English. Hard to believe !

(PS: N’ayez crainte, c’est moi qui ai écrit cette condescendante bio. Je voulais rester dans le ton!)

(PS2. Une version remaniée, francophone, améliorée, de ce texte paraîtra dans le prochain numéro de L’actualité, avec une Une qui sera une pièce de collection !)

Commentez mon article sur ce blogue…

…et allez voir les commentaires anglophones (et francophones, me signale avec justesse l’alertinternaute M. Patriquin)  sur le site de Maclean’s

Illustration : André-Philippe Côté