Gomery Enquiry May Mark the End of an Era in Quebec

WHEN THE DAM finally burst, the dung that had been piling up for more than a week behind a publication ban at the Gomery inquiry sent political operatives running for cover, and politicians in Ottawa and Quebec City shifting damage control into overdrive.

Gomery Inquiry May Mark the End of an Era in Quebec

WHEN THE DAM finally burst, the dung that had been piling up for more than a week behind a publication ban at the Gomery inquiry sent political operatives running for cover, and politicians in Ottawa and Quebec City shifting damage control into overdrive. The general public, already suspicious of politicians, could only shake its collective head upon learning how deep and widespread the corruption around the governing LIBERAL PARTY of Canada allegedly was.

Some voters may still have thought the scandal was little more than the sordid tale of Quebec advertising agencies lining their pockets with generous sponsorship program contracts. They were forced to reconsider after the ban on Jean Brault's testimony was partially lifted by Justice John Gomery, allowing everyone to catch up to what reporters, politicians and the growing ranks of steady Gomery watchers in Quebec already knew. High-ranking Liberal organizers, Brault testified, had set up a wide-ranging system of kickbacks, allowing his obliging agency to funnel a sizable chunk of its inflated government contracts into Liberal party coffers.

In a devastating series of revelations, Brault, president of Groupaction Marketing, a key recipient of sponsorship funds, said that more than $1.2 million of the $60 million he received in sponsorship deals from Ottawa between 1996 and 2002 found its way to the party. That money supposedly moved through a series of illegal contributions, fake billings, bogus hirings, kickbacks and, as in the worst B-movie capers, even fat envelopes changing hands in restaurants. During the time in question, Brault, 52, said he and his wife pocketed more than $6 million in salary and dividends. A bulky but dapper businessman known for his penchant for flashy cars, he alleged that, where the sponsorship program was concerned, there was no difference between government and the Liberal party. "We started to sense that the miracle recipe to get lucky was to lend a good ear to some requests that the party made to us," he said.

According to Brault, among those who solicited money from him were three men he identified as masterminding the scheme: Benoît Corbeil, the one-time director-general of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party; Jacques Corriveau, a close friend of former prime minister Jean CHRÉTIEN; and Alain Renaud, a well-connected lobbyist and Liberal fundraiser.

Some of Brault's most damning allegations:

▪ Groupaction paid Renaud more than $1 million in fees and expenses, ostensibly for the lobbyist to open doors and arrange meetings with decision-makers. But Brault said Renaud got political donations from the company while passing along messages from top Liberals.

▪ Corriveau's firm, Pluridesign Canada, received close to $500,000. It was, Brault said, money for "la cause" - the Liberal party mission.

▪ Corbeil and Corriveau asked Brault to pay the salaries of two men not really working for him. One was Serge Gosselin, taken on in 1996; he allegedly spent much of the time working on a biography of Public Works Minister Alfonso Gagliano, under whose auspices the sponsorship program operated. The other was John Welch, hired in 1998, who later became chief of staff for Heritage Minister Lisa Frulla. (Welch stepped down temporarily from his duties on Thursday.)

▪ Brault said Gaby Chrétien, the former PM's older brother, got $4,000 for a Liberal riding association, billed as an honorarium.

▪ $50,000 allegedly went to Quebec Premier Jean Charest's ill-fated 1998 campaign, when he was provincial Liberal leader. Quebec election law prohibits corporate donations to political parties; Brault said the money was given to Groupe Everest, a public relations firm with close ties to Charest.

▪ Brault also said that when the Parti Québécois was in power, he directed his employees to make contributions totalling up to $100,000 to the PQ war chest in 1997-1998, out of fear of losing a contract with the province's liquor board.

To pointed questions by Gomery about why he felt obliged to make the Liberal payouts, Brault said he had no choice. "Things were going fast, and we didn't think about it too much," he told the inquiry. "We could have said no, but we were led to understand that our contributions were going to be compensated one way or another further down the line."

Reaction came quickly. Federal Transportation Minister Jean Lapierre, Paul MARTIN's Quebec lieutenant, said the scandal was the result of a small rogue element in the Liberal party. In Rome to attend the Pope's funeral, Charest flatly denied having cashed a $50,000 contribution from Everest or Groupaction. PQ Leader Bernard Landry said the province's law governing political donations is "the most stringent on the continent," and no irregularities showed up in the party audits. Holding the fort while Charest was away, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier urged citizens "not to embark on a witch hunt based on a single man's testimony."

For many Quebecers, though, the damage has been done. Response in the rest of Canada might be somewhat muted, but in this province where politics has long been elevated, along with hockey, to the heights of religion, these latest developments seem like a watershed that marks the end of an era. For Quebec voters, the embarrassment of the rest of the country guffawing over their perceived corrupt political mores is compounded by the indignation of learning that the heady public debate over their future has been hijacked and bogged down in corruption. Their sense of outrage, and discouragement, is palpable.

From day one, Quebec voters have followed the Gomery inquiry with the fascination usually bestowed on advancing floods or forest fires slowly encircling a village. The hearings, often tedious, have become a TV phenomenon, with at times more than 200,000 viewers riveted to the obscure cable channel that broadcasts them. The public galleries at the inquiry are filled with the sort of regulars usually found at spicy trials.

What does it mean? Here, it's as if Quebec's political culture is now crumbling. And the silly damage-control games the various parties have played following the Gomery bombshell only seem to have made matters worse. Quebecers have lost faith in their politicians, and that's that.

But it's interesting: a recently published poll indicated that Quebecers are more likely than other Canadians to say they are better off now than they were five years ago - despite what the daily political news says about how their affairs are being managed. That can mean only one thing: Quebecers think they can look after themselves and their interests without the help of those mingling, self-interested - and often corrupt - apparatchiks.

A new era.

Maclean's April 18, 2005