As Canadian as Corruption

The year 2003 was a truly outstanding one for Canadian self-assertion. In a completely unexpected encounter of fates, Prime Minister Jean Chretien proved there to be no contradiction in running a democracy within the confines of a G7 nation. Tyrannical mood swinging still paved the way, despite the clement winds of a third term meant to be his last.

Although the scent of inner-party coups for and against Canada’s most cynical of politicians had filled the halls of Parliament for years, democracy did end up prevailing. Amidst what had become a one-party system, Chretien stepped over industry big leaguers to ratify Canada’s Kyoto Protocol commitment, ever so meekly part the waters toward decriminalizing pot, legalize same-sex marriage, and implement a gun registry. Last but not least, the man yelled out a big NO to the US over Iraq, even while military contracts had forced some Canadian soldiers to fight along with the Coalition invaders. On the humane level, his team did the best it could to warn foreign-born Canadian Muslims of the risks of visiting the US. Where it failed, was on Quebec.

The year 2003 was meant to be Jean Chretien’s swan song. He would finally be leaving the field to his arch-rival Paul Martin. For years Martin had waged a heady palace showdown that found respite only in the Prime Minister’s announcement of a retirement date. Even then the incumbent could hardly sit out the wait. The message was that Chretien had to leave three months ahead of schedule, an inverse type of Saddam-Hussein Christmas present. In the nineties, the sharp-witted blue-eyed fox had parodied the image of a protégé while providing his boss, Chretien, with balanced budgets that led ultimately to surpluses. On February 2 Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson read out Martin’s long-willed first Throne Speech in Parliament.

In his Prime Minister’s declarations, Martin tried to play the media as fools. His speech read through a list of gifts long requested by the Canadian public-even among Liberal Party electors. Its objective was to further highlight Chretien’s dab with dictatorial decorum. The media gobbled the feed as if filet mignon were being given as bait. A host of “left-leaning” initiatives on health, education and governance marked the new Prime Minister’s tenure with grace. And why not? After all, the public had been expecting Martin to repeal every policy move Chretien had ever embraced.

The fact is that beyond his reputation for hating institutional politicians, Martin has proved to be the shrewdest of media manipulators. Who apart from Howard Richler, the Montreal Gazette’s linguistic decoder (February 21, 2004), could stretch mind and memory to recall how Martin’s people had brushed off a computational understatement about government contracts as “administrative errors”? As former head of Canadian Steamship Lines (CSL), Martin was one of Canada’s most powerful businessmen. Dribbling past journalists is child’s play when you manage to spin the taxman into performing endless logs and exponentiations the sum of which in taxation terms always leans toward zero.

It’s unclear whether in his new proposals for education the Prime Minister has earmarked funds toward improving the arithmetical skills of Canadians. For CSL had initially claimed government contracts for its numerous companies, Groupe CSL inc., Canada Steamship Lines inc. (Canada) and Canada Steamship Lines (international), as totaling $137 000. Over 11 years it seemed like a paltry sum for a corporation owning some 37 ships and citing annuals revenues of $280 million.

A simple recalculation found out the “administrative error”. On January 28 Liberal House Leader Jacques Saada provided the adjusted sum of $161 million, the initial tally thus being a mere eleven times under-appraised. You won’t hear Martin calling for the abolition of tax havens either. Understandably with so many investments spread through Liberia, Bermuda and the Bahamas, accounting is bound to provide mixed-up figures, “errors”. But when it comes down to dollars and cents, aren’t tax havens beneficial even to middle-income earners, and not just to the wealthiest of Canadians?

When you think about it, what does falsifying figures to the highest public authorities matter when you’re getting the job done? One can only surmise that the way Martin got Bono, U2’s worldly singer, to chant at his leadership party last fall was subsequent to statements made toward the end of his tenure as Finance Minister. Martin had hinted at dropping the debt of the most downtrodden of nations with the international community. (Liberia may have been one he had in mind.) He never mentioned how Canada could at least have forgotten its own debt demands, especially as its economy was performing the best within the G7 sphere.

In the end, the real show was not the entertainment extravaganza meant to honor Canada’s Camelot. The spectacle was what happened in the backrooms of Parliament afterward. Upon ditching Chretien loyalists from power positions, Martin was expected to veer hard-right. He was Canada’s balanced budget burgermeister. Anyone forgetting that was in denial. The man himself said it in the fine print: “with the economy permitting”, his Throne Speech promises would be fulfilled.

Then came one of those burgeoning moments, a springtime for collective events. The public can thank the stars that its chaotic aftermath brings sense to asymmetrically distributed information. For the past two years, Canada’s Auditor-General, Sheila Fraser, had been hashing through the way government spends the taxation money collected from Canadians, with a special focus lain on the Public Works Department. As a particularly taxed society, Canadian leaders have had it in their career interests to service these monies well. We’re hardly a country that can afford to promise our citizens the moon while economic indicators suggest we’ve fuelled a rocket toward the hell of an imploding budget deficit. In other words, Canada does have some limits, and its leaders respect them, too.

Or so Canadians had liked to believe. For Ms Fraser has revealed boundless mismanagement of $250 million destined for internal “cultural” needs. This kind of jargon really means making sure Quebec remains within Confederation. The Auditor-General went on to expose even more. Roughly $100 million of that dough is completely unaccounted for in the books. Having to remind foreign readers of a country’s history with such a minute population is not always a thrilling prospect. But how else can foreigners understand that “federalist” French Canadians have used the federal government to block the initiatives of a provincial government of “nationalist” French-speaking Quebec from leaving Confederation? Aren’t the “Brits”, i.e. English-Canadians, supposed to be taking care of repressing the “French”? Who conquered this iceland in 1763? The Brits or some French Canadians preferring to live in the slightly warmer and largely more lavish settings of the neighboring province of Ontario?

Once the fiefdom of Anglo-protestant loyalists to the British crown, the Canadian capital, Ottawa, nowadays is virtually as French as Quebec City. A logical principle does exist to explain the phenomenon. In political terms, it runs as follows: in order to subdue your rival, it is vital for you to become your rival. Loss as a possibility is literally abolished.

This is a fate to have befallen to Ottawa. The city grew to encompass a type of federal district, engulfing the city of Hull in Quebec in the process. Four of Canada’s last seven Prime Ministers were either French Canadian or born in Quebec. It’s a fairly balanced trade-off until you consider their terms in office, basically covering 30 out of 36 years of that time scale. If the late doyen of those leaders, Trudeau, was brought into the federal leadership by Canada’s WASP power brokers in the nineteen-sixties, the issue of Quebec has been among the most strategic by which Prime Ministers have accumulated powers on their own ever since.

This is what has led to the slush funds and pilfering off of tens of millions of dollars in exchange for cronyist support-and very little sweat while doing it. Over-billing, commission for transfer funds, untendered and unfulfilled contracts are the alleged acts of fraud for which the owners of a host of Quebec ad agencies, former cabinet ministers and civil servants, as well as Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, are currently under investigation.

All events were played out in the name of keeping Quebec within Constitution, aka Branding Canada. As newly released documents show (Globe and Mail, February 26), former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien “personally signed off on increased budgets for federal communications after the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, with a clear description of which events would receive the funding. The lists detailed millions in spending on car races, tennis tournaments, professional sports teams and cultural events – most of them in Quebec – where Ottawa provided funding in exchange for the placement of Canadian flags and banners.”

Looking back to 1995, most Canadians would agree their country was on a slippery slope. A referendum held in the province of Quebec in October of that year had come to within one-percent of receiving its population’s majority assent to make moves to separate from Canada. When a country’s in crisis, its leadership often pleads with the citizenry to just trust them, persuading it that the Big Office and the Big One alone have the master plan in the pocket. A perfect benchmark for appraisal was aped in Jean Chretien’s recent immortal words: “Well, didn’t we manage to keep Quebec in Confederation?”

It would be childish to accuse Chretien of overlooking how a fallacious form of reasoning, such as rhetorical questions, appeals only to authority for assent. But while a lot of Canadians in the other parts of the country were feeling the brunt of Chretien’s budget slashing, a policy ambition far too characteristic of his first two terms, perhaps the question of lavish spending is a reason for which his party could be thrown out of government-if not, like his predecessor Brian Mulroney, ejected from existence.

And lavish spending, as all may now observe, there has been. Amidst the belt tightening and increasing social and economic disparity being experienced in the country there was money flowing which seemed to have no limits. In fact, the baleful booty is so great that the business sector has fought tooth and nail with institutional politicians to exert power directly. Paul Martin is its voice.

Plutocracy is the rule of the rich by the rich. It is aiming for yet another split with the political class, as it now seeks to portray even MBA-formatted politicians as flawed essentially due to their political desires. It evokes Godard’s immortal question in “1+1”: can one be both an intellectual and a revolutionary? No, in Martin’s eyes, one cannot be both a politician and a manager. One can only succeed as a businessman-king.

Plutocracy has thus returned to Canada. Martin’s problem is that there are a few financial matters to be cleaned up first. As public polling for the Liberals has slid by 15 points since the outbreak of the “sponsorship scandal”, his claims are veering to sweep politics right out. How interesting for a Prime Minister to make it his individual mission to keep the books clean. More power to him! All of which equates, in another step towards check mate, with more power for him.

The theater and parody of good governance aside, Mr Martin knew full well that the Auditor-General’s report was on its way. He may even have known of its content (and if not, we come around to that familiar moment of stupid astonishment with a glazed look, then what was he doing as a Minister in the first place?). Early February’s bag of goodies then starts making even more sense. His Throne Speech was meant to fail in the end, irrespective of economic performance. Its purpose was that of a thrown speech.

As the fury of Canadians was bound to build in the upcoming weeks, they would reminisce of the purity of Martin’s initial mood in the mid-winter days when the snow was white and the sky blue. Realizing then that money has been lost voters would comply with further cuts in social spending.

The plot is still thickening. A public inquiry will be unfolding. Some truth perhaps will make it into a clearing. In the meantime, guilt lies heavy on consciences. The public has taken to damning lavish spending on promoting Canada’s arts and culture around the northern polar region (Scandinavia and Russia). The journey exceeded an already unpopular $1 million budget fourfold. But let’s be fair here. Shipping a squad of artists and intellectuals on an intercultural exchange already pales in comparison with the previous scandal of job-creation incentives and grants at the Human Resources Department that swallowed a mismanaged $1 billion. And no matter how smartly dressed Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson is prone to be, and how large a party she enjoys as company, she has run an open house compared to the handful of Liberal Party embezzlers who filled friends’ pockets on the back of the Federalist ideal.

In the meantime, major scandals are wont to reveal others. A provincial government has used Andersen-style accounting gimmickry in a budget surplus claim. Hundreds of millions have been misspent on the country’s gun-registry. In the below-the-belt league, a special incentive grant to help Toronto get back on its feet after the SARS outbreak was spent on an Ivy-League lowlife who went on a racist rampage against French Canadians on the streets of Quebec’s capital. The audience who died laughing over his libelous jokes was the same crowd to have barked in rage at Quebec’s inherent corruption apparently proved by the sponsorship scandal. Until February 25, that is, when the Globe and Mail revealed that the WASP province’s former diehard free-market ideology skimmed the cream off the attempted privatization of Hydro-One to give top government advisors and strategists fat deals.

A deep freeze winter is not conducive to the expression of passionate emotions, but Canadians are pissed off to high hell. For over ten long years, politics hasn’t been an estimable mental activity for Canucks. Now the fun might just be on its way back.

The irony is that ever misguided temptation for the powerful, i.e. stifling the claims of minority populations to achieve autonomy or independence. There’s a historical repetition pattern building up here. The sum of $250 million was set to promote Canadian culture in Quebec from 1997 to 2001. The results of the October 1995 referendum on independence held in Quebec also contained some arithmetic truth. The then-provincial government, le Parti Quebecois, was convinced that within a few years those who voted against independence would emigrate to (English) Canada. The discrepancy of a few thousand votes by which they had lost their bid would vanish according to subtraction.

The Federal government did everything in its power to curb Quebec’s drive toward independence, the latter of which, it must be said, was performed in due democratic and legal process. Now the rest of the country accuses the French-Canadians in Ottawa and Quebec as basically being a corrupt bunch intent on ripping off Canada. Residents of Quebec will not take lightly to the fiery accusations filling the airwaves nationwide. At a time when desires for independence have been hibernating, the thaw is set to be boisterous.

And so dear American friends, as much as media manipulation has wanted to set us at odds, as much as your political and industrial power brokers have wantonly condemned the unusual democratic response of the Chretien government to the social justice ideals of Canadians at a time when that system was faltering in the US, our battle remains identical. It’s a struggle not only against business takeovers of our countries or capitalist economics. It’s a fight against the highest spheres of business, the uppermost crust of the elite, who have twisted the political system to their advantage by acts of crony capitalism and buying favors. This isn’t even lobbying, it’s merely illegal. And the public will damn legislation from being drafted in order to make such practices lawful, ordinary.

Scandal is justifying urgent measures. Canada’s era of plutocracy is catching up to your own, as our political institutions are taken over by oligarchic rule. It will be done under the heading of fighting against corruption and tax evasion, while those in office who fight remain the doubles of those who benefit. For the time being, it is quite unclear whether our battery of corporate laws can make it from enactment to enforcement.

NORMAN MADARASZ is a Canadian philosopher and journalist. He welcomes comments at