Quebec unions targeted by organized crime

Corruption inquiry finds labour investment funds coveted by cartels

It took some 300 witnesses more than 263 days to fully detail the infiltration of organized crime groups into Quebec’s construction industry.

The Commision d’Enquête sur l’Octroi et la Gestion des Contrats Publics dans l’Industrie de la Constructions (CEIC) — commonly referred to as the Charbonneau Commission in honour of its chair Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau — revealed the corruption is further entrenched in the province than originally feared.

"The investigation confirmed that there was a real problem in Quebec and that it was broader and more deeply rooted than we believed," Charbonneau said Nov. 24 when she delivered her final report.

The commission was created by former Quebec premier Jean Charest in 2011, following months of public pressure. It began hearing testimony in September 2012.

Key pieces of testimony are under the protection of publication bans, as the information involved could affect ongoing investigations or criminal cases currently before the courts.

But testimony did detail the way cartels such as the mafia and Hells Angels wielded influence through bribery, intimidation, assaults and even murder.

Ultimately, the commission concluded that corruption had taken root not only in the province’s political and professional spheres, but in the world of trade unions.

Evidence of corruption was discovered in the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), its construction wing and its real estate subsidiary. The commission found evidence that members of the union employed illegal methods to ensure it was awarded major construction contracts.

The FTQ was a target for organized crime, the commission found, because of its coveted investment funds.

The 1,700-page final report contains 60 recommendations to detect and penalize corruption and to prevent further collusion. One key recommendation involved the establishment of an independent committee to oversee the awarding of government contracts. Another recommendation would provide better protections for whistleblowers.

Quebec’s Liberal government pledged to analyze the recommendations and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) lauded the proposed changes.

Rebuilding trust

"Labour unions, particularly in the public sector, have been vocal about the need for governments to set up mechanisms to prevent fraud and collusion at the expense of the public," said Emily Norgang, senior researcher for the CLC.

"The extent to which the recommendations of the Charbonneau Commission will lead to greater protection for whistleblowers will say a great deal about the seriousness of governments, both in Quebec and elsewhere. Far too often, whistleblowers face reprisal and suffer greatly, both personally and professionally."

While Charbonneau and co-commissioner Renaud Lachance did not have the power to assign guilt or recommend criminal charges, they were able to assign "blame" to both organizations and individuals.

The issues within Quebec’s labour unions were deemed, however, to be the result of the action of individuals rather than the result of an organized system of collusion. In one example, evidence was presented that FTQ Local 791 representative Bernard "Rambo" Gauthier used intimidation and violence to control the granting of contracts and ensure the employment of local workers.

"The CEIC examined the construction unions in order to evaluate if they had been infiltrated by organized crime," the FTQ said in a statement provided to Canadian Labour Reporter.

"The CEIC did not conclude there was such an infiltration within the unions. Instead, the commission signaled there were individuals present who had developed personal ties with organized crime or who had used their position to acquire personal benefits (not related to organized crime). No organization is 100 per cent immune to this kind of risk or abuse of trust."

The union welcomed the commission’s recommendations, saying they will have a positive impact on labour by reducing the potential for conflicts of interest or situations that could encourage the infiltration of organized crime.

Ultimately, the union believes the commission’s final report will help repair its reputation with the public.

"The negative impact on the reputation of construction unions and on the reputation of the FTQ is not a result of the commission, but of the embarrassing revelations about some of the union leaders in the construction sector," the union said.

"The commission’s conclusions on the absence of a systemic infiltration of organized crime within unions are rather reassuring and should, in the medium- or long-term, restore the public’s confidence."

Opening the door

Critics, however, argue the conclusions and recommendations are not enough to spur significant change.

Antonio Nicaso — an author and consultant who provided expert testimony on organized crime during the commission’s inquiry — said the commission missed an opportunity to make a real impact.

"My concern is that the Charbonneau Commission, firstly, missed an opportunity to call to the stand the mobsters and to ask them questions," he said. "The commission wasn’t able to compel key criminals to testify. The commission was, maybe, scared to learn more."

Several mafia clans are considered to be active in Canada, including the Calabrian mafia, the Sicilian mafia and the Camorra. What is crucial to understand, Nicaso said, is that what makes organized crime so powerful is its ability to infiltrate institutions and public administrations.

"The mafia, without its relations with power, would be just a bunch of hooligans," he said. "We have to be very careful in analyzing this type of connection between mobsters, civil servants and labour unions. Corruption does not stop at the border."

And while Nicaso said the commission’s final report was short on blame, it should start a public dialogue about corruption in Canada.

"Corruption is a cultural problem," he said. "In this case, everyone is a victim of the mafia. It’s all about accountability. It’s all about diligence. You can’t just blame the people who infiltrate your organization. You also have to blame yourself, because you opened the door."

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