When thousands of tons of explosive material detonated in Beirut last week, everyone knew what was to blame. It wasn’t an absentee ship owner; it wasn’t terrorism; it wasn’t careless workmen. It was corruption—the corruption that has seeped into the bones of Lebanon where every contract, every job opening, every bureaucratic or political move is dictated by the interests of one or other of the sectarian cliques running the country. It is because of the selfish interests of these gangsters that garbage fills the streets of this once-beautiful capital city, why electricity is available only a few hours a day, and why foreign countries will not give disaster relief money directly to the government, knowing that it would only find its way into the pockets of warlords in Armani suits.
But we mustn’t let the news from Beirut lead us to think that corruption is limited to Lebanon or developing-world regimes run by kleptocrats; it can rear its unlovely head anywhere. Like, for example, Canada.
Though government and business in Canada is, relatively-speaking, cleaner than most of the nations of the world, we are still plagued (and always have been) by malfeasance. Since even before Confederation, political life has been soiled by patronage, bribery, kickbacks, and influence-peddling. The government of John A. Macdonald fell over the Pacific Scandal, in which cabinet ministers’ palms were greased to secure railroad contracts. Prime ministers well into the 20th century received under-the-table funds from those who wished to be known as supporters of the right political party.
In the Airbus scandal, allegations were made in 1995 that “commissions” were paid to Conservative government members to induce Air Canada to purchase European-made jets. Reporters vied with each other to come up with the handiest name for the latest perceived transgression. “Shawinigate” was the name given to accusations in 1999 of Prime Minister Chrétien’s possible conflict of interest in securing government support for a hotel he had an interest in; in “Adscam,” money that was meant to pay for federal advertising in Quebec was diverted to the Liberal Party or its supporters’; “Tunagate” involved fish unfit for human consumption but allowed to be sold; “Harbourgate” exposed rot in the bidding for a dredging contract.
It’s not just at the federal level that corruption in Canada has manifested itself. First Nations have been widely implicated in financial irregularities: embezzlement, nepotism, conflict of interest, and overpayment of office holders. Attempts at imposing transparency of indigenous governance have been thwarted by the current government.
Provinces such as Quebec under Maurice Duplessis, British Columbia under W.A.C. Bennett, and Newfoundland under Joey Smallwood were notorious for shady practices. Two Alberta premiers have been forced to resign over accusations of bribery and misspending. British Columbia has given us the scandalous Bingogate and Casinogate affairs. The Charbonneau Commission of 2011 discovered that bids for municipal and provincial contracts in Quebec had been rigged in criminal ways and that Montreal-area politicians took kickbacks. The construction firm SNC-Lavalin was implicated in the hanky-panky, and it was an investigation into this company that Prime Minister Trudeau was later adjudged to have interfered with—another scandal.
In 2019, the Corruption Perception Index downgraded Canada, dropping us out of the top 10 least corrupt nations, citing the ease of money-laundering and the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Experts in anti-corruption measures offer different solutions. For some, the emphasis is on the attitude of political leaders. Robert Rotberg, founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, has stated: “The key factor is political will. Prevailing national patterns of dishonest and manipulative behaviour by and within political elites cannot be disrupted easily without an exercise of political will that is bold as well as legitimate. Political leaders who have succeeded sustainably in reforming their nations and curbing corruption know those truths. No lasting improvements occur exclusively through popular action. All have come, and will in the future come, by a leader championing the spirit and letter of these improvements, and using each to advance the cause of human justice. Difficult times, corrupt times, demand nothing less.”
Others tout institutional change. Though Canadian law in this area is usually deemed to be robust, some observers have suggested the creation of a First Nations auditor or a federal anti-corruption commission, as well as further legislation to weaken the link between private business and public officials by regulating political contributions, lobbying, and the receipt of gifts.
News media interested in exposing corruption is an essential element, but the decline of Canadian print journalism and its subsequent reliance on government grants makes one less than confident in what used to be called the “mainstream.” Citizens now increasingly rely on alternative sources such as internet blogs or podcasts, but these often lack the amplified voice necessary to reach the larger public.
In the end, it is at the ballot box where the struggle for honesty will be conducted most effectively. Greed is hard-wired into the human condition and needs to be fought by voters in every generation, lest it become apathetically accepted and seen simply as “the way things are done.”
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. His latest book is “Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.