MONTREAL - A public inquiry with possibly devastating political ramifications has begun in Quebec with the presiding judge outlining the ambitious task before her: to uncover a network of corruption in the province.
France Charbonneau, a Quebec Superior Court justice, marked the official launch of the commission with a speech that detailed what to expect from the hearings which start next month.
With a mandate to examine a 15-year period, Charbonneau said she will focus specifically on those public contracts in which organized crime used collusion strategies to infiltrate the construction industry, and possibly the world of Quebec politics as well.
"We are aware that our mandate is ambitious," Charbonneau told a hearing room crowded with journalists.
"As a result, we have to approach it in a realistic way."
She also stressed that the inquiry will be free of government interference, and will be able to independently decide its course of investigation.
"The Quebec government created this commission of inquiry — which is totally impartial and independent, well-removed from any political considerations," Charbonneau said. "Nobody can tell (the inquiry) what to do, whom to interrogate or how to investigate."
The commission isn't expected to call its first witness until June 8.
Tuesday's formal launch came while a student strike in the province reached its 100th day. Many expect revelations at the inquiry to hurt the Quebec Liberals, although the student-related unrest has recently been monopolizing political news in the province far more than the corruption issue.
Before the student issue took centre stage, Premier Jean Charest had been under intense pressure to hold a public inquiry, given mounting allegations of kickback schemes in municipal politics and allegations at the provincial level of conflicts-of-interest and unsavory partisan fundraising practices.
When Charest finally called the inquiry, after two years of public pressure, he initially sought to limit the commission's mandate and wanted the most controversial witnesses appearing behind closed doors. Charest backed down again amid a public outcry.
Charbonneau has since sought to expand her commission's powers. She gently nudged provincial legislators on Tuesday to quickly approve a bill that would give her the ability to inspect and seize documents.
"We are confident that the bill will be warmly received by members of (the legislature) and that it will be adopted before the end of the current session," she said, pointing out that public inquiries in British Columbia, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have similar powers.
Along with a sizable legal team, the Charbonneau commission has assembled a stable of police officers, engineers, notaries and accountants to comb through a growing mountain of documents.
Charbonneau said her probe would be animated by a desire to denounce and fix flaws in Quebec's public-procurement our system. Part of her mandate includes interviewing experts and examining international practices.
She explained that her inquiry cannot, under its mandate, examine agencies of the Government of Canada. But she pointed out that it can explore projects that received both provincial and federal funding.
The Canadian Press recently reported that federal stimulus money helped pay for several municipal infrastructure projects near Montreal where work was carried out by firms at the heart of the corruption scandal. Some of these engineering-consulting firms, such as BPR, have close ties to the governing Conservatives.
"The commission is not a court of law; we won't hand down a guilty verdict or (financial) punishments," Charbonneau said.
"Our role is to paint a portrait of the situation and not to conduct a criminal inquiry."
A special task force in Quebec has been simultaneously running criminal investigations into the construction industry, and has charged several dozen people since 2011.
Among those charged are former elected municipal politicians, the current mayor of Mascouche, Que., engineers and construction entrepreneurs.
The commission's mandate has been designed to avoid interfering with the criminal investigations. At the same time, Charbonneau promised the hearings will be as transparent as possible.
"Except for certain exceptions the hearings will be public," she said. "This is a fundamental principle of our legal tradition."
Given the subject matter of the inquiry and the scale of the media's interest — with more than 160 journalists accredited so far — many are drawing comparisons to the Gomery commission.
That federal inquiry, headed by the voluble Justice John Gomery, became a form of high-stakes political theatre after its hearings moved from Ottawa to Montreal.
Its revelations of kickbacks and illegal fundraising ultimately helped sink the once-dominant Liberal government.
During Tuesday's proceedings, it became clear that Charbonneau and her legal team have also been studying the Gomery precedent.
Charbonneau, for instance, is not expected to grant media interviews during the inquiry. Gomery's remarks to reporters helped bolster a challenge against his partiality.
"One of the lessons learned (from Gomery) is that the commissioner should address the population from the bench," said Sylvain Lussier, the commission's lead counsel, who also served on the Gomery inquiry.
He added that the current commission was also concerned with the stigma that came to be associated with those who testified before Gomery.
"The mere fact that you came and testified made you lose your job," Lussier said of the federal sponsorship inquiry.
"We're going to be very sensitive to that. We don't want people suffering if they have nothing to be blamed for."
After hearing witnesses in early June for three weeks, the commission will pick up again in mid-September.
The commission must report by October 2013 — right about the time Charest needs to call a provincial election.
There had been speculation Charest might hit the hustings before the inquiry. But with his party still struggling in the polls, and student unrest in Quebec, the premier has held off on an election call.