02/03/2013 11:53 EST | Updated 04/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Montreal Is a National Embarrassment


The viral cellphone video of the January 29 flood on the campus of McGill University was a perfect demonstration of why Montreal has become a national embarrassment. In the video, a young woman struggles to stay upright as a torrent of water burst from an 88-year-old water main fills the thoroughfare she was trying to cross, bringing along with it various articles of debris. She can't move forward because of the force of the water, but she holds her ground for about half a minute.

Then, another piece of flotsam approaches, she loses her balance, is swept up by the current and, resigned to her fate, floats squarely on her ass down the street and out of view. It's a pathetic video (not least of all because neither the filmmaker nor any of his friends -- nor anyone else in the vicinity, for that matter -- even thinks to lend the poor girl a hand until 45 seconds in when, as the girl fades out of view, someone finally says, "Dude, somebody should probably go help her," and yes, these are the same young people who marched downtown all summer demanding free university education) that encapsulates Montreal's current state of crappiness.

The ongoing Charbonneau Commission investigating Montreal's construction industry is showing all of Canada just how rotten the city is. It has uncovered a litany of offences among a dozen or so construction companies who conspired for years and gamed the municipal contracts system so that they could get paid more for doing less work. But much, much worse than that, what has been revealed is that politicians from every major party in the city (another annoying thing about Montreal: are the municipal political parties really necessary?) are alleged to have been in on the scheme and to have lined their pockets with kickbacks and illegal donations from the construction companies. Virtually everyone who's anyone in Montreal politics has been implicated, including the man we have come to know as Mr. Three Per Cent. The former mayor, Gérald Tremblay has resigned in disgrace, claiming he knew nothing about what was going on.

(And in other local news, the former head of Montreal's MUHC superhospital project, who owes a couple hundred thousand dollars to the hospital and is in business with a purported international arms-dealer, has skipped town.)

The Charboneau Commission got particularly sexy this week, as Michel Lalonde, one of the admitted crooked construction bosses, took to the witness stand. Over four days, he methodically described how construction companies, including his, doled out bribes to city officials, including the city manager, in order to win municipal contracts at inflated prices, which they then abused even more by invoicing the city for bogus cost overruns and the like. Lalonde said those same companies displayed their gratitude to the officials who granted them those contracts by donating lots of money to various politicians' re-election campaigns, including some borough mayors, and all the political parties' war chests. Lalonde put it succinctly Wednesday: "You get projects, you donate."

Lalonde's testimony in particular and the Charboneau Commission in general are proving our worst fears about politics and business -- that they are inseparable, are both populated by crooks and the rest of us are paying for it. It is appalling, and it will take a long time to make things right again in Montreal. As a real estate developer, quoted by Gazette columnist Henry Aubin, put it Thursday: "It's going to take another generation to build ourselves out of this crap."

And in the meantime, the scumbags who run the city will let it crumble, piece by piece. In fact, I wouldn't even count on that burst pipe, and all the other 100-year-old pipes that could burst at any moment, getting a proper fixing: The city awarded the repair contract to Louisbourg Construction, a company owned by the family of Tony Accurso who is, natch, one of the allegedly crooked construction bosses the Charboneau Commission is investigating.

But what about all the great culture and history in the city? The shops and restaurants and Old Montreal? The Canadiens? Arcade Fire? Well, yes, there's no doubt all that's there, and that Montreal is a beautiful city -- arguably even the most beautiful in Canada. And, hey, I never said anything about not visiting -- just be careful you don't get swallowed up the next time a massive sinkhole opens up downtown. And remember to pack your wetsuit.

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