MONTREAL — Canada, among the 10 least corrupt countries in the world the past six years according to rankings by Transparency International, is mired in scandals.
Quebec’s anti-corruption task force Monday arrested Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum over fraud allegations, adding to controversies rocking political circles in Toronto and Ottawa that have taken the shine off Canada’s image as a squeaky-clean nation.
The scandals risk putting a dent in Canada’s reputation as a largely corrupt-free country. Canada hasn’t fallen below the top 10 of Transparency International’s corruption perception index since 2006 and rose to as high as sixth in 2010.
“We do not have as pristine a reputation internationally as we once did,” said Richard Leblanc, a law professor at York University in Toronto. “There seems to be a culture of entitlement and lack of controls and lack of oversight, which needs to be addressed.”
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In Toronto, the mayor of Canada’s biggest city, Rob Ford, is surrounded by allegations he was caught on camera taking cocaine. In Ottawa, a controversy over Senate expenses is the first scandal to touch Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inner circle, costing him his chief of staff last month.
Applebaum faces 14 criminal charges linked to two real-estate transactions that involved “tens of thousands of dollars” in illegal payments between 2006 and 2011, Robert Lafreniere, head of Quebec’s anti-corruption unit, said Monday in Montreal.
Applebaum resigned Tuesday, saying he could not remain mayor while defending himself in court, Canadian news reports said.
The charges include fraud against the government, breach of trust, conspiracy and municipal corruption, authorities said.
Applebaum pledged “to prove the accusations against me are unfounded,” he said, according to the BBC, adding, “I have never taken a penny from anyone.”
Two other suspects were arrested in the same investigation.
Applebaum, the city’s first Anglophone mayor in a century, became interim city head in November after his predecessor, Gerald Tremblay, quit amid reports that his party received illegal contributions. Tremblay denied the allegations.
Applebaum vowed to sever links between the city administration and construction companies suspected of paying millions of dollars to rig public-works contracts.
Gilles Vaillancourt, former mayor of another Montreal suburb, was charged in May with fraud and racketeering related to municipal construction contracts.
The interim mayor, who took over from Vaillancourt, and most of the borough’s legislative council were later suspended on suspicion of participating in illegal party financing.
French-speaking Quebec is holding a public inquiry into collusion and corruption in the province’s construction industry.
While “not any one of these stories would have been a big deal,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political-science professor at the University of Toronto, “All of a sudden, when you get three piled on in a couple of weeks, people start saying, ‘Hey what’s going on in Canada?’ ”
Harper’s government is facing its lowest popularity ratings in four years as it struggles with the fallout from the departure of his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and two of his senators over questions about expenses.
Wright left after the disclosure he paid about $88,339 to Sen. Mike Duffy to settle ineligible expenses. Lucy Shorey, a spokeswoman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said in a June 13 emailed statement that the agency is investigating to determine whether it needs to file charges in the matter.
Adding to Harper’s woes, Saulie Zajdel, a former electoral candidate for his Conservatives in Montreal was also arrested yesterday as part of the same investigation as Applebaum.
Heritage Minister James Moore, who Zajdel worked for in 2011 and 2012 as a special assistant, told lawmakers that if laws were broken he should be held accountable. A call to Zajdel’s home in Montreal was not immediately returned.
It was calls for more accountability in government that helped bring Harper’s Conservative Party into power in 2006. Harper’s main competition, the former Liberal government, at the time was mired in a scandal in which fundraisers accepted kickbacks in exchange for government-advertising contracts.
Harper’s first piece of legislation after taking power was the country’s Federal Accountability Act that ended political donations by companies, required public servants to record all contacts with lobbyists and eliminated contingency fees in the lobbying industry.
In Quebec, the charges against the Montreal mayor come against a backdrop of investigations into corruption in the construction industry. A government-appointed commission investigating the granting of contracts is being televised daily.
The public scandals may simply reflect newly applied transparency rules and growing demand for accountability in Canada, said Kathy Brock, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
“Some things that might have floated underneath the radar are now becoming much more apparent,” said Brock, a political scientist. “As things open up and as more rules get applied, it means you will have much more things come to light.”
Gilles Vaillancourt, former mayor of Laval, Quebec’s third-largest city, was among 37 people arrested last month and charged with crimes including fraud and gangsterism. Laval is now under the trusteeship of the province.
SNC-Lavalin Group, Canada’s biggest construction and engineering company, had one of its subsidiaries and more than 100 affiliates debarred for 10 years by the World Bank following “misconduct” in relation to a bridge project in Bangladesh, according to a World Bank statement dated April 17.
The misconduct “involved a conspiracy to pay bribes and misrepresentations” when bidding for World Bank-financed contracts, in violation of the lender’s procurement guidelines, according to the statement.
The scandal enveloping Toronto’s mayor may be the most spectacular. The Toronto Star reported May 16 two of its reporters viewed a mobile-phone video that allegedly showed Ford smoking drugs from a pipe. Ford has said he does not use crack cocaine and is not an addict.
Bloomberg News hasn’t seen the video and can’t verify its authenticity.
The Globe and Mail Newspaper alleged separately in May 25 story that Rob’s brother Doug Ford, a city councilman, was a hashish dealer in the 1980s. Doug Ford denied the allegations to various media outlets and also during a two-hour radio show that Doug and Rob Ford regularly host, when Rob Ford called the media “maggots.”
“Is there a common theme? Politics in Canada is more interesting,” the University of Toronto’s Wiseman said.