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Bellemare 'earthquake' shakes Quebec to its core

Former Quebec justice minister Marc Bellemare is shown in an April 27, 2004 file photo.


While political commentators in the rest of Canada spent the past week dissecting the details of the Guergis/Jaffer saga, pundits in Quebec were preoccupied with a political scandal of their own. In two separate TV interviews broadcast April 12 on TVA and Radio-Canada, former provincial justice minister Marc Bellemare told reporters that during his term in the Liberal cabinet, he witnessed cash donations to party officials that were in violation of party financing rules. He also alleged that he was pressured to appoint judges recommended by influential Liberal fundraisers. Mr. Bellemare's revelations rekindled ongoing debates in the Quebec press over what should be done about the growing number of accusations of corruption and collusion in Jean Charest's government.

The Premier's initial reaction was anger and denial. Mr. Charest, who was at a conference in Mississippi when the interviews aired in Quebec, told reporters Mr. Bellemare was lying and threatened to launch a defamation suit against the former minister if he didn't retract his accusations. "I don't know what he's talking about," Mr. Charest said, "If he has proof, why doesn't he go to the Director General of Elections?"

The day after the interviews aired, a few pundits questioned Mr. Bellemare's motives, but no one was willing to defend the Premier's initial reaction to the allegations. La Presse's André Pratte contended that "Mr. Bellemare's behaviour in this situation raises some questions" in terms of the timing of the former minister's allegations. "Why didn't he denounce these practices that he suspected were illegal when he was justice minister … or in the six years since his resignation?" Mr. Pratte wondered. He did not, however, agree with Mr. Charest's strategy of denial and dismissal. "Considering the suspicious climate brought on by [previous]revelations about possible corruption of the political class by the construction industry, nothing could be worse than trying to silence the accuser," Mr. Pratte argued.

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Mr. Pratte's colleague, Yves Boisvert, agreed that, despite lingering questions about Mr. Bellemare's motives, his allegations needed to be taken seriously. "A former member of the government has just made allegations that go to the heart of the integrity of the political system," Mr. Boisvert wrote. "He claims to have names, places and dates. … What he is saying and the proof that he has needs to be rigorously and transparently verified under oath."

On his blogue for l'Actualité, Jean-Francois Lisée argued that Mr. Bellemare's accusations represented more than just a "a new episode in the construction industry corruption scandal." He called the allegations a " political earthquake without precedent in the modern history of Quebec" and joined the chorus of pundits demanding a formal inquiry.

By Tuesday afternoon - less than 24 hours after suggesting that Mr. Bellemare simply take up his concerns with the Director General of Elections - Mr. Charest changed his tune and ordered a public inquiry into Quebec's process of selecting judges.

Many in the Quebec press were pleased to see the Premier taking action, but were critical of the inquiry's narrow mandate. Le Soleil editorialist Pierre-Paul Noreau called the inquiry " useful, but insufficient." He opined that "to clear the air and regain the citizens' confidence in their political institutions, a political inquiry with a broader mandate would have been more appropriate."

Mr. Noreau's colleague, Gilbert Lavoie, agreed that an inquiry into the appointment of judges was really just " a diversion" designed to distract voters and the opposition who, for months, have been calling for a public inquiry into the role of the construction industry in the financing of the Liberal party.

La Presse columnist Michel David agreed that the inquiry's mandate was too narrow and was disappointed that Michel Bastarache - the former Supreme Court judge appointed by Mr. Charest to head the inquiry - "does not seem inclined to try to broaden his mandate."

Column of the week

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In his Friday column, La Presse's Alain Dubuc considers the results of an Angus Reid poll conducted last week, which found that 58 per cent of respondents in Quebec thought Mr. Bellemare was more credible than Mr. Charest. Mr. Dubuc interprets the results of the poll as an indication not of Mr. Bellemare's credibility, but of Mr. Charest's extreme lack of credibility.

Mr. Dubuc argues that Mr. Bellemare has succeeded in linking his allegations to a broader crisis of confidence in the province by "leading the average Quebecker to understand, incorrectly, that construction contractors decide who gets to be a judge in Quebec." He went on to conclude that Mr. Charest's willingness to launch an inquiry into judge appointments (in contrast to his refusal to do the same for the construction industry scandal) means that he doesn't feel like he has anything to hide in that realm. In the end, Mr. Dubuc, predicts that Mr. Bellemare's revelations will not be of much use in the more important "search for truth" regarding the "wonderful world of construction" in the province.

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