Corruption probes, broken bridges, the sad decline of Montreal

For its nightlife and art scene, Montreal is hard to beat. But it's also a city where the streets and bridges are crumbling, and corruption probes are eating political capital. It will take more than infrastructure spending to fix what's wrong, Neil Macdonald writes.

A great place to lunch, but the city's problems are more than sinkhole deep

The Turcot Interchange, in Montreal’s southwest borough near the McGill University Health Centre superhospital, is the meeting place for highways 15, 20 and 720, plus the onramp for the Champlain Bridge. Work on it has been caught up in the Charbonneau Commission corruption probe. (FOTOimages/MTQ)

Driving into Montreal last week, plunging down the concrete ditch of the Decarie Expressway from that weird left-lane exit off the Trans-Canada Highway, was, sorry, a bit like arriving in Beirut.

Apologies to Beirut. That was a slur.

Montreal's soaring overlay of traffic corridors weep corrosion down their flaked and crumbling concrete exteriors. Lattices of rusted rebar pop everywhere. Bridges are wrapped in un-reassuring bandages of reinforcing material.

A week or so earlier, on assignment, my CBC documentary crew navigated a similarly complex system of ramps, spirals, bridges, loops and cloverleafs in Houston.

It practically sparkled. Smooth, brightly polished towers supported flawless pavement. Yes, Texas has a milder climate, but still Houston's system looked properly built and well maintained.

Think about this: Texans pay just about the lowest tax rates between the Rio Grande and the Arctic Circle. Quebecers pay just about the highest.


Now, these observations won't be welcomed by readers in Quebec's metropolis.

The ferocious devotion of Montrealers to Montreal (which I think runs even deeper among the city's Anglo residents) beggars the sometimes arrogant, self-proclaimed cosmopolitanism of Torontonians and smug contentment of Vancouverites.

Montrealers believe that their city has a cultural richness equalled in North America only by cities like New Orleans or New York, and having lived there, I would agree.

Aside from the international riot of its cuisine and its remarkable nightlife, Montreal is still gloriously louche.

Eat lunch at a Montreal restaurant and you'll see wine on neighbouring tables. Imagine ordering alcohol at a business lunch in Toronto?

No other Canadian city has been mythologized by the likes of Mordecai Richler or Leonard Cohen (or Robert Charlebois and Michel Tremblay or all the other playwrights and bards who have poured their love of the city into words and song).

Montreal provokes a lifelong sentimentality in anyone who's lived there.

But the city's pathologies, rather than its pleasures, are now what distinguishes it.

Such is the state of the city's physical and social infrastructure that all the new spending in today's federal budget would only make a dent.

Montreal sinkhole swallows 2 cars

11 years ago
Duration 2:54
Featured VideoA metre-deep sinkhole opened up at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport

Its tangle of decaying roads leads, among other places, to one of the busiest bridges in Canada, the Champlain, which has for years been choked by chronic closures. It is literally in danger of collapse.

That not only inflicts misery on the entire South Shore, with all its commuters, it distorts real estate prices, artificially inflating property values downtown.

Who wouldn't pay a premium to avoid crossing Montreal's overcrowded bridges or sitting in standstill traffic on lanes to the West Island that seem eternally filled with construction detours?

Don't get sick

Something else you really don't want to do in Montreal: get sick.

Quebec has been more permissive than any other province in allowing people to pay for their own medical care, for good reason: the public system isn't able to meet demand on its own.

In fact, the province has had to deliberately limit its cohort of physicians.

To boomers entering the age when you need care the most, that must be frightening.

As you turn east into downtown at the bottom of the Decarie Expressway, the new McGill super-hospital perches on a hillside to your left.

It was supposed to be a fresh alternative to over-crowded institutions like the Royal Victoria Hospital, which English-speaking Montrealers have endured for decades.

Instead, it's emerged as a millennial version of the Olympic Stadium, the rotting monstrosity that sucked up $1.5 billion, and now sits, largely underused, in the city's East End.

The super-hospital arrived vastly over budget, with thousands of defects, from defective wiring to lack of office space for physicians, to backups of stinking sewage, as the Montreal media have dutifully chronicled.

Feast of corruption

Like the "Big O," its construction was a feast for corrupt contractors and administrators. Several now face criminal charges.

Just last week, the province's former deputy premier (and former minister of municipal affairs) was arrested for corruption, along with a slew of other public officials.

Nathalie Normandeau had actually testified at the 2014 hearings of the Charbonneau Commission, which was established to look into corruption in the construction industry and government contracts.

Former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau is one of seven people arrested last week on corruption charges in the wake of the Charbonneau Commission inquiry, which was established, reluctantly, by her former boss, Jean Charest. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

You have to wonder whether the Cliche Commission, which was established in the early 1970s to look into, yes, corruption in Quebec's construction industry, anticipated the need for another official inquiry just a few decades after one of its lawyers, a young Brian Mulroney, penned a savage indictment of blackmail, violence and payoffs.

A Montreal businessman I've known for years, a fellow who has prospered in real estate management and who is now planning a move to Toronto, shrugs at all this.

He's been paying kickbacks for years, and has a hard time believing it required a commission of inquiry to establish that corruption continues.

Anyway, pity Montreal.

My former colleagues and current friends there sneered amicably when I decided to return to the national capital rather than Montreal after nearly two decades abroad; there were all the usual japes about sleepy, dull, unbearably sterile little Ottawa.

But in Ottawa, you actually get services for the taxes you pay, which are a lot lower than the levies Montrealers suffer, and you can find a doctor, and Mike Duffy's Senate expenses constitute a big scandal.

Plus, as Pierre Trudeau's old friend Jean Marchand liked to say, if you get really bored there's always the train to Montreal.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.