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Up the skirt or in the till: Top ten scandals in Canadian political history
CBC News Online | February 10, 2005

"A British politician is usually caught with his hand up a woman's skirt while a Canadian politician is usually caught with his hand in the till."
- Sun Media columnist Valerie Gibson

"This is the biggest scandal in Canadian history."
- Conservative Leader Stephen Harper on the sponsorship fiasco

Both the above statements are debatable to serious students of Canadian scandal. Much has been done in secret over the years by federal politicians who really should have known better, in both the skirt and till departments.

Consider the case of Henry Robert Emmerson, for example. According to the Parliament of Canada website, the minister of railways and canals resigned his post in April of 1907 after being "accused of being in a hotel in the city of Montreal with a person of ill-repute." The website is silent on whether that person of ill-repute was another politician.

Some scandals become scandals in the absence of any evidence proving wrongdoing, because partisan foes labelled them that way. They're still scandals, in our eyes, going by the definition of "disgraceful gossip about the private lives of other people" or "conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith."

As for judging what "the biggest scandal in Canadian history" might have been, we'll leave that up to you. Here is a list of 10 contenders:

1. The Pacific Scandal: This 1873 corruption scandal brought down the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald and cost Canada's first prime minister the 1874 election. Not over small change, either. Macdonald and the Conservatives were accused of accepting $350,000 in donations from Sir Hugh Allan during the 1872 election in return for agreeing to give Allan's consortium the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Few believed the prime minister's protestations that the donations and the awarding of the contract were unrelated – especially after a damning telegram surfaced. Six days before the election, Macdonald had sent the following message to Allan: "I must have another $10,000. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today." Talk about a smoking gun…

2. The King-Byng Affair: The famous 1925 staredown between Liberal PM William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Governor General at the time, Lord Byng, was triggered by a corruption scandal. The minister of customs and excise, Jacques Bureau, was in charge of making sure liquor and other contraband did not cross the Canada-U.S. border during the Prohibition years. Not only did he promote a known bootlegger to a top customs enforcement position in Montreal, but he defended other customs officials in the face of RCMP evidence showing them to be actively involved in smuggling.

Finally, Bureau pulled all RCMP officers off border patrols in Ontario and Quebec, letting liquor flow freely. Facing calls for his firing, King announced Bureau was stepping down as an MP because of ill health – and immediately appointed him to the Senate. That move shattered a coalition between King's Liberals and the small Progressive party that was keeping the Liberals' minority government afloat.

As a vote of censure involving government corruption neared, King asked Byng to dissolve Parliament and call an election. When Byng refused, King resigned. Byng asked Conservative Leader Arthur Meighen to form a government, but it fell within a week. Voters upset that a British appointee was overruling their elected officials returned King's party to office with a clear majority in the ensuing general election.

3. The Gerda Munsinger scandal: The guilty parties were already out of office by the time the Canadian public learned that some Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers had been consorting with an East German playgirl who may have been a KGB spy. The loose lips belonged to Lucien Cardin, then the Liberal justice minister. In March of 1966, he responded to Conservative taunts in the House of Commons by shooting back: "What about Monsignor?"

Cardin got the name wrong and later insisted that he thought Munsinger had died, but the cat was out of the Cold War bag. Reporters soon tracked down Munsinger in Munich. She freely admitted "knowing" former Conservative associate defence minister Pierre Sévigny between 1958 and 1961; Sévigny had even signed Munsinger's application for Canadian citizenship. The former Tory minister of trade and commerce, George Hees, was the other prominent politician linked to Munsinger.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker found out about Sévigny's affair in 1961 and called him on the carpet, but did not remove him from cabinet. Sévigny broke off the relationship with Munsinger and resigned from politics in 1963. The whole messy matter was far from over, though. Questions in the wake of Cardin's taunt about whether Canadian security had been compromised led Liberal PM Lester B. Pearson to call a judicial inquiry. Supreme Court Justice Wishart Spence blasted Diefenbaker for not firing Sévigny from cabinet in 1961, and Sévigny for risking the nation's security.

4. The hospital document scandal: In January of 1978, Solicitor General Francis Fox was forced to resign from Pierre Trudeau's Liberal cabinet after he was found to have helped procure an abortion for a woman with whom he had had an affair. Fox had signed the woman's husband's name on a hospital document – not a terribly acceptable action on the part of the country's top law enforcer.

Fox was back in cabinet two years later, however, and stayed there until he was defeated in the 1984 election. He returned to practising law, became an executive with Rogers Wireless Communications, and eventually returned to the backrooms of politics, serving as current Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin's principal secretary through most of 2004.

5. Tunagate: This 1985 fiasco brought down Brian Mulroney's minister of fisheries and oceans and robbed a New Brunswick town of its main employer. The story broke on CBC's The Fifth Estate on Sept. 17, 1985: Fisheries minister John Fraser had overturned an order from his own inspectors and ordered a million cans of StarKist tuna released for sale to the public. The inspectors had said the tuna, packed at the StarKist plant in St. Andrews, N.B., was so badly spoiled that it wasn't even fit to be turned into catfood. The plant's owners had lobbied Fraser to release the cans for sale, saying they might shut the plant if the tuna couldn't be sold.

When the story broke, Fraser said he had sent samples of the tuna to two independent labs for testing, but those labs later said they hadn't finished their tests by the time Fraser decided to release the shipment. Six days after the scandal erupted, Mulroney asked Fraser to resign. In a twist the opposition parties were quick to exploit, Fraser and Mulroney both initially said that Mulroney had known about the original decision to release the tuna. The two men later said the prime minister had not known until the affair became public.

Fraser eventually went on to a new job, becoming Speaker in the House of Commons, but the 400 StarKist workers in St. Andrews weren't so lucky. The plant was shuttered after the company's market share slumped, and they were thrown out of work.

6. All the other Mulroney ministers: Pity poor Brian Mulroney. The Progressive Conservative prime minister lost an average of one cabinet minister to allegations of wrongdoing during each year of his 1984-1993 reign.

First there was Robert Coates, who stepped down as defence minister in 1985 after it was revealed that he had visited a strip club in West Germany while in that country on official business. Communications Minister Marcel Masse left over an alleged violation of the Canada Elections Act (he was later exonerated), followed closely by John Fraser.

In 1986, Minister of Regional Industrial Expansion Sinclair Stevens stepped down because of conflict of interest allegations related to a $2.6-million loan to a Stevens family company. André Bissonnette, the minister of state for transport, resigned in 1987 while the RCMP investigated his alleged involvement in land speculation. Roch La Salle, who served Mulroney in the public works, and supply and services portfolios, left cabinet the same year after being charged with demanding a bribe and accepting money from businesses looking for government favours. The charges were later dropped.

Conflict of interest allegations involving a personal loan felled Supply and Services Minister Michel Coté in 1988. Bernard Valcourt stepped down in 1989 after pleading guilty to an impaired driving offence. In 1990, current Quebec Premier Jean Charest had to leave his two posts as minister for fitness and amateur sport, and minister for youth after trying to talk to a judge about an ongoing case.

And, finally, in 1991, Housing Minister Alan Redway offered his resignation after being charged over joking about having a gun while boarding a flight at the Ottawa airport. Not a cabinet minister but equally embarrassing to the Conservatives was Quebec MP Michel Gravel, who in 1986 was charged with 50 counts of fraud and influence peddling. He later pleaded guilty to 15 charges, paid a $50,000 fine and served four months in jail.

7. The APEC Inquiry: Who would have thought a little pepper would be so harmful to one's political health? In November 1997, the RCMP pepper-sprayed protesters lining the planned route of world leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Conference in Vancouver. Liberal PM Jean Chrétien brushed away the incident, joking: "For me, pepper, I put it on my plate."

Almost four years later, a commission of inquiry led by retired Saskatchewan judge Ted Hughes found that the Mounties had acted inappropriately, and instructed them to make sure in the future that "generous opportunity will be afforded for peaceful protesters to see and be seen in their protest activities by guests to the event." Hughes also found that officials from the Prime Minister's Office, specifically director of operations Jean Carle, played an "improper role" in giving instructions to the RCMP to clear the motorcade route quickly, using force if necessary.

The affair left Chrétien personally unscathed but claimed a prominent victim from his cabinet. Solicitor General Andy Scott resigned in November 1998 after he was heard loudly telling a seatmate on a flight home to Fredericton that RCMP Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart "would take the fall" for the pepper-spraying incident. Foes immediately complained that Scott had prejudiced the RCMP Public Complaints Commission hearing then taking place by commenting on the panel's possible findings.

8. Airbus: Long out of politics, former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney was dragged back into the public arena, thanks to the RCMP and a lobbyist called Karlheinz Schreiber. As part of an investigation into Schreiber's role in an alleged plot involving secret commissions and kickbacks in deals for the purchase of airplanes and helicopters, the federal Justice Department sent a letter to the Swiss government. The 1995 letter alleged that Mulroney was also involved in the arrangement, taking kickbacks on the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada during his time as prime minister.

When the letter became public, Mulroney sued the federal government for defamation, seeking $50 million in damages. Two years later, he settled for $2 million in legal costs and an apology from Ottawa. The RCMP finally ended its criminal investigation against Mulroney in April 2003, citing a lack of evidence.

9. The billion-dollar boondoggle: Human Resources Development Minister Jane Stewart was in the hot seat in 2000 when an internal audit found that Jean Chrétien's Liberal government had failed to track employment program grants worth $1 billion to make sure the money was spent properly and the promised jobs were created. At one time, the RCMP had launched 12 separate investigations into HRDC files as a result of the audit; three of them related to grants awarded in the prime minister's riding of Saint-Maurice. Stewart faced grilling for months in the House of Commons, but managed to hold on to her job. She decided not to run again in the 2004 federal election, however.

10. Shawinigate: Questions over Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's involvement in two properties in his riding began in 1993 and lingered until the day he left office in late 2003. Chrétien sold his stake in the Auberge Grand-M�re resort just before becoming prime minister and sold his shares in the Grand-M�re Golf Course shortly after that. But he wasn't paid for the golf course shares until 1999.

The issue at the heart of the debate: when exactly did Chrétien stop having an "interest" in the properties? Twice in 1996, he contacted Fran�ois Beaudoin, president of the federal Business Development Bank of Canada, about a $2-million loan being sought by Yvon Duhaime, the new owner of the Auberge Grand-M�re, to expand the hotel. The prime minister made another call to the BDC in 1997 about a scaled-back version of the loan. The federal ethics counsellor later ruled that Chrétien had done nothing wrong, but the opposition parties loudly begged to differ.


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