Sponsorship Scandal | 20 years ago, the case that shook Canadian politics

(Québec) It could have remained a scandal without repercussions, one of those stories where we find the predictable cocktail of politics, favoritism and greed. A psychodrama like we see in every parliamentary session. But the ingredients were there for it to be quite different.

Posted yesterday at 5:00 a.m.

Twenty years ago, in May 2002, the Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, began her investigation into what would become the “sponsorship scandal”, the first step in a chain reaction that would rock the scene for years. federal politics.

Mme Fraser will submit a damning report to the Chrétien government in November 2003. But as he was preparing to leave his post, Jean Chrétien prorogued the parliamentary session. The report cannot be tabled and made public until February 2004. Paul Martin, the successor, is the one who will have to render accounts, which will cause him irreparable harm. He will entrust Judge John Gomery with the mandate to shed light on the sponsorship scheme.

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Paul Martin in 2004

In November 2005, the judge, now deceased, concluded that there was a partisan network, to the knowledge of Prime Minister Chrétien. But the commission’s reprimand was short-lived. The court ruled that Mr. Chrétien did not deserve to be singled out.

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Jean Chrétien during his testimony before the Gomery commission in 2005

The investigations of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), they had consequences. Advertising agency owners Jean Brault, Jean Lafleur and Paul Coffin were convicted. Charles Chuck Guité, an assistant deputy minister at Public Works, a pivotal figure in the distribution of contracts, was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Long-time friend of Jean Chrétien, Jacques Corriveau is found guilty of having embezzled 5 million dollars. He will receive four years in prison in January 2017, but he will die before the end of his appeal.

  • John Brault


    John Brault

  • John Lafleur


    John Lafleur

  • Charles Chuck Guite


    Charles Chuck Guite

  • Jacques Corriveau in 2016


    Jacques Corriveau in 2016


The scheme which profited handsomely from communications firms essentially from Quebec did indeed exist. After the very close result of the 1995 referendum, the Chrétien government suffered a shock. Everything seemed justified to increase the visibility of the federal government in Quebec. Sheila Fraser estimated that a hundred million dollars out of the 250 allocated to the sponsorship program from 1997 to 2002 had been embezzled by these communications boxes, and partly redirected to the PLC election fund. Almost all the money ended up in Quebec, distributed without objective criteria.

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Sheila Fraser, Auditor General of Canada, in 2004

“It was impossible for us in most cases to determine why an event had been chosen to be sponsored, how the height of the sponsorship had been established or the federal visibility that it allowed to obtain”, concludes the verifier.

The Bloc resurrects

Before the appearance of the sponsorship scandal, the Bloc Québécois seemed on borrowed time. “Martin had 60% support in the polls in Quebec, we were at 20. In an interview, a TV host even told me he was seeing me for the last time! “recalls Gilles Duceppe, then leader of the Bloc. However, the third party will benefit enormously from the disgrace of the Liberals. Its 2004 slogan evoked the scandal: “The Bloc, a party specific to Quebec”.

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Gilles Duceppe at a press briefing during the 2004 election campaign

From 38 deputies in 2000, he will obtain 54 in the 2004 elections, and almost as many in 2006. “We asked no less than 400 questions about sponsorships in the Commons,” summed up Duceppe in a recent interview. A Bloc source at the time noted that in the fall of 2000, two years earlier, the “election platform noted that Groupe Everest, Groupaction and Lafleur Communications had all received contracts worth several million […] through the sponsorship initiatives program. These same firms had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the PLC election fund.

A researcher from the Bloc Québécois knew an official close to the file at Public Works. We will put the latter in contact with a journalist from the Globe and Mailshe will become MaChouette, a whistleblower who has always remained anonymous.

It will be at the heart of a series of hard-hitting reports published by Daniel Leblanc and his colleague Campbell Clark. The title of Leblanc’s work on this period recalls this fruitful collaboration: Code name: MyOwl.

Just before the Chrétien government ordered the auditor to investigate, the Minister of Public Works, Alfonso Gagliano, had been dismissed and appointed ambassador to Denmark. He will be fired and repatriated as soon as the Fraser report is tabled in February 2004. But for a former collaborator who wishes to remain anonymous, Gagliano did not know everything that was going on. Jean Pelletier, ex-chief of staff of Chrétien, Jacques Corriveau and Chuck Guité formed a tight committee which decided on the essentials. As early as 2000, Gagliano had requested an internal audit, we insist.

  • Jean Pelletier, former chief of staff of Jean Chrétien, in 2005


    Jean Pelletier, former chief of staff of Jean Chrétien, in 2005

  • Alfonso Gagliano in 2005


    Alfonso Gagliano in 2005


The conclusion was that Groupaction and Groupe Everest were each pocketing more than a quarter of the contracts, contrary to federal rules. In addition, some agencies overcharged for services that had already been paid for. the World will reveal a long list of mandates as futile as they are costly entrusted to Montreal agencies in order to boost the visibility of the federal government in Quebec.

Clash of clans

A contract will illustrate the negligence that reigned. The federal machine found no trace of a report for which Groupaction had received $550,000. The same firm headed by Jean Brault had already obtained another contract, the previous year, for $575,000, essentially a 122-page running list of events that Ottawa might want to sponsor. In March 2002, the government suddenly tabled the much sought-after report in the Commons.

In a few hours, Joël-Denis Bellavance, from The Press, discovered that it was in fact a copy of the previous report; even the shells had been photocopied. Serge Chapleau summed up the scam in a caricature, a parody of an ad: “The Groupaction photocopier: three times more profitable! »

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Cartoon by Serge Chapleau published on March 22, 2002

Still moved, after 20 years, a source close to the agencies at the time underlines that the scandal made many collateral victims. Close Groupaction, for example, sent 40 unemployed people, permanently marked, some in great distress.

Political scientist at Concordia, Guy Lachapelle points out that to understand this period, we must also remember the fratricidal war between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Chrétien had hinted that he would leave before the 2000 elections. But he decided to stay in the saddle. This triggered a merciless war between the two clans. At the Bloc Québécois, we readily recall that the embarrassing information on the Auberge Grand-Mère, the “Shawinigate”, came to them from the Martin clan!

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Jean Chrétien during the November 2000 election campaign

In his public speeches as in his autobiography political passion, Jean Chrétien minimizes the importance of a “sponsorship scandal that had more to do with partisan politics and the war of the newspapers than with the public interest”. Clearly, according to him, the importance of these missteps will have been exaggerated. So he maintains that he would have remained at the helm of government long enough to have to answer questions in the Commons, if Paul Martin had asked him directly.

Paul Martin will surely have contributed to dramatize the situation. It is he who will talk about the “dirty money” coming from the contributing firms. He will even make a cross-Canada tour to shout his indignation. In his memoirs, Against all odds, he explains. “Some of my critics said that by showing how disgusted I was by the revelations in the auditor’s report, I had helped raise the profile of the case and doomed my party to defeat. Make no mistake, it was the wrongdoings revealed first by the Auditor General and then by the Gomery commission that harmed the party. His lieutenant, the late Jean Lapierre, was happy to add his stone by maintaining, for example, that the new masters in Ottawa had found “a rotten fish” in the fridge of the previous administration.

Political scientist at UQAM, Anne-Marie Gingras observes that this scandal “had a significant effect”.

It changed the balance of power between the parties, there was a reconfiguration from that moment. In 2004, Paul Martin obtained only a minority mandate. Thereafter, the Liberals had no success for ten years.

Anne-Marie Gingras, political scientist at UQAM

“It was not until 2015, with another generation of politicians, that Justin Trudeau was elected,” recalls Ms.me Gingras.

Elected in the minority in 2006, Stephen Harper feels the need to take action. “He passed the law on accountability, we see the arrival of an ethics commissioner, one on the integrity of the public sector in 2007. The Parliamentary Budget Officer was created at the same time. There was an interest in transparency, which is a bit paradoxical if we remember Mr. Harper’s tendency to secrecy,” observes Ms.me Gingras. She continues to talk about “sponsorships” in her classes to this day. She confides that she was “stunned” to see the reception of the students: “Only three years after the scandal, the students looked at me as if I were an extraterrestrial. »

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Sponsorship Scandal | 20 years ago, the case that shook Canadian politics

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