OTTAWA -- Quebec is like a cow that has been milked too hard for too long, and it is now getting ready to give the farmer a kick in the head.
For decades, the Mafia and their friends have been pulling at the teats, taking the cream from rigged government contracts while politicians look the other way and highways crumble.
But Quebecers have had enough, and the government of Jean Charest is being forced to take on the five per cent men who dip their beaks in every tarpot in the province.
The public has taken notice because of the work of Quebec journalists, who have aggressively exposed corruption, putting withering pressure on see-no-evil politicians.
Andre Noel and Andre Cedilot have been covering Montreal's Mafia since the early 1990s. Last year, they published Mafia Inc., The Long Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan. Now, Michael Gilson's elegant English translation is on the shelves.
Drawing on decades of careful research, Mafia Inc. tells the story of the Rizzutos, the Cuntreras and the Caruanas, the Mafia families that grew rich importing cocaine and heroin through Montreal into the United States.
If you want to understand why Quebec has a corruption problem, start by thinking about all that drug money. According to Italian police, the Rizzutos have enough money that they sought to finance a $7.3-billion bridge from Italy to Sicily.
"They are so rich," Noel told me in an interview in Montreal's Little Italy on Sunday. "When you have these huge bundles of cash, that is sometimes rotting in warehouses, you use it sometimes in the construction industry. And you finance political parties."
The construction business is ideal for laundering drug money. Over time, companies affiliated with the Mafia and biker gangs set up a system in which a small group of companies divvy up the public works projects, especially road work in Montreal.
The system has been described by Quebec's anti-collusion boss, Jacques Duchesneau, former provincial transport consultant Francois Beaudry and RCMP Sgt. Lorie McDougall, in testimony at a Mafia trial in Italy.
Using coded communications, the companies -- nicknamed the Fabulous 14 -- would decide who would bid on what. The result: a kilometre of road in Quebec costs 37 per cent more than in Ontario, according to a 2008 Transport Canada study.
The contractors need the Mafia to police the system, says Noel.
"They cannot go to the government and say 'That was my turn and it's not his turn. So, dear government, please do something.' It's illegal. So it's useful to have a kind of police, that is the Mafia, to settle the conflicts between these businessmen. For this service, the Mafia is asking for the pizzo."
Pizzo is Mafia slang -- from the Sicillian expression for a bird wetting its beak -- for protection money.
"When an outsider wants to have a contract, and he's not part of the gang, he can be threatened," says Noel. "Sometimes it's not necessary to say 'I'll kill you if you don't backtrack with your submission!' Just to know that the Mafia is there, and you receive a call to say, 'Well, maybe it would be a good idea if you... ' It can be very polite."
Polite or not, it is costing Quebecers a lot. The transport minister has admitted he doesn't know how much of the $4.2 billion budgeted for road improvements this year will be stolen.
But the province has introduced measures to better supervise road construction, is taking on corrupt construction unions, and the public is rallying.
"I think the people are worried about the Mafia influence in Quebec," says Noel. "People do not want that Quebec becomes like Italy. In Italy, they have infiltrated so much the parties and the institutions that it's hard now to get rid of it."
Charest has also called a public inquiry, but he was forced to do so by public opinion, and at first tried to prevent it from having the power to call unwilling witnesses.
The Mafia and affiliated companies are big political donors, says Noel.
"If they do it, it's because they want to have something else in exchange, and it's mainly contracts, in public works," he says.
Cedilot, who has retired from La Presse after decades of police reporting, is blunter than the more intellectual Noel.
"We know," he says. "The government, they blind their eyes since 30 years here. And now they can't say they don't know. We know. We know the Mafia is there. We know there is collusion in the construction business. They don't want to open their eyes. You know why? Because a lot of money goes in their electoral funds."
In 1973, a Mafioso walked into the offices of Le Devoir and shot journalist Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, hitting him in the arm. In 2000, a biker shot journalist Michel Auger in the back in the parking lot of Le Journal de Montreal. Both men survived.
Cedilot laughs when I ask him if he's afraid of the criminals he spent a career covering.
"I'm more afraid with businessmen than those guys," he says. "Those guys, they know they are criminals, but businessmen don't know they are criminals and they steal the money of the people."
Stephen Mahar is a columnist for Postmedia News.