Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True north? Not so much, lately

Canada is fast losing its rep as a squeaky-clean nation

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MONTREAL -- Canada, among the 10 least corrupt countries in the world the past six years according to rankings by Transparency International, is mired in scandals.

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"We do not have as pristine a reputation internationally as we once did," said Richard Leblanc, a law professor at York University in Toronto. "There seems to be a culture of entitlement and lack of controls and lack of oversight, which needs to be addressed."

In Toronto, the mayor of Canada's biggest city, Rob Ford, is surrounded by allegations he was caught on camera taking cocaine. In Ottawa, a controversy over Senate expenses is the first scandal to touch Prime Minister Stephen Harper's inner circle, costing him his chief of staff last month.

Applebaum faces 14 criminal charges linked to two real estate transactions that involved "tens of thousands of dollars" in illegal payments between 2006 and 2011.

While "not any one of these stories would have been a big deal," said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, "all of a sudden, when you get three piled on in a couple of weeks, people start saying, 'Hey what's going on in Canada?' "

Harper's government is facing its lowest popularity ratings in four years as it struggles with the fallout from the departure of his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and two of his senators over questions about expenses.

Wright left after the disclosure he paid about $90,000 to Senator Mike Duffy to settle ineligible expenses.

Adding to Harper's woes, Saulie Zajdel, a former electoral candidate for his Conservatives in Montreal, was also arrested this week as part of the same investigation that nabbed Applebaum.

It was calls for more accountability in government that helped bring Harper's Conservative Party into power in 2006. Harper's main competition, the former Liberal government, was mired in a scandal in which fundraisers accepted kickbacks in exchange for government advertising contracts.

Harper's first piece of legislation after taking power was the country's Federal Accountability Act that ended political donations by companies, required public servants to record all contacts with lobbyists and eliminated contingency fees in the lobbying industry.

The public scandals may simply reflect newly applied transparency rules and growing demand for accountability in Canada, said Kathy Brock, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

"Some things that might have floated underneath the radar are now becoming much more apparent," Brock, a political scientist, said in a telephone interview. "As things open up and as more rules get applied, it means you will have much more things come to light."

Gilles Vaillancourt, former mayor of Laval, Quebec's third-largest city, was among 37 people arrested last month and charged with crimes including fraud and gangsterism. Laval is now under the trusteeship of the province.

SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., Canada's biggest construction and engineering company, had one of its subsidiaries and more than 100 affiliates debarred for 10 years by the World Bank following "misconduct" in relation to a bridge project in Bangladesh, according to a World Bank statement dated April 17. The misconduct "involved a conspiracy to pay bribes and misrepresentations" when bidding for World Bank-financed contracts, in violation of the lender's procurement guidelines, according to the statement.

"Is there a common theme? Politics in Canada is more interesting," the University of Toronto's Wiseman said.

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 D6

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