Lino Zambito (Artist's Conception)With proceedings underway at the Charbonneau Comission, the corruption inquiry into municipal construction contracts in Quebec, some very disturbing allegations are coming to light. This testimony depicts a vast and shady network of politicians, mobsters and city staff, which forced construction projects to pay unofficial “tax” rates of 1-3% in exchange for winning lucrative infrastructure contracts. While nothing’s been “proven” yet, and one has to be sceptical of pretty much everyone involved in this inquiry, this does fit perfectly into the city’s decades-long reputation as one of the most corrupt municipalities in Canada. As a response of the latest accusations, Mayor Tremblay has now suspended all new non-essential infrastructure contracts, putting $75 million in new construction on hold.

So far this scandal has helped dethrone Premier Charest, put Montreal’s Mayor Gerald Tremblay and Laval’s Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt into the spotlight and is now casting its gaze toward Stephen Harper. So far the mayors and others are denying that they did anything wrong and refusing to step down, but if these allegations continue, they may have no choice.

Every major Canadian city I’ve been to has a central public library sporting at least one shelf of books on historic municipal corruption in Montreal. This is not a new problem, and it’s hardly a secret. The question is, how deep does it go? How many other Canadian cities operate the same way, and to what extent? The Toronto Star has been focusing on Ontario’s organized crime lately, revealing allegations of extensive Mafia involvement in our own public and private sphere. Perhaps most telling are reports that Ontario has become something of a haven for Mafia figures fleeing Italian police.

The real problem, when it comes to corruption, is where one draws the line. As anyone familiar with the realpolitik of development and construction knows, there’s always an “old boys club”, and it usually does pretty well for itself. Even without brown bags of money changing hands, all of these people will tend to show up at the same parties and have countless social and professional connections – that’s the nature of elite social circles. There’s never really a “free market” when it comes to valuable and central civic properties or big infrastructure projects, and few would be possible without a collective effort from many different state, business and financial institutions. Power-brokers from government and business will inevitably come into contact with those from the “underworld”, but how many actively participate? What defines involvement, when an entire city’s bureaucracy might be touched by it in one way or another. And perhaps most importantly, what’s really the difference (morally, practically etc) between legal and illegal forms of collusion here?

Real organized crime (beyond the level of colour-coordinated street gangs) tends to be characterised by how similar it looks to other kinds of power. Modern Mafias operate much more like a government or business than a street gang. Instead of brute force, they utilise a complex network of mutually reinforcing enterprises (drugs, rackets, etc). They have an economy, an established leadership structure and complex apparatus of enforcement. These functional similarities allow mobs to integrate deeply into existing state and corporate power structures, and the more this process progresses, the harder it is to tell the two apart. This isn’t an “underworld” at all, if anything, it’s an integral part of the “overworld” we all know.

In neighbouring Laval, investigators are looking into what appears to be a very similar system of kickbacks and rigged bidding processes. Unlike Montreal, though, this “closed market” seems to have sprung more from long-term-incumbent municipal politicians than shadowy mobsters. The Mayor, Gilles Vaillancourt has been raided by police at home and City Hall, though so far denies any wrongdoing and refuses to step down. If corruption this sophisticated can develop independently of existing organized crime, what does that say about the institutions it afflicts?

There’s few places in a modern city where political or financial power are as concentrated and centralized as development and construction. With tens or hundreds of millions on the line in single projects, schemes like these are inevitable, and a few might even turn a profit and establish themselves. It’s hard to know how often this happens, but a safe bet that it wasn’t limited to a few cities in Quebec. Power corrupts, and as long as power over land, infrastructure and development is concentrated in a few hands, there will always be potential for corruption to take hold, however you want to define it. This corruption is a symptom of an already secretive and self-interested urban elite, and as long as we build and run our cities this way, corruption is a problem we’ll continue to face.