Canada

Sponsorship report leaves reader feeling numb

Don Martin
Calgary Herald
February 12, 2004

Round about Page 15 in the auditor general’s scathing damnation of Jean Chretien’s logos-for-love program in Quebec, a numbness takes hold.

There’s so much money for nothing, so many cheques for free.

The federal sponsorship program was loosely established six years ago as a $250-million, post-referendum project to blanket Quebec sporting and cultural events with Canadian symbols as a national unity booster.

It ended in dire straits, if I follow Sheila Fraser’s incredulous analysis correctly, as a scheme without any formal operating guidelines, giving out cash upon verbal request to improperly selected agencies that paid outrageous commissions to fund questionable recipients for tasks that were never specified to obtain results that were never checked.

Gawd.

We had been conditioned in advance to expect bad news from no-nonsense Fraser when her delayed report on the sponsorship scam was finally released on Tuesday.

But seeing such graphically detailed examples of cash disappearing into black holes, all illustrated in flow charts showing Liberal cronies skimming off a piece of the buck-passing action, made it so much worse.

In spots, the breathtaking gall of what seems to be so many cases of cut-and-dried fraud makes you long to call in the cops.

But then, oops, you reach Page 19 of Fraser’s report. And there you discover the mighty RCMP was in on the action, too, doing a unique musical ride on the taxpayers’ back to celebrate its 125th anniversary in 1997.

The federal face of law and order took the program for $1.7 million to include the Maple Leaf logo in its celebrations, which is incidentally, a logo already on RCMP uniforms and the like.

The federal police force even acted the guilty party by setting up a special Quebec fund, using a new accounting system to govern the transactions and destroying documents that Fraser says might’ve helped her to get her man.

The RCMP used some of the money improperly to hire co-ordinators, buy a six-pack of horses and a couple of trailers and dumped all the money it simply wouldn’t spend into its operating accounts.

When nabbed by Fraser, the force actually confessed to breaching an act that calls for the convicted to cough up five grand or spend five years in the slammer. Gawd again.

With such widespread abuse, one might’ve hoped Fraser could’ve explained how a prime minister, a top Quebec cabinet minister and a massive bureaucracy could sit on their thumbs while a scheme to merely empty a public purse started, developed and flourished, seemingly without any adult supervision.

Sadly, her mandate left more questions than answers, opting to let her paint-by-numbers version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream speak for itself.

Don’t reach for the top to find accountability for the mess.

Former prime minister Chretien had shrugged it off as the small price to pay for national unity before he pulled the plug on Parliament and his career last November to flee politics ahead of the report. Chretien, by the way, was last seen in China.

Current Prime Minister Paul Martin protests he didn’t know the extent of the problem because, after all, as finance minister, he couldn’t be expected to sweat the details.

So you can only seethe – the West in particular for learning the Liberals lavished money on another failed coddling of Quebec so quickly after the billion-dollar federal gun registry confirmed their tax dollars do indeed die in Ottawa.

(In a tidbit bound to further raise western hackles, Fraser pointed out a Montreal soccer team received $150,000 from the program while an identical proposal from the Edmonton Drillers was rejected because the fund had been deleted).

But Quebecers should be peeved, too.

A program designed to win their Canadian loyalty is poised to become a long, drawn-out exercise of recrimination and finger-pointing before an independent inquiry and a parliamentary committee, while a special counsel seeks in vain to recover the misappropriated millions.

Quebec’s image as the purveyor of payola, living in a fiscal wasteland is thus assured for months, if not years, to come.

For Fraser, who thought that she’d seen everything that could possibly go wrong in government books, well, it turns out she hadn’t.

Contracts were inflated with more cash after events were held. Money was transferred from the government to its own Crown corporations through Liberal friends who nabbed hefty commissions just to pass the cheque. Liberal friends rejected for the cash found relief was only a phone call away to the minister of public works.

If the stale Liberal party can emerge from this mess with a fresh majority mandate this spring, Canada is indeed a nation with too many cheques and not enough balances.

Martin is Calgary Herald Ottawa bureau chief.

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