Canadian Consulting Engineer

Collateral Damage – an interview with Johanne Desrochers, AICQ

Revelations of corruption in the Quebec construction industry have created shock waves throughout the province and Canada. Politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, ­—- and engineering companies — have been implicated in stunning...

March 1, 2014   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Revelations of corruption in the Quebec construction industry have created shock waves throughout the province and Canada. Politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, ­—- and engineering companies — have been implicated in stunning evidence provided at the Charbonneau Commission of Inquiry being held in Montreal.1 Last year, the ever-rolling cameras at the commission recorded engineering company executives admitting they had participated in a longtime system of collusion and bid-rigging. Several large companies have also admitted making illegal donations to political parties, and while the Inquiry is ongoing, some witnesses have testified that money changed hands in order to obtain contracts at the municipal level. Meanwhile, the province’s anti-corruption unit, UPAC, continues to investigate, and as recently as January held an early morning raid on an engineering company’s offices.

Canadian Consulting Engineer talked to Johanne Desrochers, president and chief executive officer of the Association des ingénieurs-conseils du Québec (AICQ)/Association of Consulting Engineers of Quebec, about the impact of the Charbonneau Inquiry on the consulting engineering community, and how she sees things moving forward. — BP

Q. AICQ has reported that its firms have 20% fewer staff in 2013 compared to the previous year. Do you think this corporate shrinkage is related to the Charbonneau Inquiry and other corruption scandals?

Desrochers: There are two reasons: the economic situation in Quebec, coupled with the crisis and the Charbonneau Inquiry. In Quebec the economy is slow. The natural resources sector is on hold, as well as the industrial sector. And in terms of infrastructure, business is half of what it used to be in the last decade.

In the municipalities a lot of projects have been postponed. So the situation for consulting engineers means that while they keep their people as long as they can, at some point it’s difficult if you don’t have enough projects.

Q. How has the Inquiry affected engineers’ work with the municipalities?

With all these allegations and revelations, everybody just stepped back and asked themselves if they wanted to continue with their projects, or would they wait and see.

Q. We still have to fix bridges and roads, so can’t the public clients just adopt an anonymous bidding process or some other tools to ensure fairness and honesty?

We’re probably the province with more process than anywhere — at least at the provincial government level where we have a QBS (qualifications-based selection) process. And we have fee schedules put in place by the Treasury Board.

So there are good rules.

But the problems were especially in the municipalities where it is a low-bid system, not only for the contractors but for the professionals as well. The low bidding system is not the only reason for the problems, but it helped.

Of course all of this has had a big impact and the government did put some new rules in place. Bill 1, the Integrity in Public Contracts Act, was passed in January one year ago. The law requires that any company that wants to work with government at any level, municipal or provincial, has to be integrity-approved. The Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF) gives the approval, and it is required no matter if it’s a construction company, a consulting engineer, an architect, whatever. The AMF works with the Unité permanente anticorruption (UPAC), the government’s anti-corruption unit to look at a company and its directors to see if they comply with the required standards of integrity.

At the beginning the AMF’s integrity approval process was for the very large projects, $40 million and more. So of course it was oriented to the big firms. But now it’s for projects of $10 million or more.

Q. Have any companies been approved by the AMF?

Dessau, SNC-Lavalin and WSP among the larger firms. Most AICQ members working with the public sector have either submitted their application to the AMF or intend to do so in the coming months.

Q. I understand that you are asking the government to do more?

We want the government to understand that in a services industry you cannot just close the door, not do any projects for x months or years, and then think that you can just open the door and start again. It doesn’t work that way.

Over the years an engineering company will build a capacity to manage projects, to work as a team, to innovate together. If nothing is done and we don’t realize that we are losing our way, then we may be about to lose our head offices and this expertise of teams.

I don’t think that’s what we would wish for the consulting engineering industry in Quebec. It’s been an industry in which everybody has invested for 50 or 60 years. I think we have the responsibility all together — the government, the universities, the companies. We have the responsibility to keep a strong industry. When you want to bring investment from outside, it’s always an advantage for these investors to know that in every region of the province there is expertise in engineering.

Some people believe that if engineers lose their jobs in one firm, they’ll just go to another, because other firms will have the projects. But that’s not how it works.

We don’t think it would be an advantage for Quebec to lose many head offices. It wouldn’t be a good idea for the industry not to be strong any more. It could have an impact on the universities even, because we have a lot of engineering schools and many of these students work in our firms. So it’s all related.

We’re just trying to make sure that the government really understands the precariousness of the situation and does something.

The first thing they could do, which is not that difficult I think, is to create a forum, or a place where we can think about “after the Inquiry.” We don’t feel that anybody is thinking about that. What’s the impact of all these revelations? What’s next? That’s what AICQ is working on.

Q. What’s the mood among young professionals? Are people feeling that they just want to leave the province?

No, no. Interestingly enough, last summer even though there were all the revelations at that time, we did a survey and 78% of the young professionals in the survey were still proud to work in consulting engineering, and 83% said they would like to continue their career in that sector.

Another thing was that 91% of the young professionals indicated that they felt they had an important role to play in terms of ethics. Most of them were ready to get involved in order to regain the good reputation of the sector. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but I think that as long as they see that the companies are changing, the young professionals want to stay.

Q. Why then has there been a drop of 20% in the number of employees in AICQ firms?

It’s related to both the impact of the Inquiry and the economic situation, as I said. Even for those firms working in the private sector there were layoffs.

But also three years ago in the municipal sector many engineers did leave the consulting industry because they were not able to play their role as they used to. They had been the strategic partner of the municipality, working with their clients for years, and then suddenly they were seen as a villain.

Q. So engineers have lost the confidence of their clients?

Well not all of them, of course. But if you are a responsible client, of course you will ask yourself: Are our processes O.K.? Are our consultant professionals O.K.? In the very vast majority of cases they are, because it’s only a minority who were involved in corruption.
The vast majority of the 23,000 or so people in the consulting engineering industry, as well as the 60,000 engineers in this province, are honest. Still, it’s difficult for professionals working in this environment. It’s very difficult. But the wind will change.

Q. What is the impact on the AICQ?

For the association, some members decided not to renew, so this has had an important impact.

We’re trying to bring the members to use different tools that firms like SNC-Lavalin or WSP have put in place in terms of compliance. What we do as an association is try to find the best practices in different fields. So we are working with the OIQ [Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec], and the government, and with tools from FIDIC (the international federation of consulting engineers). We are encouraging the members to put the FIDIC integrity management system in place. We will see, and maybe in a few years from now having this system in place could be a criteria to become a member of AICQ.

I think that if we take this situation as an opportunity, it can help the industry to be seen as even better in five years from now. When you combine exemplary conduct with technical advantage, then you can become again an industry of which the population can be proud. Because the companies’ technical expertise and reputation were never questioned.

Q. What has all this been like for you? It must have been very stressful over the last few years.

Well, there were allegations of all sorts before the Charbonneau Inquiry, and then suddenly the allegations became revelations. So it has been a big shock, yes.

And of course when you have worked with the people [implicated at the Inquiry] and know them, and they are people from whom you happened to learn a lot, it’s disappointing to say the least. But they will pay their dues to society at some point, I suppose, if they are found guilty.

When it happened, of course I had to think: “Am I staying? Can I bring something? Can I help?”

I decided to stay. And if you decide to stay it’s to help and it’s to learn. It’s also because you believe in this profession and in these people. What really drives me is that I think of those 20,000 people, and all the work they do, and how important they are for the society — which they don’t actually always realize.

Corruption is not a problem just in Quebec. It’s a world-wide problem. The construction industry is the most corrupt industry in the world. Everywhere you have investment and construction, you will get some people trying to corrupt and take advantage for themselves. There is a lot of money involved. The consulting engineer can play a role in a good sense or a bad sense, because he is between the clients and the contractors, or working together with them, and his role is really to be the ears and eyes on the project. He is right at the centre.

We should ask ourselves: What could we have done? What could be in place so that we protect the industry from that? And this question actually should be asked by any association in Canada. It’s an opportunity I believe that we must take, and we must take this subject seriously.  CCE

Footnote: The Commission of Inquiry on the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry, is looking into potential corruption in the management of public construction contracts in Quebec. Enacted on 19 October 2011, the inquiry is chaired by Justice France Charbonneau, and is ongoing. See https://www.ceic.gouv.qc.ca/la-commission.html


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