Two inquiries over. Now watch for action
Editorial comment from the December 2015 edition, p. 4
Just before we went to press, the Charbonneau Commission of Inquiry report was released on November 24. Four years and $45 million have been spent on uncovering problems of collusion, bid rigging, bribery and political influencing in the Quebec construction industry. Justice France Charbonneau concluded that the corruption “was much more widespread and deeply rooted than we could have thought.”
There’s no doubt that consulting engineering companies in the province have been hurt during this period of turmoil that now stretches back years. Aside from losing respect (remembering, however, that it was only a few individuals who were implicated), engineering firms have lost business. Order books shrank as government clients froze projects and became wary of hiring outside consultants. It’s estimated that consulting engineering has lost 20 per cent of its work force in the past few years.
We’ve seen companies change and rebrand: Genivar became WSP, adopting the name of its U.K. partner; Dessau is now part of Edmonton-based Stantec; SNC-Lavalin has a completely new executive team led by engineers from the U.S. and the U.K. The association AICQ has been renamed AFG.
Quebec is not the only province where engineers have been subjected to harsh public scrutiny. On page 16, “On the Rebound” considers Charbonneau, but also explores the implications of the Elliot Lake Inquiry in Ontario. When the report on the fatal collapse of the Algo Mall roof was issued by Justice Bélanger last October, it found that the employee of an engineering firm had altered a structural inspection report to please their client. But a string of other consulting engineers had attended the mall over decades and failed to adequately assess the corrosive dangers of a chronically leaking roof.
Both the Ontario and Quebec inquiries were televised, affording the public a grandstand (if excruciatingly detailed) view into the construction industry. Both inquiries also issued a list of recommendations, their purpose being to avoid a repetition of the problems in the future.
Progress on the Elliot Lake Inquiry recommendations is happening but seems slow. Professional Engineers of Ontario is searching for the right formula for a mandatory professional development program. And there’s no word yet from the province on regulations requiring that existing buildings should have regular structural inspections.
Quebec has started quick off the mark. The government has said it will soon institute a new commissioner to act as a “watchdog” in the awarding of public contracts. It will also make it easier for smaller companies to submit bids for projects, rather than making the requirements so specific and weighty that only a couple of the largest companies need apply.
These are good moves that hopefully will ensure the “culture of change” people want to see take place. But true success will depend on the new commissioner’s office carrying out its work thoroughly and for the long term. If the Inquiry is to prove more than just cathartic, i.e. more than just an airing of problems, and instead the initiation of a new, cleaner and brighter future, then everyone has to stay on guard.