Monday, June 3, 2013

Canada's corruption problem

Barely a day goes by at the moment here in Canada without a new twist or turn in a corruption story hitting the headlines. Last week we got news of SNC Lavalin offering an amnesty for any employees providing information about their huge ongoing bribery scandal. The police also announced last week their intent to extradite Dr Arthur Porter for his part in allegedly receiving $22m in return for granting a contract to SNC to build the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper's government is embroiled in a major, and very persistent, scandal involving an attempted cover-up of some dodgy expenses claims by a conservative senator. This involved Harper's (now resigned) Chief of Staff giving a "gift" of $90,000 to Senator Mike Duffy to reimburse his questionable claim and stave off any further the investigation. Oh, and who can ignore the now internationally ridiculed mayor of Toronto, who in the wake of allegations about him being caught on video smoking crack, has now had 5 members of his administration resign or get fired for, so far, unspecified reasons. Add to that the other revelations trickling out of the ongoing Charbonneau Inquiry into corruption in Quebec, and a second Laval city mayor in a matter of months accused of taking bribes and clearly all is not well in the country formerly known for peace, order and good governance.

On the face of it, Canada has a serious corruption problem. So it was refreshing to hear last week at the aptly timed Spotlight on Anti-Corruption organized by Transparency International Canada that actually, with respect to upholding its obligations for combating international bribery, Canada is actually in the midst of a major upswing. Following years of apathy and a failure to prosecute any violations of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, in the last few years we have seen the setting up of a dedicated and fully resourced police department responsible for anti-corruption, and since 2011 the first handful of persecutions. Remarkably, the Canadian police are now investigating no less than 35 cases of alleged bribery by Canadian companies overseas.

The general consensus among the anti-corruption community here is that, if not a leader, Canada is no longer a laggard. So one way of explaining away what might seem like a major corruption problem is to put it largely down to increased enforcement and in general a greater attention to corruption in the country. As delegates at TI's Spotlight event last week put it, the 'moral compass' on corruption has shifted for the better.

This view has some truth to it. But in our view, there is more to it than that. After all, the corruption that is hitting the headlines is of a very specific variety. It's not just petty corruption but is in fact involving some of our most senior business and political leaders - CEOs, hospital directors, city mayors, even the PM's office. And many of these leaders are not seemingly ready to take a public stand condemning the practice and doing all they can to root it out. SNC Lavalin is still aiming for a 'rogue employee' defense, whilst the approach of Harper's government seems to be one of secrecy and a refusal to admit any kind of wrongdoing.

This is the kind of corruption that in terms of 'tone at the top' is sending a very dangerous message to the rest of us that no amount of increased enforcement is going to compensate. Corruption, these leaders are implicitly saying, is something we are immune to.

So what is to be done? Well, rather than necessarily seeing this as an intractable problem, all the attention around corruption at the moment also offers a couple of important opportunities.

First, now is the time for our leaders to take a genuine leadership position on corruption. The public is ready to support it, there is a renewed vigor in the anti-corruption community, and Canada has a genuine opportunity to start staking a place closer to the head of the table rather than just aiming for not being quite so bad.

Second, now is also the time for a rethink about the regulatory environment around corruption. The Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act was a good start and the amendments proposed in the 2013 Bill S-14: Fighting Foreign Corruption Act will make some incremental improvements. But as several delegates at the TI Spotlight pointed out, one reason why the US and other countries are so much more effective at prosecuting corruption is that they can also prosecute through civil law through the SEC. This makes the burden of proof lower and the likelihood of a successful prosecution higher. Institutions like the Ontario Securities Commission should be playing a much greater role in enforcement. Consider that 70% of all of the equity raised for the world's public mining companies happened on the Toronto Stock Exchange last year. This is a real concentration of financing for a major corruption risk industry which means that greater devolution of powers to prosecute corruption here could help enhance the reputation of an industry integral to Canada's economic prosperity.

As the old saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste.

Photo by IntangibleArts. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence


  1. The whole of the public sector seem incapable of understanding that it's almost invariably better to fix the systems they've already got in place and use the weapons already at their disposal than running around and passing new laws.

    Financial Claims Made Simple

    William Martin

    1. How do I make contact with Crane, or Matten?
      Any email to relay a juicy story and receive possible response?

  2. Jan, you or anyone else can contact us at and


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