MONTREAL - The federal government has quietly commissioned a study of a Canadian construction industry mired by allegations of political cronyism and infiltration by organized crime.
The move comes after the federal and Quebec governments as well as Montreal's administration were sideswiped over the last year by stories alleging impropriety in the industry.
So far, politicians have resisted widespread demand —mainly in Quebec — for a public inquiry into the sector.
There are also signs the controversy could reverberate in Ottawa, with an RCMP probe into a $9-million government renovation contract involving a bankrupt Montreal construction firm and a Tory organizer.
Without any fanfare, the federal government has budgeted at least $80,000 for a study on the links between organized crime and construction companies.
"The purpose of this project is to perform an in-depth study of the commercial construction sector within two Canadian jurisdictions, with a specific focus on its vulnerabilities to infiltration by organized crime," according to call-for-tender documents issued Thursday.
The jurisdictions are not identified. While Quebec is not specifically mentioned, the notice makes clear that at least one senior member of the study team must be bilingual.
A report is due next year.
A spokesman for Public Safety Canada was unable to provide further details.
According to tender information, the study comes after a summit on organized crime held in Ottawa in 2008 revealed a lack of credible information available.
"Despite the current efforts to combat organized crime, there continue to be gaps in empirical data that impacts the ability to develop appropriate policy responses," the document reads.
It also comes after a year in which politicians at all levels have steadfastly stonewalled demands for a public inquiry.
Quebec and Montreal have been saddled with allegations of intimidation, bid-rigging, inflated contracts, construction cartels and organized crime involvement.
Past polls have shown Quebecers were overwhelmingly in favour of a probe.
But the Charest government has refused, instead putting its faith in Operation Hammer — an anti-corruption task force made up of police and prosecutors with a multimillion-dollar budget and a mandate to investigate and clean up the construction industry.
The Quebec government has made the industry more transparent and accountable through a series of reforms, but opponents have argued the measures aren't enough.
The allegations of impropriety prompted Maclean's to recently run its controversial Bonhomme Carnaval cover describing Quebec as Canada's most corrupt province.
Organized crime expert and author Antonio Nicaso said while the construction industry has its share of problems, organized crime's reach isn't limited to that industry alone.
"My concern is don't label the construction industry because there are so many honest people (also)," Nicaso said. "It's a way (organized crime) legitimizes their activity, but it's not the only way."
Nicaso said what Canada needs to do is to conduct a broader study on how criminal organizations succeed in building ties and integrating themselves into society.
"We always focus on the violent aspect of organized crime but never pay attention to the so-called grey area — where criminals and white-collars and politicians and businessmen get together," Nicaso said.
That's a far more complicated undertaking, Nicaso admits, but would be a far more fruitful exercise in the long run.
"The only way to understand why the Mafia has been around for almost of two centuries is because of this network of relations that mobsters are able to build," he said.