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Corruption in Montreal throws doubt on ethical standards in engineering

By in News

CUP Quebec Bureau Chief

So far the Charbonneau Commission has had almost no impact on engineering students according to general director of École de technologie supérieure Yves Beauchamp.

MONTREAL (CUP) — Reports of collusion and corruption are nothing new for Quebec’s construction industry. What is new, however, is the eroding image of engineers and a mounting questions of whether or not engineers are applying ethical and professional standards in their profession.

The plummeting confidence in the profession can be readily heard from the many Quebecers closely following the Charbonneau Commission, a public inquiry led by Justice France Charbonneau, which is currently hearing testimony about corruption in Montreal’s construction industry.

So far, City of Montreal engineers Gilles Surprenant and Luc Leclerc admitted to accepting numerous gifts along with more than $700,000 and $500,000 respectively in bribes from construction firms in return for turning a blind eye as the firms, in partnership with organized crime, drove up prices for public contacts.

According to Surprenant’s testimony, the system of collusion increased the costs of construction projects in the Montreal area by between 30 to 35 per cent — an increase paid for by taxpayers.

“Absolutely what we’ve heard at the Charbonneau Commission effects the profession,” said Daniel Label, president of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ), the highest regulatory body for Quebec engineers.

“But what we often tell people is we have 62,000 engineers in Quebec — and there’s a large number [of students] learning this profession, so we work hard to uphold the good reputation we have as engineers.”

A study published last year found that 65 per cent of Quebecers reported having confidence in engineers compared to 83 per cent in 2007. The decline of that good reputation started before the Charbonneau Commission began broadcasting confessions of corrupt engineers and professionals.

Despite years of rumoured collusion and corruption within the industry, it was only in 2009 that authorities began to consider the allegations seriously.

Provincial police launched Operation Hammer an investigation to discover whether construction firms, allegedly partnered with the Mafia, were colluding to drive-up prices of public contracts.

The same year, the OIQ began receiving over 300 per cent more requests for investigations into misdealings within the industry on grounds of ethical and technical malpractice.

The OIQ established a hotline, 1-877-ÉTHIQUE, to answer questions from engineers and the public about ethical practices, professional expectations and a place to report misconduct or air doubts. OIQ also introduced an integrated plan to assess the state of ethical and professional practices in the Quebec engineering industry and to put in place appropriate training.

A year later, in 2010, the OIQ released a five-year strategic plan addressing a lack public confidence in engineers as its first priority.

“Over the course of 2009 [and] 2010, allegations of claimed malpractice with our profession have been made which forces the Order to take immediate action,” reads the plan.

“It is essential to reestablish and strengthen the confidence between the public and the members of the Order and the respond to the changes of the profession,” it continues.

The plan details the need for an ethical intervention to encourage the application of ethical and professional standards in the day-to-day actions of engineers.

Currently the OIQ requires engineers to pass a test concerning ethics and professionalism within three years of graduation from an accredited engineering program in order to receive the title of an engineer.

Within engineering programs, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, which establishes the requirements necessary for accreditation, states that courses in many areas such as engineering economics, the impact of technology on society, healthy and society, as well as professional ethics, equity and law.

However the inclusion of these subjects is left to the discretion of universities.

“Each university has their own mandatory classes that must be done to ensure competence,” said Label. “There are certainly courses that are general [regarding ethics and professionalism] — they’re not necessarily the most precise — but certainly to enter into the profession we make sure that people understand that the ethics and that it’s part of their profession.”

Over a third of the Canadian engineering faculties accredited by the CEAB are located in Quebec.

The École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) is the largest engineering school in the province with one in four Quebec engineers holding a degree from the institution. It is also the only institution in Canada to offer an engineering program specializing in construction.

Yves Beauchamp, general director of ÉTS, feels students are more aware of ethics now thanks to classes developed according to the CEAB requirements.

“When I graduated as an engineer there were no mandatory courses about training for engineers for the practical side of ethics, of professionalism. Today however there is an obligation to have course on ethics and professionalism in the program,” he said.

ÉTS’s mandatory ethics course is called ‘Environment, technology and society.’

According to Beauchamp, engineering students are not affected by the Charbonneau Commission’s findings.

“At my school, in universities, in faculties of engineering, we haven’t experienced a lower rates of enrollment, of internship opportunities, of research collaboration with industry partners — we do not feel an impact.”

“The only impact that affects us and concerns us is the reinforcement of the fact that giving specific training in ethics is a good thing,” he added.

But professor Bernard Lapierre at École Polytechnique de Montréal, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal feels the current standards for ethics in universities are not sufficient.

“What does the code say about corruption? The code is very, very precise about the corruption of engineers. There’s no need to improve [the code] when it comes to the corruption, it only needs to be applied,” he said.

Lapierre is a philosopher who developed an applied ethics course specifically for engineers. “What we need to do more to enable people to use their own judgment. It’s not at all the same point of view.”

“Right now the questions are about corruption but that bypasses the larger question of training in ethics.”

[box type=”info”]This is the first part in an ongoing series on corruption and collusion in Quebec’s construction industry and its impacts on post-secondary education in Quebec.[/box]

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