Here a scandal, there a scandal: More fodder for cartoonists

After its re-election in 1872 the Conservative government of John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) launched a project to build a transcontinental railway to link all regions of Canada. In the West, British Columbia had demanded the railway as a condition of joining Confederation. Macdonald awarded the construction contract to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which stood to receive a $30,000,000 subsidy as well as 20,000 hectares of land.

However, in April 1873 the Liberal Party accused the prime minister of accepting $360,000 from Hugh Allan (1860-1951), a director of the CPR, shipping magnate and financier, to finance his election campaign. Macdonald denied the whole thing, but the bubble burst in July. The Liberal Party sent newspapers a copy of a telegram from Macdonald to Allan: "I must have another $10,000. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today." Driven to the wall, the prime minister resigned on November 5, 1873.

The affair, known as the Pacific Scandal, revealed the extent to which business interests had infiltrated Canadian politics. It also launched the career of one of Canada's greatest cartoonists, J. W. Bengough (1851-1923), who took advantage of the scandal to found the satirical weekly newspaper Grip (1873-1894).

Echoes of this event sounded with the Sponsorship Scandal of 2004-2005. More than a century after the Conservative Party was found guilty of corruption, it was the federal Liberal Party that was called up on the stand. While in power the federal Liberals were accused of misdirecting public funds during an advertising campaign known as the Sponsorship Program. Launched in 1997, the campaign was intended to increase the visibility of the Canadian government in Quebec and to raise Canada’s profile among Quebecers.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were distributed using ad agencies as intermediaries. The latter redirected a large chunk of what they received to the campaign coffers of the Liberal Party of Canada. The fraud, revealed during a 2004-2005 government inquiry, involved ad agencies as well as elected politicians and high-ranking federal civil servants. Although former prime minister Jean Chrétien (1934-) emerged unscathed, cartoonists skewered him, like they once had Macdonald.

These two examples show that some of Canada's leaders have committed fraud in the name of national unity. While claiming to be protecting the public interest, they served, by their deeds and actions, the private interests of their respective political parties. These cases illustrate the vulnerability of political institutions and the crucial role played by public opinion, through the revelations that came to light in the press and the public inquiries.