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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
Scandal anger mounts in Canada
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Paul Martin
Martin says he knew nothing about the missing millions
As sensational revelations continue to pour out of a Canadian government corruption scandal inquiry, public anger is mounting across the country against the governing Liberals.

The larger question will be whether that anger will translate into calls for a new election less than a year after Canadians last went to the polls.

On Thursday explosive testimony from the previous week, by an advertising executive, was released for the first time, when the judge presiding over the public inquiry lifted a publication ban.

The inquiry is investigating how millions of dollars were paid by the Liberal government in the late 1990s to advertising firms in the province of Quebec, after Canada's auditor-general concluded that little or no work was performed and the money was largely unaccounted for.

'All the way to the top'

Under the leadership of the former Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, the so-called sponsorship programme was supposed to promote national unity in the primarily French-speaking province.

You've got to wonder whether journalists' imagination were going a little crazy
Kady O'Malley
Journalist, The Hill Times
According to the allegations released on Thursday, Jean Brault, the owner of the Groupaction advertising agency at the centre of the scandal, claimed that illegal campaign contributions worth millions of dollars were also channelled back to the Liberal party through an intricate system of false invoices and cash payments.

And at the end of the week, a Groupaction employee alleged that some orders to the advertising agencies came directly from the Canadian prime minister's office.

Mr Chretien, who has already appeared before the enquiry, denies any wrongdoing.

His successor, Paul Martin, told the inquiry that although he was the country's finance minister at the time, he knew almost nothing about the programme and the missing millions.

Tantalising ban

Mr Martin came to office vowing to get to the bottom of the scandal.

But with each new revelation, public anger with the government seems to grow.

Jean Chretien
Chretien also denies any wrongdoing
The opposition parties will be trying to gauge just how disaffected Canadians are with the Liberal's teetering minority government in the days ahead

The story was made all the more tantalising by the surreal sight of a media champing at the bit, but being unable to report any details for several days, because of Justice Gomery's publication ban, imposed because he felt it could prejudice a future criminal trial.

Instead Canadians heard such phrases as "explosive revelations considered so damaging they could topple the government" blaring out from their nightly TV news, without any details.

No smoking gun

Kady O'Malley, a journalist for the Ottawa parliamentary newspaper The Hill Times, says the media may have got carried away and become a victim of its own hype.

People want to hear real solutions to real problems
Benoit Dutrizac
Television presenter
"You've got to wonder whether journalists' imagination were going a little crazy as they imagined colour photos of Paul Martin handing over big bags with dollar signs on them to Groupaction," she said.

"While there's definitely a lot of meat there and new things we didn't know before, the testimony generally supports what we've heard already."

Ms O'Malley also believes the opposition parties did not get the one piece of evidence they were looking for.

"If they thought there was a smoking gun linking the current prime minister, they were probably disappointed." she said.

'Soap opera'

The part of Canada where the scandal has been the number one issue for political debate is French-speaking Quebec, because that is where all the alleged corruption took place.

As most of the testimony has been in French it has been virtually treated as a ghoulish nightly TV soap opera by many in the province.

After all, the sponsorship programme was introduced to quell the separatist sentiment that led to a 1995 Quebec referendum that came within a hair's breadth of choosing secession from the rest of the country.

Benoit Dutrizac is a TV presenter for the French-language station Tele-Quebec.

He said people in the province are disgusted by what they are hearing from the public inquiry.

"To see all this quarrelling and money being wasted, I think they're really fed up with all this cheating and lying."

Separatism 'waning'

Mr Dutrizac said people in the province are also upset about how they might now be perceived by the rest of Canada.

"Canadians from other provinces probably see Quebeckers as opportunists, liars and thieves. That hurts me. I'm sure that Quebeckers see these French-speaking witnesses at the enquiry every day and feel embarrassed."

The Canadian media has even been debating whether the scandal will lead to renewed anti-federalist sentiment in the province.

But Mr Dutrizac says that separatist sentiment is declining, despite the scandal.

"The last time I checked about 40% of Quebeckers wanted a new deal with Canada," he said

"But frankly, nobody cares about that any more really. I think people want to hear real solutions to real problems."

Meanwhile the slightly more unreal world of Justice Gomery's public enquiry continues.

He is expected to make his final report in November.

It may however look like a crumpled footnote, if Canadians end up going to the polls between now and then.

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