Guy Ouellette vs UPAC: What you need to know about Quebec’s biggest political scandal in years

Independent MNA Guy Ouellette walks into the National Assembly on Tuesday.
Independent MNA Guy Ouellette walks into the National Assembly on Tuesday. CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Quebec’s political scene is a lot of things, but boring usually isn’t one of them.

From mayors being shuffled into police cars at the crack of dawn to former deputy premiers being dragged in front of high-profile corruption inquiries, there’s rarely a dull moment.

But the latest scandal to rock the National Assembly, involving politician Guy Ouellette and the province’s special anti-corruption squad, is particularly complex and significant.

Although it has come to a head in the past week, this saga’s roots stretch back much further.

Here’s a look at what’s happening, and how we got here.

The basics

At its core, this scandal pits Ouellette, the provincial MNA for Chomedey, against the highly specialized police body known by its French acronym: UPAC.

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Before jumping into politics a decade ago, Ouellette was himself a police officer. He was intimately involved in the operation that brought down Quebec’s notorious biker gangs in the late 1990s and provided key testimony in the trials that followed.

WATCH: Quebec politicians shocked by Guy Ouellette arrest

Quebec politicians shocked by Guy Ouellette arrest
Quebec politicians shocked by Guy Ouellette arrest

At the time that Ouellette first decided to run for office in 2007, UPAC didn’t even exist. It was only formed in early 2011 after a flurry of corruption allegations surfaced involving government contracts in Quebec and several high-ranking officials.

A few months later, former Quebec premier Jean Charest decided the squad wasn’t enough. So his government also created the Charbonneau Commission, a separate (but linked) public inquiry that was tasked with exposing the mechanisms by which corruption had been allowed to flourish.

One of the cases that UPAC looked into in recent years involved Charest himself and a former Liberal fundraiser named Marc Bibeau, along with several other big names linked to the party’s fundraising activities. Bibeau’s name came up repeatedly at the Charbonneau Commission.

The squad was seemingly dragging its heels on that case, however, something that created major waves in Quebec City last April (more on that later).

Shocking arrest

Now, let’s move into the present. Until last week, Ouellette was happily sitting as a Liberal MNA. He was also serving as chair for a parliamentary committee at the National Assembly that was studying a bill designed to give UPAC expanded powers.

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The squad has been pushing for more leeway for years, but Ouellette wasn’t convinced it was necessary — and felt it could diminish accountability.

The head of UPAC himself, Robert Lafreniere, testified before Ouellette and the rest of the committee on Oct. 19.

Six days later, UPAC came knocking on Ouellette’s door. The MNA was arrested and his home searched, but no charges were laid.

What does UPAC allege?

UPAC’s allegations against Ouellette are tied back to that investigation involving former premier Charest and the Liberal fundraiser, Marc Bibeau.

Members of the media got their hands on internal documents linked to the probe last spring, which is how everyone found out the details. UPAC believes that Ouellette, whose committee oversees the squad’s work, had something to do with that leak.

It took UPAC a full week to confirm that it had even arrested Ouellette, however, and there still haven’t been any charges laid.

At a news conference held Tuesday, investigators denied they had intimidated Ouellette in any way, or that they were trying to cover anything up.

UPAC maintains that charges could still be coming, but won’t say if they would be against Ouellette or someone else entirely.

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The legislature strikes back

Ouellette, meanwhile, is extremely angry and has not been afraid to show it.

READ MORE: Ex-Liberal member Guy Ouellette alleges muzzling by anti-corruption unit

In a stunning speech to the entire provincial legislature on Tuesday, the embattled MNA said he firmly believes that UPAC is out to frame him.

“In an unprecedented attempt at intimidation, I was the victim of a setup,” he said.

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WATCH: Disgraced Quebec MNA speaks publicly following arrest

Disgraced Quebec MNA speaks publicly following arrest
Disgraced Quebec MNA speaks publicly following arrest

Ouellette also suggested that he was on the verge of exposing “irregularities” in the anti-corruption squad’s work when he was taken into custody.

He didn’t elaborate, but a former government analyst named Annie Trudel suddenly surfaced earlier this week and explained that it has to do with UPAC and its links Quebec’s securities regulator.

That added another layer of complexity to an already ballooning scandal.

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Jacques Chagnon, has also taken the highly unusual step of publicly denouncing UPAC’s behaviour, saying the squad needs to either lay charges against Ouellette, or apologize.

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Chagnon called the situation “intolerable” and said he has not seen anything like it in his 32 years in politics.

“Police forces must be beholden to responsible politicians and to parliament,” Chagnon said. “Otherwise, the risks of a slide into totalitarianism increase greatly.”

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On Wednesday, there was yet another twist when Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Moreau abstained from voting on a motion endorsing Chagnon’s speech. Moreau said he disagreed with some of the content of the speech, adding that the entire controversy risks being overblown.

Now what?

“I wish I could tell you how it’s going to end,” Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters on Wednesday.

The premier is calling for calm and patience as UPAC’s case against Ouellette (and possibly others) is reviewed by the province’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions. Once that’s complete, the charges may come.

Having resigned from the Liberal caucus, Ouellette could be sitting an independent MNA for weeks before there is any resolution. But at least one of his political rivals, Parti Québecois MNA Pascal Bérubé, says the former police officer’s credibility will survive if he is cleared.

“He is a courageous man,” Bérubé said Wednesday. “He arrested some tough bikers back in the day, he’s not afraid of anyone.”

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