Selena Ross set out to discover what was behind a number of pedestrians who had been killed by snowplows in Montreal. What she found was a snow removal industry that is entrenched in a culture of collusion, bid-rigging and violence. Rhiannon Russell spoke to Ross to find out how she got the story that has exposed the dirty money behind yet another Montreal industry.

Selena Ross set out to discover what was behind a number of pedestrians who had been killed by snowplows in Montreal. What she found was a snow removal industry that is entrenched in a culture of collusion, bid-rigging and violence. Rhiannon Russell spoke to Ross to find out how she got the story that has exposed the dirty money behind yet another Montreal industry.

 

Threats, violence, and sabotage aren’t exactly what come to mind when one thinks of plows clearing snowy streets in the winter. But the cover story in Maisonneuve’s winter 2011 issue reveals the unexpected connection that exists between them in Montreal’s snow-removal business.   

Selena Ross spent about 10 months sifting through city documents and interviewing insiders to get the scoop on an industry where contracts are won through collusion and bid-rigging. Her sources described an industry where newcomers are not welcome, and those who stray from “business as usual” face threats of violence and coercion. One of her sources even suggested the business was linked to the mob. After reading her story, this isn’t hard to believe.

This fall, the spotlight was on Montreal’s corrupted construction industry. Allegedly, the city’s biggest firms were deciding amongst themselves which company would win which contract and how much they would charge. In October, Premier Jean Charest called for a public inquiry into the allegations. 

This is similar to what’s going on in the city’s snow-removal business. One borough employee told Ross, “It’s a silent law that you don’t go bidding on a sidewalk contract in Montreal. You’re gonna end up in the river.”

Ross hopes her story pushes for similar action. “I do hope that this helps feed into some political pressure on the city of Montreal to change some of how it does things. I don’t think this is just entirely a case of blaming the city,” she says. “This is a major, entrenched problem.”

Many people who live in the city and work in the industry are accustomed to these shady practices because they’re so commonplace, Ross says. “It seems about half the people I interviewed would tell me that it was not even worth my time to be writing this story, like ‘Why are you even bothering to care about this?’ They said it wasn’t newsworthy.”

When people said things like this, she reasoned with herself. “It’s not good to let yourself get bullied out of stuff that you think is important,” she says.“I think you should go with your gut in a lot of cases and just see where it takes you.”

Initially, Ross set out to write a story about people who were killed by snowplows in Montreal. “There have been many pedestrians killed over the years, and I just thought that was a weird thing that hadn’t been looked into much from a journalism perspective,” she says. Her first interview subject talked at length about the industry’s collusion, which Ross defines as “a group of firms secretly working together to gain an unfair market advantage.”

She realized there was an entirely different story to tell.

Ross pitched this new angle last winter, and began visiting garages and shops where snow-removal workers hung out. “I had to time all my reporting last winter around snowstorms,” she says, because that’s when the companies were most accessible. “I was very tied to the weather.”

All the industry workers she interviewed remain anonymous. “I hate that I had to do that. It bothered me every step of the way when I was doing this piece,” she says. “I know how important it is to have named sources, but it was completely impossible with this story.”

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Had she identified them, their safety would have been jeopardized. It may seem a paranoid or over-the-top precaution, but when Ross writes about truck windows being smashed in the night and something comparable to a Molotov cocktail being thrown through a company’s window, it’s clear granting the sources anonymity was a smart decision. Plus, they all asked not to be identified.

Ross says she never felt threatened, though she had one eerie phone conversation with a company manager.

“He answered a few of my questions then he said, ‘If you want to know about the kind of work I do or any of these other details, that’s the kind of conversation I want to have in person.’” It sounded slightly ominous, so she never met with him.

Ross and her editor took a legal precaution by not naming any of the suspected companies. “I think we’d be getting ourselves into pretty risky territory naming companies that I’ve heard through other people in the industry are the ones responsible for this,” she says. “Even though I had a couple sources who had worked at those companies who were saying it from their experience, that’s not the kind of thing that I think we could afford to do.”

Aside from insider sources, the other crucial component of the story is documentation – the facts, statistics, and numbers. Ross got most of the information from the city archives; she didn’t file any information requests.

“When I first got the paperwork, I was super happy because I didn’t realize so much would be available without having to file any requests for it. For a week, I felt really comforted by having it on my USB key,” she says with a laugh. “And then when I started looking through it, I realized I couldn’t just look through it. I had to organize it somehow. That was really overwhelming because I didn’t think I would have the time.”

Ross started full-time at the Chronicle Herald in Halifax in June, so she had to juggle the story with her reporting job. “There were times when I felt really exhausted by it,” she says. “I just felt that with this kind of story, you can’t do it half-assed. I had to push myself.”

Once she organized all the relevant info from the documents into a spreadsheet, the writing was the easy part. “It was a fun project,” she says, though initially she was a little concerned about her own safety when taking it on.

“I’d never written about anything like this before,” she says.” I got some advice from other journalists and they told me, just go ahead and do it. And I’m glad I did.”

 

Jan. 19 Update:  Maisonneuve broke another story in its winter issue – this one about allegations of manipulation at Jackson Avenue Housing Co-operative in Vancouver. The remarkable thing about this story? All sources in it spoke on the record. OpenFile wrote about it here.