Interview with Marcel Danis


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One of the biggest players in Quebec politics is none other than Concordia University's own Marcel Danis. In December 2013, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Prof. Danis about both his personal experiences and general commentary on the current situation in Quebec. As expected, the next hour proved to be an exciting and enlightening look into to world of the reputed professor. The following is the complete interview.

* LJ: Interviewer Laurene Jardin
*MD: Interviewee, Marcel Danis

LJ: Thank you for meeting with me today professor.
MD: (Smiles and nods head)

LJ: So, let's get started shall we. When researching your biography it's pretty clear that you have quite impressive background. It would be nice to know a bit about your upbringing. Can you tell me a bit about your youth?
MD: Sure. I was born a French speaking Quebecer. In high school my parents, shipped me to Ottawa-- in English. I didn't speak a bloody word of English, so they sent me to boarding school; St. Patrick's boarding school. It was a great school. That's when I started to learn English. And then I went to Loyola College it was a Jesuit run institution, which is part of our campus today. I did my degree there in four years.

LJ: And when did you graduate?
MD: I graduated from Loyola, which was run by the Jesuits. They can't do this anymore, because they don't have influence in today's society, but in the days, in these days; they did. So, what they did was that the Jesuits always wanted to keep you in a Jesuit school and what they said was that if I wanted to go to New York, they would find me a spot at their university in the Bronx; which, I did. At the same time, I applied for scholarships that were provided by political parties to students who worked for the political parties. It doesn't exist anymore, but it did.

LJ: Did you actually work for a political party?
MD: I did. A leader of a political party came to Loyola and at the end of his speech he said "if any of you want to work for me just give me our name and I'll call you back". His name was Daniel Johnson and he later became Premier of the province. So he gave me a scholarship to study in New York. I did my Masters there.

LJ: Do you have any memories from this time?
MD: Well, while, I was in New York, what I remember and what was really, really fun was that the guys who gave me a scholarship also gave me a job in organizing political campaigns--and it just happened to be for the mayor of New York John Lindsay. After completing my Masters, the Premier of Quebec approached me and said, "well since you like elections there is one in France, where General De Gaulle is running --and hey while you're at it why don't you do your PhD and if you do, we'll give you a scholarship. So fine, I went to Paris and rented an apartment.

LJ: Okay and sorry your PhD was at...
MD: L'Université de Paris en droit et science politique* and I spent a lot of time working on the campaign, which was really fun because that particular election, where President De Gaulle was way ahead of his time in terms of publicity--lot of fun, I did that, wrote my comprehensives and started writing my thesis. While I was writing my thesis the guy who gave me the scholarship, won the election in Quebec and asked me to come work for him. So I did. He put me in charge of English speaking correspondence because none of his people spoke English. The downside of this is that I never completed my PhD, because it was always "I'll go back next year, ill go back next year." I never did. So, I come back here. I work in his office in Quebec City, for a year, which was great he had a huge suite. I carried his luggage and carried his mail. Which was good, because he didn't like waking up early.

 * translated to University of Paris in Law and Political Science.

LJ: Sounds like hard living!
MD: Oh yeah it was tough. So we would stay up until 10pm working but at least we didn't have to wake up early. So I work for him for a year and then he dies. So I lose my job and that damn PhD is not finished. So I get a call from Dr. Henry Habib who still works at Concordia. He says, "well Marcel, I think your out of a job there". I say, "yeah." He says "we might have one for you here". So anyway, I go to meet the President of the University, Father Malone, who is a Jesuit and who helped me out before. Father Malone says to me: "what I suggest you do is that we'll give you a a job as a permanent professor and you should get your law degree so that you can become a lawyer at the same time". They arranged my teaching schedule not to conflict with my law school schedule. I did this for four years.

LJ: When was this?
MD: In 1968-1972 for four years.

LJ: So you became a lawyer thanks to the Jesuits?
MD: Yes. It was very easy and I had my classes from 8:30-11:30am, 5 days a week, and then I would teach at night. Actually Father Malone, who was way ahead of his time, asked me to open a legal aid clinic that was paid for by the university.

LJ: You had a lot on your plate!
MD: Friday nights, Saturday nights we at the police stations. The good thing is that the more you do the more you get to the the police officers. At first it was tough. This enabled me to build a good client base. I had up to 20 a week. These were of course the "drug days". Students used to get arrested for impaired driving or drugs. I thought I would open my law office would you allow me to open my law office in downtown Montreal. Sure make sure you give your courses well. That's how I was allowed to open my law office.

LJ: Was the service free for students?
MD: The university gave me an early retainer. It was free for the student, but I arranged for legal aid mandates. Which didn't pay much, but it paid a little bit.

LJ: Does this still exist?
MD: No.

LJ: So is this what drove you to become a lawyer?
MD: Yes.

LJ: You kind of fell into this position?
MD: Yes. And I like criminal law. I don't particularly care for other types of law, because in those other laws you deal with papers. You're in your office. You drink tea. You work on your case. You rarely go to court--that's what you do. You can be great lawyers in that you can make a lot of money! But I don't like researching cases, or being stuck in the office, I don't always like preparing my classes but I like the corporeal world, I like being in a courtroom, and I like being in classes. I enjoy the interaction that I have with students in the same way that I like the interaction that I have with juries.


MD: (Laughs) Maybe I could have been an actor!

LJ: Yes! Well those are all important qualities for a defence attorney I'm sure!
MD: Ha.

LJ: So we've talked a lot about your background and quite a background if I may say so. You have mentioned that you are a lawyer, a politician and a professor. I understand that one of your specialties is political corruption. So it would really be great to get your opinion of the ongoings of Quebec's Charbonneau Commission.
MD: Yeah. Well, in the last five to seven years we've heard a lot about corruption in Quebec. And I believe that the reason for that is because we have two or three of the best investigative journalism units in Canada. The rest of the country does not have these things--we have them.

We have Radio Canada with their programme Enquête, which dug up a lot of this corruption stuff. We also have Le Bureau d' Enquête on TVA that is co-run by the Journal de Montreal, which is headed by by Andrew McIntosh... A\and of course the Gazette has had, over time, outstanding journalism. So these people put what was going on in the media. By doing that they forced the government to do something. Now, to do what was the issue. We discussed it for a long time. Eventually, I was hired by the government and sent to New York with Robert Lafrenière-- who is now the head of UPAC-- to look at what kind of system they had down there and after researching everything we thought that they had the best system. So we brought the information back to the Quebec government and they later formed UPAC

The government was forced into acting and eventually the Premier at the time, Jean-Charest, agreed. He did two things. The first is that they created the permanent anti corruption unit UPAC, and then they created the Charbonneau Commission.

Most of the arrests, if not all of the arrests so far, have been done by UPAC. People tend to mix up the Charbonneau Commission and UPAC. The advantage of the Charbonneau Commission is that it is public. Everybody sees what they're doing all of the time. UPAC, you don't hear anything about until you turn on the TV one morning and there's seventy of them in the homes of mayors of certain towns. So they're very, very different units. They're both very very good, but in my view they're not perfect. I can give you examples of both.

L' UPAC, for instance--and I know because it occurred to me, I was very upset-- but, UPAC has a tendency to go for the glamour and the big pictures. And media thing me, there's no need for a police force to go for that. And I can give you an example...


Mr. Applebaum who was the mayor of Montreal called me I was in Florida. And he called me and said I hear rumours that I may be arrested, so could you check. This is a Friday afternoon and I'm in Florida. So I call UPAC and I speak to the director of operations. I don't know him. I say hi I represent the mayor of Montreal and we hear rumours that you guys are about to arrest him. And he says, which rumours. And I tell him that I can't tell [him] where they come from, but they seem to us to be credible. "So I'm calling to tell you if you wish to arrest the mayor just tell me and I will have them on your office. Just," I said, "give me some time there to get to Montreal, it will take me five hours and we'll have him in your office. If you want him Monday morning, we'll have him Monday morning". He checked his files and said "there is nothing here that leads me to believe that we're about to arrest him."

LJ: (Sighs)
MD: So... (motions hands in the air in an inquisitive position). I tell that to the mayor. This is Friday afternoon around 5 o'clock. And would you believe-- Christ-- that on Monday morning I'm asleep its 6 am ,and it's a beautiful day in Florida, so would you believe that at 6 am on Monday, the phone rings and when the phone rings at 6 am you know that its not good.

I pick up the phone and it's the same director of UPAC and he says: "Mr. Danis, sorry to wake you up at this time, but I just wanted to let you know that in we will enter the mayor's home. We're all over the home the front and the back but I can tell you that in 5 mins we will be in and you will be able to speak with him. The first thing we will do is let him know that". And five minutes later ...the MEDIA's there, the CHILDREN are there, the NEIGHBOURS are there..I mean...

LJ: Oh boy.
MD: Yeah! So, you see, that's an example of a thing where there's no need. There's absolutely no need to do something like that and they were preventable. To me that's wrong. With regards to the Charbonneau Commission they're doing a good judge. I know judge Charbonneau I've done a couple of cases with her and she's very, very, very good. And the good thing about Charbonneau and the head of l'UPAC is that no one would ever put their integrity in question; and that's fundamental for those types of things.

In the case of Charbonneau--you know I would probably give an A- to Charbonneau and a B+ to UPAC in terms of grades because I'm used to giving grades---but some of the things they do, for instance, they questioned everybody in the City of Montreal about bottles of wine that they were getting at Christmas.

I mean, they did that for about a month, I mean give me break! After you do that for 6 days move on! Its as if they're trying to put on a show and make it good.

And another thing that they did that I think is completely wrong is that there is a private club in Montreal-- which is probably the most high class, Club 357, and they seized warrants for the names of all of the people who attended the club in the last year. And then they put it in the papers

...I mean...


There were people on my board, the board of the university, whose names have nothing to do with the Charbonneau Commission and they're giving out public contracts. So there's things that they do that, there's no need. On the purpose of the Commission? They're doing good work. They have found things that the police did not know with regards to the granting of contracts, but they've only got one part done, they're now doing the second part, the union part, which is taking a while and soon they'll start the part on financing of political parties-they're getting through it. So on the whole they're doing a great job.

LJ: And do you think that this will help with the cutting down of corruption in Montreal?
MD: Yes. Oh definitely. Well what's helped the most on the cutting down of corruption is the creation of the Permanent anti- corruption unit. Back in 2009 corruption has declined substantially since 2009. Substantially. The cost of public contracts have gone down by at least 20% in the province. So its gone down. I'm not sure if there was a need for the Charbonneau Commission but there is definitely a need for UPAC. When they started to work the corruption stopped ad the good thing about these guys is that they're permanent. So I think Quebec ten year from now will still have corruption because, you cant eliminate it but it will be drastically declined.

LJ: Hah, but why do you think it took so long for people to start caring about corruption?
MD: Because government did not want to touch it on purpose. And I leave the federal government out of that because I don't think that there will be much corruption in the feds. Most corruption is at the municipal level. Very little is at the provincial level--even though people disagree with me... but the reason for that is that at the provincial level the Cabinet ministers and MNAs don't give contracts.

LJ: Hmn, could you explain this a bit more?
MD: At the federal level we're so far from contracts. It's unbelievable. So the system works well. At the municipal level, if you're a councillor I can meet with you, because I know that on Monday I will be meeting with you to give you a contract to repair the sewers. Its Monday. Its next week. Its not like the federal government that it will see it in 2 years. Its Monday, you're giving a contract to repair the sewers on this particular street, and I want it. So that's the issue.

LJ: Why should I care about corruption as an everyday Montrealer? How does this corruption affect me?
MD: Well because of the costs. They've estimated the cost of all projects of 20-25% more. It is HUGE in terms of cost. It's taxes. The city of Montreal has a crumbling infrastructure system. But the city has no money and the reason for this is because it spends 20% too much on all of its infrastructure contracts. I mean, how past mayors did not see that, or did not do anything about it or how the SPVM never saw that is practically unbelievable.

LJ: Well how long do you think that this has been going on?
MD: Things we're cleaned up in the early 70s and late 80s. The same kind of thing that is going on today went on in the 70s with all the commissions. And it took probably ten to fifteen years to build up again. So I would say that its been going on since the 90s. So for 20 years.

Its not an uncommon thing as is best shown by the United States. They have commissions they clean it up 25 years later it comes again. This is why permanent anti-corruption unit are formed. The biggest anti-corruption units are New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. Three place where they have very little corruption. What we still don't do is that our penalties are still pretty soft. There's are pretty hard. Its surprising, because Harper changes laws all the time but he has touched this yet. That's what we're missing. Once we say that corruption is punishable not by ten to fourteen years but is punishable by life then you see a real difference. That's what we're missing.

LJ: So harder legislation?
MD: Tougher legislation yes, but tougher punishments, harder sentencing possibilities.

LJ: How does this play out as a criminal lawyer? Did you often deal with corruption cases?
MD: No.

LJ: Oh no?
MD: No. The majority of cases that I did were drug cases and I use to love murder cases. But drug cases would have made up maybe 70% of my work.

LJ: Do you have a favourite case? Perhaps a case you bring up from time and time again?
MD: Um the most difficult cases are always the one that I did outside of Canada. Its tough. The most difficult case that I ever had was a murder case for the president of Bangladesh. The president was charged with murder in Dhaka. That's tough. That is the toughest case.


I was hired by the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh who came to meet me in Montreal. The meeting went well so we went to New York to meet some of the friends of the president, whom agreed to let me on the case. Then I had to fly to Dubai to discuss fees and to get paid. I then flew to Dhaka. There was at the time 18 lawyers on the case and this was the toughest moment, presiding in front of the best 18 criminal lawyers who represent their former president. He's like their star. But they also love him. And here I come from North America to take over the case- this ain't easy. Some of these old guys were really, really good and what they must have been thinking is 'why did they get him'? And the reason they got me was because they wanted someone who could speak to the media and who could get the media's attention. We wanted the media to buy into the case and this was important because we were told that he was going to be hanged prior to the election. This had recently happened in Pakistan.

LJ: What was the name of the president that you represented?
MD: The president was General Hussain Muhammad Ershad--very charismatic guy. Actually, he's still a member of Parliament. Those guys... anyways we took a number of motions to the Supreme Court and I was told that I had to try and delay the trial because there were going to be elections. And President Ershad was going to run and most likely win.

LJ: While he was...
MD: While he was in prison.

LJ: Wow. Did he pull that much clout?
MD: Yes. Well its incredible how strong he was, because I would meet him in the prison and we would have to go to the courthouse. And to go to the courthouse we used to take a helicopter. I was surprised, because even though the army is very powerful in Bangladesh the army guy who was with us, told the pilot "okay lets move." But, the pilot would not move until the president, who was being convicted, told him to. The pilot was listening to the accused, not to the General. Boy we run something here, I thought.

In the end the Supreme Court of Bangladesh was made up of people who were educated in London and they are god, they are really, really good. My point was that Canada and Bangladesh have the same laws except for down there they did not apply it. So I prepared my plea. The trial was too fast, but what struck me is that one of the guys said to me very courteously; are you familiar with the laws of the Commonwealth. I said yes I am.Then he asked are you aware of this particular case in India--and I was. I gave him the details of the case and he granted the postponement. But if I wasn't familiar with the case, my case would have gone down the drain.

LJ: Ouch.
MD: Yea. Anyway, they went on with the postponement the election came about and, would you believe Christ, he won the majority in all 5 districts that he ran in. And he won because of the publicity of his trial and he's a very lucky guy, because the party that he actually belonged to came third. However, the winning party needed a majority and took him into their party. They took him out of jail and made him the Minister of Communications.

LJ: And what was your client's crime?
MD: The president of the country at the time was Raman. Raman was killed by soldiers. My guy at the time was the Chief of Staff of the president. After the president was killed. There was a president. There was an order to shoot to kill the soldiers. My guy goes on the radio and tells this to the people of Bangladesh. So, I would have loved to do the case because what he did, he reported on the cabinet's decision to the people. But the soldiers were killed, the ones that killed the president. So I thought it was a good case. He gave the order, that's true, but it wasn't his decision; the decision was made by the duly elected cabinet of Bangladesh.

LJ: That's enthralling. So you went all the way to Bangladesh, now you're back in Canada. Have you been anywhere else?
MD: The only other place I did a case was London, England. But London is like here, everybody is nice. And I did a number in Miami, in Palm Beach, in Orlando. Florida, that's tough, but doable. And I tried to do one in New York, and it was the only time in my life where it was too hard. I told him that, it was somebody from Montreal. The prosecution and the police looked at the defence attorney like a criminal. It was the same thing; as if you were the criminal. And I started the proceedings in the case and I told my client 'look I'll get you another lawyer, I'm never doing a case in New York again'.

LJ: That's too bad. Is that not where you spent a lot of your education?
MD: Yeah, but New York is tough. It is harder, ten times harder than Miami, and Miami's not easy. But it is hard. They have no time to do anything. You would go see the prosecutor the morning of the case and say 'hey, the Mets won last night' and he would sulk and think 'I have no time for this business'. And I think that law firms in New York, not just crown attorneys, work like this too, because I've had students work for law firms in New York City and say it's just brutal. It's a tough place.

LJ: Well, you've surely dealt with many people whom the rest of society would deem as dangerous or who have allegedly or perhaps, partaken in illegal activities.
MD: Umhm

LJ: Have you ever felt scared or scared for your family?
MD: No, I've always had good relationships with my clients, and there's two reasons for that. Number one never promise anything you cannot deliver, which is easy to say but tougher to practic,e because the clients when they come to see you would like to know what the results are, and on an acquittal you can't promise anything. So rule number one is no promises. That's rule number one. Rule number two is don't spend the money they give you until the case is over. Because otherwise you die, there's no joke here. I've always collected money before doing the case, because otherwise, after it's too much trouble. So you always get paid first, in cash. Don't spend it. Because, maybe 1 in 20, or 1 in 25, maybe once you've taken the case will meet another lawyer, and he finds another lawyer who will say well I can get you much better than he can, so the client comes to you and says 'could you give me my money'. And when the client says 'could you give me my money', they don't mean next week, they mean NOW. So you say fine, just give me ten minutes. You go and see [...] you shake his hand, then leave. That never happened.

LJ:But have you ever felt endangered?

The most dangerous thing that I did, was that, there was a bank robbery in the town of Val d'Or, Quebec, and they were my clients. And I was doing a case for Hell's Angels in Joliette that day. And the police officer came into the courtroom and asked the judge to stop the trial because he needed to talk to me, which was not good. So I didn't know if I was going to be arrested. So the police came to me and said we need you in Val d'Or in a bank because they've taken hostages and things are about to turn ugly, and they want to speak to you in person. So I say 'who are they?', they give me the names and I say yeah, I represented these guys for a bank robbery in Vancouver, I know who they are. And the officer said, 'are they dangerous? I said, 'uh well yeah they are dangerous for sure, but they're not dangerous to me'. So the officer said, 'are you willing to come to Val d'Or'. I said yeah I'd go. He said 'we'll have a helicopter here in ten minutes'.

So a helicopter came and picked me up in front of the courthouse in Joliette, and they flew me to Val d'Or. And then when I got there I realized the police are all around the bank with machine guns, and they had snipers on the roofs, and the people were in the bank. I said, this is dangerous, if anyone starts shooting. I was afraid of the police, I wasn't afraid of the guys. So I went to see the commander of the police. I said 'the minute I start walking in the bank don't shoot, even if you can't spot the 3 of them through windows, don't shoot, because if you miss, they're going to kill people and they're going to kill me'. The guy gave me his word. He said, 'we're not going to shoot. As soon as you set foot in the bank we don't shoot'. So, I walked in the bank, and I went to the leader, I said to the guy 'what's up? What are you guys trying to do?' He said 'all we're trying to do, we screwed up our bank robbery, we just don't want to be killed, that's why we want you. With you here we know we won't be killed anymore.' So I said 'OK'. I don't know how many employees there were, maybe 10 or 12 employees, I said 'let's let one employee go at a time'.

LJ: And did they listen?
MD:Well then, so, I spoke to the SWAT guy. I said "look, we're going to let the employees go out one at a time." So we let them go out one at a time, and then, there came a time when we had one, one hostage left. The guy said "are you sure we let her go?" I said "you got to let her go". So we let her go. And then,, of course the SWAT team comes in like a bunch of idiots. There's only the three guys, the guns are on the floor, so they put the handcuffs on. The leader says, they know that they've screwed up, he says 'what do you think we're gonna get?' I said, "I don't know, but if we stay in Val d'Or", which is north of Quebec, "this doesn't look good, but if I can take you to Montreal, maybe, in Montreal we'll be okay". So I call, the head of the crown attorneys in Montreal, who today is a judge, I call and I say look, I have a problem with my three guys in Val d'Or, but we're afraid that first of all, if we stay here they're going to get beaten by the police, and we would prefer to be guilty in Montreal. So the guy says 'come down now, if you come down now, tomorrow morning, Saturday morning, I'll be there and we'll do it.

LJ: ...So you went to Montreal?
MD: Yes, so we go down by car, they handcuffed me to the leader, because the police, they don't want to go to Montreal in police cars. So they handcuffed me to the leader, the other two are handcuffed in the back of police cars, and we drive to Montreal like this for 600 miles. All night, we stop during the night for a coffee; we stop for breakfast, me in the handcuffs with the guy. We end up at the Montreal courthouse at about eight o'clock in the morning. I get my handcuffs taken off and I go see the prosecutor and we start negotiating for how many years they get. The prosecutor says 30, and I say 15. He says it's gotta be more than 15, people almost died. So we agree on a number, we agree after maybe an hour, 20. The prosecutor tells me ok now I'll give you 20 years to spread between the three of them. So I go down to the cells, I go to the three of them and I say look guys; the best I can get you is 20. The leader immediately says '20? Ok I'll take 12 because it was my idea. These two guys-- 4. Do you think that's gonna work?' I say yeah it's going to work. So we went back up, the media was there, the guy took 12 and the other two took 4.


That was dangerous that one.The mistake I made was not getting the agreement of the police to cover my life insurance if I got shot. I realized afterward.

And the other mistake, my wife was furious because I forgot to call her. She saw that on TV, she saw me arriving in Val d'Or by helicopter on TV. She was furious.

(Laughing) Yeah it she was not happy with me. It was not good.

LJ: Haha .That's quite something. You've had quite a lot of adventures it seems!
MD: Still alive though.

LJ: Yeah that's great! So, just a final question, you've provided some really great advice, two suggestions, the first is never to lie, the second is to make sure you get paid before. So, many graduate students, particularly students who graduate from the social sciences or the arts, are looking forward to applying to law school. Do you have any advice for them?
MD: Well, a lot of students want to apply, but, unfortunately for many of them, by the time they think about law school, they're maybe halfway, two-thirds through their bachelor's degree, and their grades are not good enough. So, the advice that I would give, and it doesn't apply only to law school, it applies to all the students, but particularly to boys, because I find, lately, that young women have much better grades than young men in college, and I don't know why that is, but my advice would be, get good grades. It will get you a lot more flexibility in terms of jobs in the future, and in terms of grades, some law schools in Canada, you can get in with 3.1, not many. A number, 3.3, and the lowest one, McGill is the place where most people from Montreal want to get in, in McGill you need a GPA of at least 3.5 IF you can score a good LSAT score, if not, 3.8. So if someone doesn't get a great first year of college it gets difficult to go to law.

LJ: So is it worth it to go through the application process?
MD: Because I believe that law is a great career, and no matter what you want to do in life, a law degree will help. You don't have to have just a law degree. If you want to be better than other people, you need a law degree and something else. A law degree and a Master's, or it could be a law degree with two BARs. A BAR in Montreal, a BAR in the state of New York, or a BAR in Ontario, or a BAR in the European community. So I think we're up to a point now, where, just like I believe that speaking two languages is not enough, I think you need three of everything. I think that a law degree is good, but if you have another degree it's even better.

LJ: Well if you say so! Thank you for that excellent advice. I'm sure that the readers will really appreciate it.
MD: (Smiles)
LJ: Well I think we can finish on that note. Thank you so much Professor Danis.
MD: Yes okay. That was good. That was fun.
LJ: Yes!
MD: Alright. I'll see you in class.
LJ: Yes sir.

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