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Police are probing a public-private real estate development that has driven the Université du Québec à Montréal to the brink of bankruptcy.

The Sûreté du Québec’s criminal investigation comes on the heels of a provincial auditor’s report detailing how senior university officials mismanaged the Îlot Voyageur development and kept others overseeing the project in the dark about the deal’s growing costs.

The original plan to redevelop a downtown Montreal bus terminal included an office building, two university residence towers, a university pavilion, and a large underground parking lot. The untendered contract was awarded to the Busac Real Estate corporation, which is reported to have links with the ruling Liberal party.

Three years into the contract, the redevelopment is incomplete, and costs have risen from $333 million in March 2005 to $529 million. Together with cost overruns for a UQAM science complex, the university is facing a $500 million debt in the coming years.
Quebec Auditor General Renaud Lachance didn’t mince words in his June report, saying the former rector of the university and two senior managers “showed a lack of transparency and provided incomplete and often inaccurate information” to UQAM, the Université du Québec and the provincial education ministry. His report lists a host of problems with the public-private project’s structure and oversight.
Lachance points out that rising costs meant bigger profits for Busac, since payments to the corporation were in large part based on project costs.

 UQAM’s board of directors, the province’s education ministry and the Université du Québec don’t escape blame in the auditor’s report either. The unions representing UQAM workers, including CUPE, are equally clear that the three university administrators aren’t the lone fall guys for the bungled project.

In a joint statement issued as the university’s financial problems deepened last fall, the unions pointed to the provincial government’s promotion of P3s as a factor contributing to the crisis. The unions continue to demand that the province deliver on its promise to take responsibility for the Îlot Voyageur costs.

The unions are also campaigning for a major public reinvestment in the university. More than 11,000 people have signed a petition to the province’s education minister, and the list is growing. You can add your name here.