Morbid Curiosity


Organized crime is a slippery subject, involving slippery people, and evades an exact definition. In drawing up this list of organized criminals and groups, we have been strongly influenced by new anti-gang laws, which define a criminal organization as a group of three or more people whose main activities include committing crimes for some benefit. We realize that sometimes there’s a fine line between terrorism and organized crime, as with the attacks by the Hells Angels on the justice system in Quebec in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Other times, criminals are clearly habitual offenders, but it’s a generous stretch to call them organized. For the purposes of this book, we have largely focused on criminal activities in which profit was the main motive, as opposed to passion, perversion, mental illness, or politics. We were also interested in criminal activity that was ongoing and which involved planning. Finally, we looked for some specific code of conduct: one existed on the pirate ships of Peter Easton in the early seventeenth century and they can still be found today amongst modern-day biker gangs and Mafia groups.

Also, it should be clear that this is a book about crime and criminals, not ethnic groups. There’s diversity in crime as well as in mainstream Canadian life, and organized criminals make up just a minuscule fraction of any ethnic group mentioned here. For instance, crime analysts have estimated that 0.02 per cent of the Italian-heritage community is involved in Mafia activity in Canada.

We often wondered, Why do some criminals enjoy longevity, while others don’t? One common thread shared by the successful organized criminals described in these pages is a vital link to transportation routes. To be effective for any length of time, groups have to be able to move goods and people, whether they’re taking illegal drugs to market or moving themselves – speedily – out of harm’s way. Such access to transportation routes was standard amongst the seventeenth-century pirates of the Atlantic coast, the coureurs de bois of pre-Confederation, the bootlegging gangs that followed crews building the Canadian Pacific Railway, criminals like the Sundance Kid on the Outlaw Trail of southern Saskatchewan at the turn of the twentieth century, the bootleggers of Prohibition, and, today, the cocaine cartels and the Hells Angels, with their acute interest in the shipping ports of Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax.

But perhaps the most important central thread connecting the groups described in these pages is control of officials – either through corruption or intimidation. They all need to compromise officials in ostensibly legitimate jobs in order to function for any length of time. This was as true in the days of the early seventeenth-century pirates as it is today. Harry Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid) and his associates benefited from the assistance of a corrupt former North-West Mounted Police officer, who helped them hide out in the gullies around Big Beaver in southern Saskatchewan. Montreal mobsters Vincenzo “Vic the Egg” Cotroni and Willie Obront were called “The Untouchables” by crusading police officer Pacifique “Pax” Plante because of their excellent political connections. Maurice “Mom” Boucher of the Hells Angels took a far more brutal route to attain the same ends, using murder and the threat of violence to try to intimidate members of the judicial, legislative, and journalistic communities.

In a sense, the major criminals described in these pages weren’t really “outlaws” at all, since they needed a strong, ongoing connection to the legitimate world to survive, much like a leech or a parasite is dependent upon its host. Many tried to use their loot to buy respectability and a place in the legitimate world, and more than a few succeeded. Eric Cobham, a particularly vicious sea dog who prowled Canada’s Atlantic coast in the seventeenth century, purchased a title in the French gentry and became a magistrate, while fellow pirates Peter “The Pirate Admiral” Easton and Henry Mainwaring each bought pardons, retiring in luxury with the titles of marquis and knight, respectively. While Captain Kidd was immeasurably less violent, and didn’t even consider himself a criminal, his life ended on the gallows, as he had fallen from grace in political circles.

Organized crime is nothing new in Canada, and it was thriving 250 years before Confederation. It fuelled the adventures of fur-trading pioneers like Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Sieur des Groseilliers, known to Canadian schoolchildren as “Radishes and Gooseberries,” and the much-romanticized coureurs de bois, who operated outside the law in New France for a century before their fur-trading operation was finally made legal in 1700. The money they generated supported legitimate businesses and, in effect, propped up the economy of the early colony.

Organized crime is also present when you look at such Canadian institutions as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Indeed, bootleggers seized control of the entire town of Michipicoten, a former Hudson’s Bay Company post on the north shore of Lake Superior in the fall of 1884, using it as their headquarters for selling booze to men working on the railway. Such activities brought to mind the saying “Steal a dollar and they throw you in jail. Steal a million and they make you king.”

Even the Hells Angels biker gang isn’t comfortable with a totally outlaw image. They obviously crave a certain legitimacy, which explains the controversial public handshake between a biker and former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman in January 2002; Maurice “Mom” Boucher posing for a photo with an unwitting Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa; or a group of Angels posing for photos with former Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Jose Theodore or with Pat Burns, back when Burns coached the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League. At times, the Angels’ actions look like a sad effort to push themselves into “respectable” society.

While we’ve drawn up a fairly long list in this overview of names in Canadian organized crime, we don’t pretend it’s complete. Some readers may wonder how Woody the Biker Lion or Pearl Hart made the list and others didn’t. We admit that a few entries appear here more for quirkiness than for their organizational skills. In general, however, we were biased toward highly structured groups, which explains why there’s more on the Hells Angels and the Mafia than the more loosely-knit Jamaican posses and Vietnamese street gangs. Barring a sudden change in human nature, there will undoubtedly be plenty more additions for future editions.

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