Organized crime is defined in the Criminal Code as a group of three or more people whose purpose is the commission of one or more serious offences that would “likely result in the direct or indirect receipt of a material benefit, including a financial benefit, by the group.” Organized crime centres on illegal means of making money, such as gambling; prostitution; pornography; drug trafficking; insurance and construction fraud; illegal bankruptcy; motor vehicle theft; computer crime; and counterfeiting, among many others. The structure, sophistication and widespread nature of organized crime first became evident in the 1960s and 1970s. Some criminal organizations are based on ethnicity, such as the Italian Mafia and Chinese triads. Others are founded within certain industries (e.g., construction) or activities (e.g., biker gangs).
Murdered Canadian gangster Gerlando Sciascia, left, looks for his car keys while Joseph Massino, right, waits to get into a car in New York in 1981. In the middle, in the dark suit, is Montreal's Vito Rizzuto.
Widespread and Structured
There is more to organized crime in Canada than the Italian criminal association known as the Mafia or “the Mob.” The Mafia is the best known and most documented group. In North America, just about every major national or ethnic group and every segment of society has been involved in organized crime. There have been many crime gangs in Canada whose membership was based mainly on ethnicity, including Irish; Jewish; Chinese; Jamaican; Haitian; Vietnamese; Somali and others.
For a long time, many scholars did not believe organized crime was highly structured, or capable of sophisticated operations. This changed due to several key factors. The first was the revelations of the United States Senate’s “Valachi” hearings in 1963 (named after the chief witness, Mafia member Joe Valachi). Then, in the 1970s, wiretaps allowed police to document Mafia leaders discussing their hierarchy and operations in the US and Canada. The creation of the American Witness Protection Program also encouraged Mafia defectors and informers to cooperate with the police and prosecutors.
Only in the 1970s did the existence of a highly organized criminal network in Canada become known to the public. This was thanks to various court cases, as well as Quebec inquiries into the Mafia; the widely publicized report of the 1974 Waisberg Commission into construction violence in Ontario; and a series of mob killings in Montreal.
Types and Revenue of Organized Crime
In 1984, a joint federal-provincial committee of justice officials estimated that organized crime in Canada took in about $20 billion annually. The committee was formed in response to a 1980 report by the British Columbia Attorney General’s office. The report claimed that organized crime figures had interests in Canada’s textile, cheese and disposal industries, as well as vending machine companies, meat companies, home-insulation companies, auto body shops and car dealerships, among others.
The joint committee calculated that organized crime revenue came from pornography; prostitution; bookmaking; gaming houses; illegal lotteries and other gambling; as well as loan sharking and extortion. Other activities included white collar crime (e.g., insurance and construction fraud, illegal bankruptcy); arson; bank robbery; motor vehicle theft; computer crime; and counterfeiting. Together, all these activities made up about $10 billion in organized crime revenues. Narcotics accounted for another $10 billion.
Organized crime provides illegal services desired by some members of the public. These include gambling, prostitution, and contraband alcohol and tobacco sales. In every large Canadian city, local bookmakers used to be involved in organized crime through an elaborate system established to protect the individual bookie from large losses. Today, organized crime provides many underground sports betting and illicit card game operations.
Other organized crime activities are not fueled as much by public demand. They involve the importation and distribution of harder drugs such as heroin; Internet and credit card fraud; and murder and extortion. Other activities that aid and abet organized crime include the ongoing corruption of public officials and the “laundering” of the proceeds of criminal activities.
One of the simplest ways to launder money is through activities in which there is a constant flow of cash, such as slot machines and gambling. If the owner of a gambling casino claims to have taken in $1 million when he has actually taken in only $100,000 — to which has been added $900,000 of illegally obtained money — it is almost impossible to demonstrate that the full $1 million was not procured in the normal course of business. Neighbourhood coin laundries have also been popular ways of laundering organized crime money in Canada.
Without corruption, organized crime groups would find it difficult to exist. The efforts of organized crime members to corrupt police, judges, politicians, lawyers, and government and civilian officials are arguably more harmful to society than any other organized crime activity.
Of all organized crime groups operating in Canada, the Mafia is the best known. This is because the Quebec crime probe report of 1976 revealed the structure of the Montreal Mafia and its dependency on the American Mafia family of Joe Bonanno. This was based primarily on information gathered by a “bug” planted in the milk cooler at the headquarters of Montreal mobster Paolo Violi. Public knowledge of the Mafia also resulted from increased media attention, such as with CBC TV's much-watched documentary series Connections (1977-79).
Scholars do not agree on the origin of the term Mafia. The word was used as early as 1880 by Sicilian scholar Giuseppe Alongi, in his book La Mafia, Fattori, Manifestazioni (reprinted in 1904 and again in 1977). According to the Quebec Organized Crime Commission’s report of 1977, the term Mafia describes, “a state of mind, a feeling of pride, a philosophy of life and a style of behaviour. The mark of a known and respected man, it derives from the Sicilian adjective ‘mafiusu,’ which was used widely since the 19th century to describe magnificent or perfect people.”
Joe Bonanno, a Mafia don, described the term in his memoirs: “Mafia is a process, not a thing. Mafia is a form of clan cooperation to which its individual members pledge lifelong loyalty. Friendship connections, family ties, trust, loyalty, obedience — this was the ‘glue’ that held us together.”
The Mafia was exported and adapted to North America by a small group of Italian immigrants, mostly from Sicily and Calabria. In Sicily, and later in the US and Canada, Mafia came to refer to an organized international body of criminals of Sicilian origin, known as Cosa Nostra. The term is now applied to the dominant force in organized crime — the largely Sicilian and Calabrian organized crime “families.” These families are held together by a code that emphasizes respect for senior family members; by the structure or hierarchy of the family; and by an initiation rite or ceremony.
Italian crime families have been active in Canada since the early 1900s. They now operate in much more clearly structured and defined areas acceptable to other mafia families in the US and Canada. More recently, new N'drangheta cells of the Calabrian Mafia have emigrated to Canada after coming under intense pressure by Italian authorities in the early 2000s. Many of these newly arrived Mafiosi went to work with older, established Mafia figures. They settled in the greater Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton areas. Though located mainly in the major cities, Mafia members tend to gravitate to where wealth moves. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some moved westward, following the movement of business to British Columbia and Alberta. Vancouver has had serious Mafia infiltration over the years, as well as a more obvious biker and Asian crime presence.
Since the mid-1980s, Montreal has had one dominant crime family. It was led by the Sicilian-born Nick Rizzuto and then by his son Vito. Another family was run by Frank Cotroni until his death in 2004. The Quebec crime probe exposed the membership and activities of this highly structured group in a number of its reports in the 1970s. The family was established in the 1940s by Frank’s older and more powerful brother Vic Cotroni. The family evolved in the 1950s into an important branch of the powerful New York City Mafia family of Joe Bonanno. It also has ties with Mafia families in Italy and throughout the US; as well as with the Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver organizations.
There were serious internal conflicts between Sicilians and Calabrians in the Montreal organization. This led to the violent deaths of Paulo Violi (chief lieutenant of Vic Cotroni) and his brothers in the late 1970s. The Cotroni family had primarily been involved in illegal gambling; loan sharking; drug trafficking; extortion; and the murder and corruption of public officials. After Vic Cotroni’s death in 1984, the Sicilians — led by Nick and later Vito Rizzuto — took over. The last decade of Vito Rizzuto’s rule was marked by internal warfare; especially while Vito was in jail in the US for his role in various mob hits in New York. He died suddenly in 2013 at the age of 67, from natural causes in a Montreal hospital.
There is no clear leader of the family now. Many senior Rizzuto leaders have been murdered, died or are in jail. Reynald Desjardins, Vito’s number one lieutenant and right hand man in the decade preceding Vito’s death, was found guilty of orchestrating the murder of ex-Bonanno family acting boss Salvatore "the Iron-worker" Montagna, after he tried unsuccessfully to take over the family in 2011. Desjardins was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2016 (though the seven years he had spent in prison awaiting trial were subtracted from his sentence).
As of 2014, there was still an ongoing battle for Mafia supremacy in Montreal. It involved some Calabrian Mafiosi cells from Ontario and dissident Rizzuto family members in Quebec. At the same time, the hearings of the 2015 Charbonneau Commission into the practices of the Quebec construction industry brought additional heat to bear on the old Rizzuto family leadership. The Commission’s televised hearings included the broadcast of surveillance videos and wiretaps of Rizzuto family gatherings. These included old man Nick consorting with and taking money from construction bosses and union leaders.
Recent arrivals from Calabria of senior members of the N’drangheta are also vying for a position in the Montreal Mafia world. A state of flux is the best way to describe the Montreal “Mob” as of 2014.
In Toronto until the mid-1980s, at least four major Mafia-style criminal organizations existed. They were run by Canadians of Sicilian or Calabrian origin. Two of them were named as members of the Mafia during the Valachi hearings: the organizations run by Paul Volpe and Johnny “Pops” Papalia. After the murder of Volpe in November 1983, his old organization mostly disappeared. The same is true for that of Papalia, after he was murdered at the behest of a rival local Calabrian Mafia family in 1997.
Today, several older Calabrian organized crime groups operate in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas. There are also newly arrived cells of the N’drangheta operating. Many of them emigrated from Siderno, Calabria. There is no one godfather in Toronto, but there is a ruling commission of the N'drangheta. Family leaders in the Toronto area try to keep order, resolve disputes, and coordinate some activities with the ruling commission in Italy.
Since the 1970s, motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels, the Rock Machine, the Outlaws, Satan’s Choice and many others have been significantly involved in organized crime. This has been true in just about every province from the Maritimes to BC. Their initiation rites have made it difficult for police to penetrate the groups (though in recent decades huge strides have been made in this area). These organizations have become major suppliers of illegal drugs. Motorcycle gangs are also involved in prostitution and contract killing. It is not unusual to find them working with other organized crime groups. The Hells Angels are the most influential and powerful outlaw biker gang in Canada.
With biker gangs comes violence and murder. A major biker war in Quebec from the mid-1990s to the early 21st century led to the killing of hundreds of people. These included many innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1995, Daniel Desrochers, an 11-year-old Montreal boy, was killed by a biker-war bomb. In 2000, journalist Michel Auger, who devoted much of his career to exposing criminal organizations, particularly biker gangs, was shot six times in the back after the Hells Angels took out a contract on his life. Auger survived the shooting and was back on his beat within three months. Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard praised Auger’s “refusal to remain silent” in the National Assembly.
New Crime Laws
The resulting outcry from the public and the media in Quebec eventually forced the federal Parliament to enact stronger anti-organized crime laws, going after the gangs’ wealth, and convicting individuals of membership in an organized crime entity.
By 2006, new organized crime laws were also used for the prosecution of scores of members of the Rizzuto Mafia family. These included “soldiers,” senior lieutenants, and even old Nick Rizzuto, the onetime godfather who was still criminally active in his 80s. Shortly after serving some of his time, Rizzuto was released from prison early because of old age. The 86-year-old was then killed by a sniper outside his lavish Montreal-area home.
The Hells Angels organization was hit hard by prosecutions under the new anti-organized crime laws. The once-powerful Hells Angel boss Maurice “Mom” Boucher is now in jail for life, for his role in several murders. Still, the Hells Angels continue to operate, especially in Quebec. They are assisted by puppet gangs with different names who work for the Hells Angels.
Asian Crime Groups
In BC, Chinese crime gangs have been operating for more than 100 years. In the 1920s, Shue Moy, the famed “King of the Gamblers,” was a powerful organized crime figure in BC. This was determined by the 1928 special inquiry set up by Vancouver City Council to look into illicit gambling rackets, opium dens, houses of prostitution and corruption that reached the highest levels of municipal government in Vancouver.
Today, Chinese youth gangs operate in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and other cities and towns. They are involved in protection and extortion rackets. They also run massage parlours as fronts for prostitution; hydroponic grow operations for marijuana; as well as the production and export of conventional speed drugs. More sophisticated groups are organized by senior triad leaders from Hong Kong to import heroin from southeast Asia through Vancouver and Western Canada. The triads are the Chinese version of the Mafia, especially in their hierarchy, global networks and reach.
The structure of organized crime changes quickly in Canada. It usually exists for some years before it is first detected; therefore, there are undoubtedly other groups that have not yet been identified. Columbian cartels are active in Toronto and Montreal. Russian and East European organized crime groups are also quite active in major Canadian cities.
First Nations organized crime gangs have long existed in Canada. One prominent organized gang of Indigenous people is the Manitoba Warriors. It operates in the Winnipeg area. In January 2014, Winnipeg police arrested 57 men and women aged 17 to 51. They were allegedly members or associates of what police called the “the city’s most powerful street gang.”
There are strong organized crime gangs in the Greater Toronto Area primarily composed of Jamaicans. (See Caribbean Canadians.) These include the Malvern Crew and The Galloway Boys, among others. Both gangs have had some of their members plead guilty to belonging to a gang under the anti-organized-crime laws. Innocent people have been killed over the past decade by members of these street gangs, in shoot-outs in Toronto streets, restaurants and neighbourhoods.
In Montreal, Haitian gangs rule the sale of drugs on the street. Gang members have also been involved in violent killings in the past two decades. These included the fatal, 2010 shoot-out at an upscale boutique in Old Montreal owned by the late Ducarme Joseph, a long time, well-known Haitian gang leader. Joseph himself was shot to death in August 2014.
Murderous, multi-ethnic drug gangs — such as the one run for years by the three Bacon brothers in BC — killed their way into a large piece of the drug trafficking business there through an alliance with the Red Scorpions, a long-running Asian gang. The Bacon crew has killed many innocent people along their way to power, including the “Surrey Six” murder victims, two of whom died simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One gang member, Jonathan Bacon, was gunned down by hit men from a rival gang in 2011.
The so-called United Nations (UN) gang in BC is another example of a multi-ethnic crime gang structure that is becoming more common across the country in the 21st century.
- C. Kirby and T. Renner, Mafia Assassin (1986).
- Andre Cedilot and Andre Noel, Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan (2012).
- Pierre de Champlain, Le Crime Organisé à Montréal (1986).
- Lee Lamothe and Adrian Humphreys, The Sixth Family (2008).
- J.P. Charbonneau, The Canadian Connection (1976).
- Stephen Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada (2016).
- James R. Dubro, Dragons of Crime: Inside the Asian Underworld (1992), King of the Mob (1987), and Mob Rule (1985).