Over the course of several months in 2011 and 2012, a team of thieves stole approximately 2,700 tonnes of maple syrup from a strategic maple syrup reserve maintained in Quebec (see Maple Syrup Industry). The theft has been popularly dubbed as the Great Maple Syrup Heist. At the time of the heist, the stolen maple syrup was valued at nearly $18 million. The heist may be one of the largest thefts in Canadian history.
Maple Syrup Production in Quebec
The Indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, including the Abenaki, Haudenosaunee and Mi’kmaq, harvested maple sap before the arrival of European settlers. French settlers learned how to tap maple trees and reduce sap into maple syrup from Indigenous peoples. Quebec has since produced maple syrup and other derivative products, so much so that maple syrup and gatherings at the ‘sugar shack’ (or cabane à sucre in French) are cornerstones of Québécois cuisine and culture (see Maple Syrup Industry).
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Quebec is a major producer of maple syrup and maple products. In 2020, Quebec contributed 96.4 per cent of Canadian maple product exports. Canada is a leading producer and exporter of maple products, accounting for 75 per cent of the global market.
Despite this long-standing tradition and the global demand for maple sugar and syrup, the harvesting and production of these seasonal products have often been a secondary farming enterprise among Quebec farmers. (See also Agriculture and Food.) The reason for this is that the price of syrup depends on the quality, quantity and the timing of the harvest. The variability of these factors makes focusing uniquely on the production of maple syrup economically unwise. To manage the province’s supply of maple syrup, the government-sanctioned maple syrup regulator, the Québec Maple Syrup Producers (formerly known as the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers) was created in 1966.
Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve
The Québec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP) sets annual quotas for maple syrup producers and oversees the production and sale of maple products from Quebec (see Maple Syrup Industry). To manage the supply of maple syrup, the QMSP established a strategic reserve in 2000. In 2011, due to a surplus of maple syrup, the QMSP increased the size of its strategic reserve, expanding to a warehouse located in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec. By 2012, the Saint-Louis-de-Blandford strategic reserve housed barrels of maple syrup valued at approximately $30 million.
In July 2012, an inspector from the QMSP was conducting an annual inspection of the maple syrup stored at the Saint-Louis-de-Blandford strategic reserve. As he climbed up a stack of barrels, one nearly fell over. Normally, the full barrels would weigh approximately 270 kg and be very difficult to move. The inspector opened some of the barrels and discovered that they were empty. In addition, it was later found that other barrels, which appeared full, were in fact filled with water. It was also reported that some barrels were dirty (despite the cleanliness of the Saint-Louis-de-Blandford reserve) and rusty (an unusual characteristic as maple syrup does not oxidize). The facility had no security cameras and there was no video evidence of the theft.
Officers from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provincial police force, initiated the investigation after the QMSP contacted the authorities. The SQ determined that the theft was an inside job. Police focused on individuals who had access to warehouses in the same industrial park as the strategic reserve. It was then established that from October 2011 to August 2012, a group of thieves were taking barrels of maple syrup and syphoning the syrup into their own barrels. The empty barrels were then filled with water before being returned to the strategic reserve.
Richard Vallières was accused as the ringleader of the maple syrup theft. Vallières allegedly had a reputation in the world of maple syrup producers as a “barrel roller” — someone who found ways around the tightly regulated controls and supply management system developed by the QMSP. Vallières reportedly learned of the strategic reserve from Avik Caron, whose spouse was co-owner of the warehouse where the syrup stockpile was held. Caron testified that he was introduced to Richard Vallières shortly after the warehouse began to be filled with barrels of syrup.
During a police interview in 2014, Richard Vallières admitted to participating in the black market for a decade prior to the theft and that he had been previously pursued by the QMSP for this activity. Vallières’ co-conspirators claimed that their actions were not theft as the QMSP’s supply management practices were unfair to producers.
The thieves distributed their stolen maple syrup from a legitimate operation located in New Brunswick. New Brunswick has a smaller maple syrup industry and is not subject to the price and production controls that exist in Quebec. From New Brunswick, the stolen maple syrup was shipped and sold in Ontario and the United States.
Over a 10-month period, the thieves managed to steal approximately 2,700 tonnes of maple syrup. Authorities recovered 450 tonnes of the stolen maple syrup. Some of the recovered maple syrup was destroyed because it was not safe for human consumption.
The police investigation was exhaustive, with over 300 people interviewed and 40 search warrants issued. Four men, including Richard Vallières, were convicted for their role in the theft. Vallières was sentenced to 7 years and 10 months in prison for his involvement.
The events surrounding the maple syrup heist were featured in an episode of the Netflix documentary series “Dirty Money.” The episode aired on 26 January 2018.