There is much more to organized crime in Canada and the US than the Italian criminal association known as the Mafia, Cosa Nostra or Honoured Society. In North America, just about every major national or ethnic group and every segment of society has been involved in organized crime. American criminologist Dr Francis Ianni has developed a theory explaining how organized criminal activity is developed and passed on in North America from one ethnic group to another, based on the length of time the group has been in North America, the language and cultural knots that bind the group, and the degree to which the group's members have been assimilated into the prevailing society.
For a long time many scholars and academics did not believe organized crime was highly structured or capable of sophisticated operations. Their scepticism derived partly from a reaction to the Hollywood portrayal of the Mafia from the 1930s to the 1950s, typified in its treatment of Al Capone ("Scarface"), and partly from the fact that documented, scholarly studies and books on organized crime did not exist.
All this changed because of the breakup of a national meeting in November of 1957 of several dozens of Mafia leaders in Appalachin, NY, and of the revelations at the US Senate "Valachi" (a Mafia soldier) hearings in 1963; because of the documentary evidence from police wiretaps and bugs in the 1970s, which allowed police to listen to Mafia leaders discussing their hierarchy and operations in both the US and Canada; and partly because of the establishment of the American Witness Protection Program, by which Mafia defectors and informers could build a new life.
Through various court cases and royal commissions and through television and newspaper exposés, the existence of a highly organized criminal network in Canada became known to the Canadian public in the late 1970s. In 1984 a joint federal-provincial committee of justice officials estimated that organized crime in Canada took in about $20 billion annually, almost $10 billion of which was from the sales of narcotics. (There is no way of estimating, however, the amount of dirty funds that are "laundered" in Canada by members of organized crime in the US and other foreign countries (see UNDERGROUND ECONOMY). The committee was formed in response to a 1980 report on organized crime by the BC attorney general's office, which claimed that organized crime figures in Canada had interests in the textile industry, cheese industry, building industry, disposal industry, vending-machine companies, meat companies, home-insulation companies, autobody shops and car dealerships, among others. The joint committee calculated that the sources of organized crime revenues could be broken down as follows: PORNOGRAPHY, PROSTITUTION, bookmaking, gaming houses, illegal LOTTERIES, other GAMBLING offences, loansharking and extortion, which together brought in hundreds of millions of dollars.
Other activities, such as WHITE-COLLAR CRIMES (eg, insurance and construction frauds and illegal bankruptcies), arson, bank robberies, motor vehicle thefts, computer crimes and counterfeit in credit cards raised the estimate to $10 billion; drugs accounted for the rest.
Of all the organized-crime groups operating in Canada, the Mafia is perhaps the best known. This is because the Québec crime probe report of 1976 (which was based primarily on the information gathered by the "bug" planted in the milk cooler of the Montréal mobster Paulo Violi's headquarters) revealed the structure of the Montréal Mafia and its interrelationship with and dependency on the US Mafia family of Joe Bonanno as well as its close link with their Sicilian and Calabrian counterparts. Public knowledge of the Mafia is also the result of media attention; eg, the Connections series broadcast by CBC-TV in the late 1970s.
Scholars do not agree on the origin of the term "Mafia," referring to the original organization in Sicily. However, the word "mafia" was used as early as 1880 by a Sicilian scholar, Giuseppe Alongi, in his book, La Mafia, Fattori, Manifestazioni, reprinted in 1904 and again in 1977. According to the Québec Organized Crime Commission's report of 1977, it 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, used since the 18th century to describe magnificent or perfect people."
While originally a Sicilian society, the Mafia was exported and adapted to North America by a small group of Italian immigrants, mostly from Sicily and Calabria. Joe Bonanno, a self-described Mafia don, describes it thus in his memoirs: "Mafia is a process, not a thing. Mafia is a form of clan co-operation to which its individual members pledge lifelong loyalty. Friendship connections, family ties, trust, loyalty, obedience - this was the 'glue' that held us together." 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, but it is now applied to the present dominant force in organized crime - the predominately Sicilian and Calabrian organized-crime groupings or "families." These families are held together by a code emphasizing respect for senior family members; by "Omerta" (ie, a vow of silence about the family's activities); by the structure or hierarchy of the family; and by an initiation rite or ceremony.
Although Italian crime families (such as the old Rocco Perri gang in Hamilton) have been active in Canada since the prohibition era, they have since operated in more clearly structured and defined areas acceptable to other crime families. Many of the Canadian Mafia families immigrated in the 1940s and 1950s and went to work with older, established Mafia figures, settling in Montréal, Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver. Though located mainly in the major cities, family members tend to gravitate to where wealth moves; thus, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some moved westward, following the movement of business to BC and Alberta.
Structure of the Mafia in Canada
In Toronto until recently at least 4 major Mafia-style criminal organizations were run by Canadians of Sicilian or Calabrian origin, 2 of which were named as members of the Mafia during the Valachi hearings. Since the murder of Paul Volpe (November 1983), his old organization has lost its control. There are 3 Calabrian organized crime groups operating in Hamilton. The Hamilton organized-crime family, connected with the Magaddino family of Buffalo, NY, has tried to move into the vacuum caused by the deaths, murders and imprisonments of leading members of the other organizations. A third group, also active in Hamilton, is connected with the Magaddino organized-crime family in Buffalo. The most recently established of these organizations is a family known as the Siderno group, so called because many of the members are from the town of Siderno and its environs in Calabria.
Since the mid-1980s, Montréal has had 2 dominant mafia groups: the Sicilians, led by the Vito Rizzuto organization, and Calabrians, led by the Frank Cotroni family. The Sicilians are the most influential criminal organization in Canada. The Québec crime probe exposed the membership and activities of this highly structured group in a number of its reports. Established in the 1940s by Vic Cotroni, the family evolved in the 1950s into an important branch of the powerful New York City Mafia family of Joe Bonanno. It has extensive ties with Mafia families in Italy and throughout the US, as well as with the Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver organizations.
A serious challenge to the supremacy of the Cotroni family in Québec came from the Dubois family, an indigenous French Canadian gang comprising 9 brothers which dominated crime in the west end of Montréal until the early 1980s. However, their influence has considerably decreased since that time.
Serious internal problems between Sicilians and Calabrians in the Montréal organization led to the violent deaths of Paulo Violi (the chief lieutenant of Vic Cotroni) and his brothers in the late 1970s. The Cotroni family has primarily been involved in illegal gambling, loansharking, drug importation (utilizing the famous French Connection) extortion, and the murder and corruption of public officials. After Vic Cotroni's death, the Sicilians, led by the Rizzutos, took over.
Motorcycle gangs such as the Hell's Angels, the Outlaws, Satan's Choice, and the Grim Reapers have become significantly involved in organized crime. Their initiation rites have made it difficult for law enforcement officers to penetrate the groups, which have become major suppliers of illegal drugs. They have also been involved in prostitution and contract killing. It is now not unusual to find them working with other organized crime groups. Today, the Hell's Angels are the most influential and powerful outlaw motorcycle gang in Canada.
Various Chinese and Vietnamese organized-crime groups have become more prominent over the past 20 years in Vancouver and Toronto, following a wave of immigration from Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s. Chinese youth gangs in Toronto and Vancouver are involved in protection rackets and extortion, but the more sophisticated groups are organized by senior "Triad" members from Hong Kong to import heroin from Southeast Asia through Vancouver. The Triads are ancient Chinese organizations that have evolved into organized-crime groupings.
The organized-crime structure changes quickly in Canada, and usually exists for some years before it is detected in cities or locations; therefore, there are undoubtedly other groups that have not yet been identified. Columbian cartels are active in Toronto and Montréal. As well, Russian and eastern European organized crime groups are quite active in major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and, to some extent, Montréal.
Activities of Organized Crime
Organized crime in Canada provides some illegal services which certain sectors of the general public want; eg, gambling, prostitution, alcohol and tobacco contraband, loansharking and the sale of soft drugs such as hashish, marijuana, speed and cocaine. In every large Canadian city, local bookmakers are involved in organized crime through an elaborate playoff system established to protect the individual bookie from large losses. Other organized-crime activities are not so readily desired by society at large. They involve the importation and distribution of hard drugs such as heroin (many drugs of the French Connection came into the US through Montréal with local Mafia involvement), the fencing of stolen goods, 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 to use activities in which there is a constant flow of cash; eg, 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 $1 million was not procured in the normal course of business.
Without corruption, organized crime would find it very difficult to exist, and the efforts of organized crime to corrupt police, judges, politicians, lawyers, and government and civilian officials are probably more deleterious to society than any other activity in which it engages.
Author WILLIAM I. MACADAM, JAMES R. DUBRO AND PIERRE DE CHAMPLAIN
J.P. Charbonneau, The Canadian Connection (1976); Pierre de Champlain, Le Crime Organisé à Montréal (1986); James R. Dubro, Mob Rule (1985) and King of the Mob (1987); C. Kirby and T. Renner, Mafia Assassin (1986); W. Rowland, Making Connections (1979).
Links to Other Sites
Delve into the history of forensic science and use modern forensic techniques to solve crimes at this Virtual Museum of Canada website. Criminal Investigation
You and the law - Community Legal Information on the Web
An extensive listing of websites providing general legal information that may be of interest to Canadians. From University of Toronto’s Bora Laskin Law Library.
Biker gangs in Canada
A CBC feature report about organized crime activities involving Canadian biker gangs.
Alberta Gaming Research Institute
The website for the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, a consortium of the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, and the University of Lethbridge. Established to support research into gaming and gambling in the Province of Alberta.