The Story of Organized Crime in Canada
By Stephen Schneider!
Wiley Canada, 600 pages, $29.95
The photo found in Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada is chillingly stark: A murdered Mafioso sprawled on a sidewalk where he was dragged to die, a lit cigar chomped defiantly in his mouth, a gaping shotgun blast piercing his chest. It represents the universality of organized crime at its most visceral, for in all cultures, the professional mob hit is the ultimate statement. The dead man in the photo is Carmine Galante. The 1979 murder happened on Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn.
And therein lies the great underlining premise in Iced: that the historically undivided border between Canada and the United States has created a vibrant free trade agreement among criminals, which precedes NAFTA by centuries; it is a lucrative trade in anything and everything that can be had for a price, from tea to opium, alcohol to cigarettes, drugs to handguns. And things that are perversely priceless, such as pure evil and brutish power and the degradation of human dignity which are integral to the actions of organized criminals, whether Mafia, biker, triad or Eastern European.
This lengthy tome by Stephen Schneider, associate professor of sociology at St. Mary's University and an occasional contributor to classified crime studies for the federal government, is not the first book to tackle the deadly phenomenon of crime in Canada in a historical context, but it is certainly among the most ambitious and detailed.
That is not to say the work is flawless. The author occasionally lapses into the sanitized government-speak so favoured by faceless crime analysts who generate annual reports replete with generality, allusion and hyperbole, for there is assuredly no cliché as tedious as a criminal one.
Still, when Schneider reverts to his theme and tells the story to which he has committed himself, his words resonate. It is in this narrative of Canadian organized crime, from its infancy to the present, that we are initially intrigued, then enthralled and finally repelled in the growing realization that such illicit activity is so integral to our way of life as to make us, as a society, almost inured to its python-like grasp.
The first criminal organizations in North America were pirates operating off the Eastern Seaboard, drawn to the cod fisheries. In 1517, British ships outfitted for the Newfoundland fisheries turned to privateering along the Avalon Peninsula, and two notorious "pyrates" - Peter Easton and, ironically, the man sent to track him down, Captain Henry Mainwaring - became two of Canada's first corsairs.
From there, this young nation and its diverse regions grew and prospered, as did organized crime. From the whisky traders of Fort Whoop Up, in what is now Alberta, to the Shiners, a top-hatted gang that was the scourge of Upper Canada, to West Coast opium dens catering to labourers forging our dream of a national railway, Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds learned to grow and prosper on the failings of others.
The Rubicon was crossed in 1919, when the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, making the sale of alcohol illegal. According to Schneider, Prohibition would have enormous implications for the maturation of organized crime in Canada. Before Volstead, most criminals didn't accumulate much money. Prohibition and its enormous profits changed this and led to a newly emerging phenomenon in Canadian society, the "millionaire criminal."
It is noteworthy that the first international treaty Canada negotiated without Britain's involvement, one signalling the start of made-in-Canada foreign policy, was the 1924 Convention to Suppress Smuggling, signed with the United States.
Moreover, the catalyst for the famous 1925 King-Byng constitutional crisis - the power struggle between Canada's prime minister and its governor-general - was a vote of no-confidence in the government of Mackenzie King for allowing liquor smuggling and corruption to run rampant in the department of customs and excise.
As Schneider asserts, smuggling was a mainstay of Canadian organized crime well into the Second World War. A 1943 memo from the paymaster-captain of the Royal Canadian Navy reads: "Large-scale smuggling of tea, tobacco and cigarettes has been discovered in North Ireland. ... Canadian corvettes are alleged to be the worst offenders."
By war's end, Canada would emerge as a welcome destination in Marshall McLuhan's global village. In the last decades, a veritable legion of larger-than-life villains, some transplanted, most homegrown, have crawled out from their subterranean caves to rouse us from our comfortable pews. Schneider deftly captures them, warts and all. From Dominic Racco to Johnny Papalia, Maruice (Mom) Bouchard to the Dubois brothers, Lau Wing Kui to Asau Tran - all in all, they form a veritable rogue's gallery of Canuck criminality.
Iced is a daunting 555 pages and, as with any history as ambitious in scope as this one, there are missing elements. Schneider might have considered turning his probing searchlight to delve more deeply into the dark corners where the demons of child pornography and the sex-slave trade lurk. Or perhaps to consider the true digital globalization of Canadian organized crime as it increasingly hosts fraudulent websites of such scope and sophistication that telemarketers are left dialling for pizza specials. And as one who knows from the professional experience of having them as an adversary, it is prudent to acknowledge the evil majesty of Russian and Eastern European crime families.
Mafia families and biker gangs, triads and Cali cartel clones - Canadians needn't be concerned that our nation goes unnoticed on the radar scope of international organized crime. We have finally arrived in the big leagues. Perhaps there is room for only so many sinners in Hades.
K. G. E. (Chuck) Konkel is a Canadian police officer who served in the Royal Hong Kong Police. He is an expert on Asian and Eastern European Organized crime. He has written two novels and is at work on a third.