Martin Carrier, a family man and owner of a tile firm from Quebec City, was in his office last year when a curious piece of mail arrived. It was a pink-hued condolence card, the kind you receive when there has been a death in the family.
The right side of the card had a traditional sympathy message in flowery print. On the left, someone had added a note that was less than Hallmark-worthy.
"Dear friend!" it said. "Stop bidding in Montreal. If not, your family will get a card just like this one. FINAL WARNING."
The missive came after a string of threats that Mr. Carrier received from powers within the Mafia. His sin was to have legitimately bid and won a construction contract in Montreal.
For years, Quebeckers have heard that a closed market of entrepreneurs colluded on contracts and used intimidation on rivals to muscle out competition and drive up prices on public works projects. In the hearing room of Quebec's Charbonneau commission on Thursday, the testimony of one man, Mr. Carrier, drove home the terrifying impact of Mob strong-arm tactics on one honest businessman.
His appearance as a witness about organized-crime manoeuvres at the inquiry earned him praise from the commissioner, Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau.
"I congratulate you for the exceptional courage you're showing," she said. "I encourage others to do as you have."
Mr. Carrier said his troubles began in 2003, when he bid for sub-contract work on a new pavilion at the University of Montreal. The head of a ceramics firm in Montreal, Francesco "Frank" Bruno, called Mr. Carrier soon afterwards to complain. "That job, I want to do it … it's my turn," Mr. Carrier recalls him saying.
Mr. Carrier persevered and won the contract, worth less than $400,000. "We're supposed to be free in Quebec, able to go where we want and not be controlled," he said.
His first death threat came a week later. Mr. Carrier was driving his daughter to her guitar lesson on a Saturday morning in January when his cellphone rang. The daughter answered and, when an unfamiliar voice on the line asked for Mr. Carrier, the girl passed the phone to her father.
"We'd like you to stop coming here [Montreal] to do work," a thick voice said at the end of the line.
"Who are you?" Mr. Carrier asked.
"It doesn't matter who I am. Okay? Because next time, you won't walk away from here."
Mr. Carrier went to police. He said the voice was identified as that of Francesco Del Balso. Mr. Del Balso was a captain in the Rizzuto crime clan arrested in an RCMP anti-Mafia sweep in 2006 that sent him and several others to jail.
Mr. Carrier testified that he got a second phone call from Mr. Del Balso a month later. It was brief. "You didn't listen, we warned you, it's over," it said.
Montreal police detective Eric Vecchio told the commission that Mr. Del Balso, in a jailhouse interview this summer, told him the death threats were done as "a favour" to Nick Rizzuto Sr., the late patriarch of the Montreal mob.
The 2011 condolence card came a year after Mr. Carrier appeared on a Radio-Canada investigative show. Police were never able to trace the source of the card, but Mr. Carrier said he associated it with the prior incidents, since nobody else had ever threatened him.
Mr. Bruno faces tax evasion charges along with high-profile Quebec construction magnate Antonio Accurso, who is at the centre of allegations of bid rigging and mob connections.