Organized Crime in Canada

Organized Crime is defined in the Criminal Code of Canada 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." But perhaps a more succinct definition was given by a former United States mob boss who described it as "just a bunch of people getting together to take all the money they can from all the suckers they can."

Widespread and Structured

There is more to organized ​crime in Canada than the Italian criminal association known as the Mafia or "the Mob" – although 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. Thus we have seen Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Jamaican, Haitian, Vietnamese, Somali and many other ethnically-recruited or centered crime gangs.

For a long time many scholars did not believe organized crime was highly structured, or capable of sophisticated operations. All this changed because of the revelations of the U.S. Senate "Valachi" hearings in 1963 (named after the chief witness, Mafia member Joe Valachi); because of the documentary evidence from police wiretaps in the 1970s, which allowed police to listen to Mafia leaders discussing their hierarchy and operations in the U.S. and Canada; and because of the creation of the American Witness Protection Program, in which Mafia defectors and informers could build a new life and protect themselves by working 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 – thanks to various court cases as well as Québec inquiries into the Mafia, the widely publicized report of the Waisberg Commission into construction violence in Ontario, and a series of mob killings in Montréal..

$20-Billion Business

In 1984 a joint federal-provincial committee of justice officials estimated that organized crime in Canada took in about $20 billion in revenues annually. The committee was formed in response to a 1980 report by the British Columbia Attorney General's office, which 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. These and other activities such as white collar crime (insurance and construction fraud and illegal bankruptcy), arson, bank robbery, motor vehicle theft, computer crime and counterfeit in credit cards, made up about $10 billion in organized crime revenues. Narcotics accounted for the other $10 billion.

Organized crime provides illegal services desired by some members of the general public, such as 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 fuelled 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 to engage in 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 $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 probably 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 Québec crime probe report of 1976 (based primarily on information gathered by the "bug" planted in the milk cooler at the headquarters of Montréal mobster Paulo Violi) revealed the structure of the Montréal Mafia and its dependency on the U.S. Mafia family of Joe Bonanno. Public knowledge of the Mafia is also the result of media attention, such as the much-watched "Connections" series on organized crime broadcast by CBC-TV from June 1977 to March 1979.

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 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, 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 19thcentury to describe magnificent or perfect people."

Joe Bonanno, a Mafia don, describes the term 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."

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, but it 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 emphasizing respect for senior family members; by the structure or hierarchy of the family; and by an initiation rite or ceremony.

Although 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 U.S. 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, settling in the greater Montréal, Toronto and Hamilton areas. Though located mainly in the major cities, family 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.

Toronto Mafia

In Toronto until the mid-1980s, at least four major Mafia-style criminal organizations existed and were run by Canadians of Sicilian or Calabrian origin, two of whom were named as members of the Mafia during the Valachi hearings -- namely the organizations run by Paul Volpe and Johnny "Pops" Papalia. Since the murder of Volpe in November 1983, his old organization has mostly disappeared as well as 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/Hamilton areas. There are also newly arrived cells of the N'drangheta operating, many having emigrated from Siderno, Calabria. There is no one godfather in Toronto, but there is a ruling commission of the N'drangheta, of family leaders in the Toronto area which tries to keep order, resolve disputes, and co-ordinate some activities with the ruling commission in Italy.

Montréal Mafia

Since the mid-1980s, Montréal has had one dominant crime family, 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 Québec crime probe exposed the membership and activities of this highly structured group in a number of its reports in the 1970s. Established first 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 has extensive ties with Mafia families in Italy and throughout the U.S., as well as with the Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver organizations.

Serious internal problems between Sicilians and Calabrians in the Montréal organization 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 importation, 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 U.S. 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, as 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, is now awaiting trial for 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.

As of 2014, there was still an ongoing battle for Mafia supremacy in Montréal involving some Calabrian Mafiosi cells from Ontario and dissident Rizzuto family members in Québec.

At the same time, the hearings of the Charbonneau Commission into the practices of the Québec 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, including 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 Montréal Mafia world. A state of flux is the best way to describe the Montreal "Mob" as of 2014. In spite of this, most Mafia operations continue unabated. A new figure will likely emerge as the new godfather to run the Montréal Mafia, and he will likely come from the ranks of family members who have power and respect both in the Montréal underworld as well as in Italian and American mafia circles.

Other Groups

Biker Gangs

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 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), which 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 motorcycle gang in Canada.

With biker gangs comes violence and murder. A major biker war in Québec from the mid-1990s to the early 21st Century led to the killing of hundreds of people, including many innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time — including an 11 year old Montréal boy killed by a biker-war bomb.

New Crime Laws

The resulting outcry from the public and the media in Québec 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, from "soldiers" to senior lieutenants, and even to old Nick Rizzuto, onetime godfather who was then 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 Montréal-area home.

The Hells Angels organization has been 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 a number of murders. Still, the Hells Angels continue to operate, especially in Québec, with the help of puppet gangs with different names but working for the Hells Angels.

Asian Crime Groups

Various Chinese and Vietnamese organized crime groups have become more prominent over the past 35 years in Vancouver and Toronto, following a wave of immigration from Hong Kong. In BC, Chinese crime gangs have been operating for more than 100 years. In the 1920s, Shu Moy, the famed 'King of the Gamblers,' was a powerful organized crime figure in BC, according to the 1928 special inquiry set up by Vancouver City Council to look into illicit gambling rackets, opium dens, houses of prostitution and corruption at the highest levels of municipal government in Vancouver.

Today Chinese youth gangs operate in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and other cities and towns, and are involved in protection and extortion rackets. They also run massage parlours as fronts for prostitution, hydroponic grow operations for much in-demand 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 and global networks and reach.

The organized crime structure changes quickly in Canada, and usually exists for some years before it is detected in cities or other locations; therefore, there are undoubtedly other groups that have not yet been identified. Columbian cartels are active in Toronto and Montréal. Russian and East European organized crime groups are also quite active in major Canadian cities.

First Nations

First Nations organized crime gangs have long existed in Canada. One prominent native organized mob group is the "Manitoba Warriors," which operates in the Winnipeg area. In January 2014, Winnipeg police arrested 57 men and women aged 17 to 51, alleging that they were 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, including among others the 'Malvern Crew' and 'The Galloway Boys.' 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 even at a neighbourhood barbecue.


In Montréal, Haitian gangs rule the sale of drugs on the street. Gang members have also been involved in violent killings in the past two decades, including the fatal, 2010 shoot-out at an upscale boutique in Old Montréal owned by the late Ducarme Joseph, a long time, well-known Haitian gang leader. Joseph himself was shot to death in August, 2014.

Multi-Ethnic Gangs

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 brother, Jonathan Bacon, was himself 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.

Further Reading

  • Andre Cedilot and Andre Noel, "Mafia Inc.:The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan" (2012); Lee Lamothe and Adrian Humphreys, "The Sixth Family" (2008); James R. Dubro, "Dragons of Crime: Inside the Asian Underworld" (1992), "King of the Mob" (1987), and "Mob Rule" (1985); Pierre de Champlain, "Le Crime Organisé à Montréal" (1986); C. Kirby and T. Renner, "Mafia Assassin" (1986); J.P. Charbonneau, "The Canadian Connection" (1976).

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