PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—Organized crime in Canada has grown steadily in recent decades, moving from the street to the boardroom with new types of gangs emerging along the way. Now Parliament is looking into how to tackle these groups before they get too big and too entrenched to deal with.
It's a problem Parliament has been aware of for some time, and has been looking into through the Committee on Justice and Human Rights for several weeks now, holding hearings with experts across the country leading up to a report and recommendations to be released by October.
But with a country as large as Canada and organized crime taking different forms in different regions, it is a complicated issue to resolve. In the prairies, Aboriginal gangs have grown rapidly, replacing family-based criminal networks, while more established crime groups like the Hell's Angels, widely recognized as an outlaw motorcycle gang, and the Mafia operating in Quebec, have moved steadily to find legitimate business activities.
Police are hard pressed to challenge the growth of these criminal networks and their almost inexhaustible resources and lightning-quick adoption of the latest technology. And while police and prosecutors are strictly confined by the letter of the law, criminal groups operate with no such restriction.
But one thing criminals won't be able to count on is partisan differences to keep MPs from coming up with recommendations likely to get all-party support, said senior members of the committee.
Conservative MP Ed Fast, chair of the justice committee, says while some differences over minimum sentences and gun registration divide the parties, all MPs on the justice committee agree on the vast majority of what needs to be done. His comments were echoed by Liberal vice-chair Brian Murphy.
Both agreed that with such a variety of organized crime in Canada, the problem will need to be tackled on several levels, from funding social programs to keep young people from getting involved in crime groups, to making it easier for law enforcement to gather intelligence and—perhaps most importantly—attacking the profits of criminal activity, something the committee heard from several witnesses.
“We've definitely heard a lot about taking the financial incentive out of organized crime. That's going to involve a number of strategies including meeting up our forfeiture laws and ensuring that we can go out after some of the hard-core assets that some of these organizations accumulate over years of crime,” Fast said.
That goal is made more difficult by the efforts of more established criminal groups to diversify away from street-level crime and invest the proceeds of drug sales and human trafficking into mainstream businesses.
“I think it just makes the challenges that much greater because actually every criminal organization has its goal to attain some level of legitimacy, because what you're trying to do is hide your illegal activities behind the guise of operating legitimate businesses, and the Mafia is certainly one example of that. The biker-gangs of course use surrogates to do much of their business,” Fast said.
Those surrogates are often lower level street gangs. The Mafia in Montreal has charted the same course, leading to speculation that they have lost control of the street and are now being challenged by the very gangs they once employed. The slaying last December of Nick Rizzuto Jr., the eldest son of reputed Canadian mob boss Vito Rizzuto, is an example of this says Antonio Nicaso, a journalist and internationally recognized expert on organized crime. Nicaso testified before the committee in March.
Hiding behind lawyers and chartered accountants, some criminal groups are making every effort to gain influence over the very institutions designed to suppress them, including the judicial system. Some witnesses testifying before the committee talked about threats, intimidation and home invasions being carried out against Crown attorneys, but it could get worse if something isn't done, said Fast.
“Once you get infiltration to the higher levels of government it's almost impossible to turn the tide on it, which is why this organized crime study we're conducting is so important. We're hoping it's going to provide at least a partial roadmap to our federal government on how to move forward in ensuring that organized crime is not something that we accept as an ongoing reality in our free, democratic society.”
That is one of Nicaso’s greatest concerns. While action to attack the kind of street-level crime like drug trafficking and extortion can be effective, Nicaso said the people that commit those crimes are easily replaced. Referring specifically to the networks employed by highly organized crime groups like the Mafia, he said the only way to really attack these organizations is to target the grey area where the criminal world meets the corporate.
“If we cannot dismantle the grey area, we will never do anything," he said.
While some provinces have legislation that targets the proceeds of crime, it is rarely used outside Quebec. Nicaso said such laws in Ontario have been almost entirely ignored.
“So what we should do is start using those pieces of legislation, but most importantly we should focus on the right side, the corporate side of legislation.”
Brian Murphy, the Liberal vice-chair of the justice committee, said one possible way to address this problem is to remove the anonymity that helps organized criminal groups hide themselves in the corporate world.
He said ownership issues are a major challenge because criminal groups can incorporate a company through a lawyer and never have the names of the actual equity holders appear on any record.
“It doesn't get you to the real owner of the actual physical property, which is what people in this business are converting their drug sales into,” Murphy said.
He suggested a high priority for premiers across the country would be to change provincial incorporation laws to eliminate this anonymity and make it easier to track the proceeds of crime.
Nicaso said that kind of legislation would be a step in the right direction—the kind of move needed if Canada is going to keep organized crime from becoming further entrenched.
And entrenched it is. Recent reports have uncovered prolific organized criminal activity in Quebec where the Mafia has possibly siphoned billions from infrastructure spending by controlling the construction companies bidding on public projects, driving costs up by as much as 35 percent, said Radio-Canada.
Gang violence swept Vancouver last year when cocaine prices skyrocketed due to drug wars in Mexico, making the business more profitable and leading to turf wars as new entrants battled for a piece of the market. Besides several gangland slayings, innocent victims have also died, such Ed Schellenberg and Christopher Mohan who were shot when a Vancouver gang executed four members of a rival group.
A 2008 RCMP investigation uncovered that dozens of criminal groups had infiltrated Canada's airports. The investigation concluded that hundreds of people, including close to 300 current or former airline employees, were involved in smuggling operations.
With the costs of organized crime reaching as high as $80 billion for everything from medical costs to insurance claims and policing, organized crime can no longer be ignored, said Fast.
“The impact of crime in Canada is huge and organized crime is perhaps the biggest perpetrator of serious and violent crime in Canada. So yes, Canadians do need to take notice.”