How the Hells Angels Conquered Canada
And why they'll continue to be at the top of Canada's organized crime hierarchy.
Photo by CP/Justin Tang
There is a specific moment when the Hells Angels began their takeover of Canada.
It was December 5, 1977, and the Popeyes, a motorcycle gang based in Quebec, had patched over to join the American motorcycle gang at a party in Laval, a suburb just north of Montreal. It was a triumph for both the Hells and the Popeyes, says Isnor, and was the first step in a path that would ultimately see Hells became one of, if not the, dominant criminal enterprise in the country.
That's according to Len Isnor, and he knows what he's talking about. The Ontario Provincial Police Staff Sergeant is the officer in charge of the province's OPP-led biker enforcement unit, and has seen firsthand the fortunes of the world's most storied motorcycle gang ebb and flow over the years. And while the biker front has been quiet for some time, he, like other Canadian organized crime experts contacted for this article, believes that change is coming to gangland.
The biggest and most obvious indicator is the influx onto the streets of some of the dozens of bikers who were arrested in 2009 as part of Operation SharQc. The major sweep led by the Sûreté du Québec and the RCMP resulted in 156 arrests, but many of these charges were thrown out when the mega trial was deemed to have violated a number of the defendants' basic charter rights to a speedy trial.
"We're back to square one again," he tells VICE. "And they are a lot wiser now [because of the disclosure of evidence in the trials]. The Crown had to give the defence everything it had on how we got into the organization."
That knowledge, Isnor believes, will help the criminals adapt, change and head off new threats. "We're going to have to work a lot harder, and need a lot more money," he says.
And in the meantime, organized crime observers are anticipating a shakeup in the existing balance of power. How violent it gets is anyone's guess.
The Hells Angels' path to eventually dominating the Canadian crime scene was a bloody one, but also one that was carefully thought out and executed. The biker gang has kept maintained that dominance through a savvy combination of diplomacy, business sense, marketing, and bloodshed.
"You can't underestimate the power of the patch," Isnor says. "You see someone with the Hells Angels colours, it has to mean something. There is a reputation that patch has built up over the years."
In 2018, the Hells Angels will celebrate 70 years of existence. Like most other motorcycle gangs, the Hells were founded by veterans of World War II bored with the tedium of civilian life. In the decades since its birth in 1948, the Hells Angels MC expanded and morphed into the criminal organization it is today. By the time they arrived in Canada in 1977, they were experienced and tough enough to either absorb or muscle out local gangs.
As Isnor tells it, the Hells had scouted possible Canadian franchises for some time, and eventually decided on the Popeyes. "They had the reputation for being the most prosperous and the most violent," he says. "They'd take on anyone. And win." Having access to the Port of Montreal was also a bonus, as were their existing ties to local criminal organizations like the Italian Mafia and the predominantly Irish West End Gang.
Timing was an issue. In the US, the Angels had been involved in a long-running dispute with a rival biker gang, the Outlaws, who had established themselves in Ontario months before and had begun to move into Quebec. From 1977 to 1982, the Outlaws and the Hells Angels fought what came to be known as the First Biker War. The Hells won. As the Outlaws retreated into their Ontario stronghold, the Hells began consolidating their criminal activities and expanding, moving into port cities Halifax and Vancouver.
And in the meantime, the Hells were able to prove to the Irish and Italian crime organizations that having access to a group whose raison d'etre was being on the road had its advantages. The motorcycle gang was able to set up a network that extends from coast to coast, gradually establishing chapters in each province.
The Hells Angels also turned deadly serious. While they had acquired a reputation for being wild, reckless, coke-snorting loose canons, its leadership realized they needed a more business-like approach if they were going to reach the next level on the criminal hierarchy ladder. To prove how serious they were, and to enforce the notion that a new management philosophy was being implemented, in March 1985 five members of the notoriously hard-partying Hells Angels Laval chapter were lured to a meeting in Lennoxville, a small town in Quebec's Eastern Townships, and murdered. Their bodies were wrapped in sleeping blankets, weighed down and dumped in the St. Lawrence river. A sixth member was killed a couple of weeks later.
By many accounts, this laid the seeds that eventually blossomed into the Second Biker War, the conflict that claimed over 150 lives between 1994 and 2002, and brought home to the public just how influential motorcycle gangs were in the province, and the country's, underworld.
The Second Biker War began with the falling out of two friends. Maurice Boucher and Salvatore Cazzetta were members of the same white supremacist motorcycle club, the SS, in Pointe-aux-Trembles, on the island of Montreal's eastern tip at the time of the Lennoxville Massacre. The Hells Angels already knew about the SS and were apparently scouting the club, with the idea of eventually absorbing them.
But when word got out that the Hells Angels murdered six of their own members, Cazzetta was reportedly so angry at this supposed breach of the outlaw code that he founded his own gang, the Rock Machine, along with his brother Giovanni, the following year.
Boucher, meanwhile, was recruited in the Hells, just as he was finishing up a 40-month sentence for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. But thanks to his smarts and ruthless business approach, he quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming one of the most powerful criminals in the province, based largely on his drug and loan sharking businesses.
For a time, the Rock Machine and the Hells Angels co-existed, until Cazzetta was arrested on drug smuggling charges in 1994. With the RM leaderless, the Hells made their move to take over street distribution, and the two clubs went to war.
It was a bloody affair, and by 2002 it would claim some 160 lives. But again, the Hells came out on top, and cemented their dominance over Canadian crime. That includes in Ontario, where, on December 29, 2000, almost 200 Ontario bikers patched over to the Hells Angels. Their main rivals, the Rock Machine, had patched over to the Bandidos, a Texas-based club with strong European chapters, on December 1.
But police operations like Projects Amigo and Retire, targeting the Bandidos and the Outlaws respectively, crippled the Hells' biker opposition. The 2006 massacre of eight Bandidos, murdered by their fellow club members at a farm in southwestern Ontario, was the final nail in the club's coffin. Shortly after the massacre, the Bandidos pulled out of Canada. And according to Isnor, "The Hells Angels were on easy street. They had a monopoly across Canada."
Peter Edwards, a Toronto Star reporter who covered the so-called Shedden massacre and has authored several books on organized crime, agrees. For just over half a decade, between the end of the Second Biker War and the end of aughts, the Hells had virtually no significant opposition.
"In Ontario, you had the Hells Angels and the people the Hells Angels let exist," he tells VICE. "They either worked with you or they didn't care about you."
With Canada's biker wars then apparently over, and a commodities boom underway in the Prairies and the West, expansion became a priority. Edwards says the Hells relied on members or associates who weren't full-time gangsters to find footholds in territory they were interested in.
"The Ontario clubs had a lot of working-class, blue collar guys," he says. "A lot of auto workers and ironworkers, people who had regular jobs. Portable day jobs. So some of them would go west and get legitimate jobs and at the same time they were able to make contacts."
In Quebec, the gangs had already moved across the province and had established themselves as the dominant drugs distributor there. Pierre de Champlain, a former civilian analyst for the RCMP and an author who has written about organized crime, says, "Since 2000, the Hells Angels have had complete control over Quebec, from Sept-Iles to Granby. No one wants to work against the Hells Angels independently because it's not in their interest."
Working with the Hells, however, presents several advantages. First, you basically get a license to sell drugs under their protection. And second, you get bragging rights for being associated with a major international brand, with all its pomp and symbols.
"Look at the funeral of Kenny Bédard [in August]," he says. The 51-year-old Bédard, who had only recently become a full-patch Hells Angels member, died in a road accident in New Brunswick. His Montreal funeral, says de Champlain, attracted "300 bikers but also 1,000 to 3,000 people who came out to watch. They wanted to see the parade, the coffin pulled by bikes. And we have to admit, it was spectacular."
That kind of show can be a powerful recruiting tool for young would-be gangsters, he explains. Many of them would do anything to become a full-patch member. For Stéphane "Godasse" Gagné, that included the murder of two prison guards in 1997, a crime that shocked the public and drew yet more police attention to the biker gangs in general and Maurice Boucher in particular. Boucher would eventually be convicted of ordering the murders, and is currently serving a life sentence.
And yet, de Champlain says, there is that allure that can be irresistible. "Young people try to reach that level of becoming a full patch because they think they'll become millionaires," he says. "There's a lot of prestige."
Indeed, Boucher's one-time friend-turned-deadly rival Salvatore Cazzetta, the Rock Machine's co-founder, patched over to the Hells Angels in 2005, following a stint in jail on drug charges. He also rose through the ranks and is one of the club's leading members. He recently had a gangsterism trial thrown out of court, though he faces charges in a different case.
But the draw that the Hells Angels' patch still has helps the organization use junior clubs to do the dirty work, including enforcing their territory, providing security at public events like funerals, and getting involved in setting up drug distribution networks. "These present an opportunity to prove themselves to the Hells Angels, to become a prospect," he says.
A former undercover cop in the UK who worked against biker gangs across Europe draws a parallel between the use of junior clubs by for unsavoury business on both sides of the pond.
"However, the paranoia that new recruits might by infiltrators from law enforcement or even journalists causes much angst around their selection," he writes in an email to VICE. "In order to try and avoid this, potential members are treated like shit and asked to perform various tasks to prove their worth. These are often degrading or illegal, the rationale being that a UC cop or similar wouldn't have the stomach for this or have the necessary authority to actually commit crimes. The downside of this is that the attrition rate is high. Many wanna-bes wise up and don't bother. However, those determined to wear the patch will often happily do as they are ordered and that's what makes these gangs so dangerous."
He adds that while the continental European biker gangs are certainly no slouches when it comes to criminality, there is a real reverence for their North American counterparts. "I personally met a couple of members of the Outlaws MC in France who very much played up to the fact that they were bestowing a privilege upon their hosts by visiting them. The French guys were keen to show off in front of their guests and behaved in a worse manner than usual—very violent! In terms of criminality, the Europeans respect their North American counterparts for their drug dealing and perceived access to firearms."
(That respect does not extend to the UK, he notes. "The majority of 'overseas' 1%ers see their British counterparts as a joke," he says, adding that "UK bikers are the least organized and lack the criminal acumen of their brothers.")
Unlike the traditional ethnically based gangs, be they Italian, Irish, East Asian or South Asian or whatever, the Hells (though almost uniformly white) have a much wider recruiting pool at their disposal. In the Quebec case, says de Champlain, "the Mafia is only in Montreal and Laval. The Bikers were able to expand across the entire territory of Quebec. Their principal characteristic is their ability to be present everywhere."
The easy good times came to an end by 2009. Opération SharQc, the latest in a string of successful police operations across the country, threw over 150 Quebec Hells Angels and associates into jail, temporarily decapitating the gang and throwing it into confusion. But although the arrests did undeniable short-term damage to the group, they didn't put the Hells out of business. Not even close, says de Champlain.
"The junior clubs are what kept them breathing," he says. "The Hells Angels have a capacity to adapt to change. It's something they learned from the Mafia. They can adapt to situations that are not necessarily favourable, mostly by going underground and staying quiet for a while."
A deep recruiting pool gives the Hells the opportunity to renew themselves periodically, to keep ranks swelled even under intense police pressure. But de Champlain recognizes there are limits. Several Quebec chapters, including Quebec City and Trois-Rivières, remain inactive because club rules stipulate a minimum six members are needed for the chapter to be deemed active. De Champlain believes that those chapters will reactivated soon, as the bikers arrested under SharQc return to the streets, especially seeing as how the Crown appears to have botched the cases against many of the accused.
"We can't deny that the Hells Angels are making a big comeback in Canada, and especially Quebec," he says. "There's no doubt that they are restructuring and rebuilding."
He doubts that there will be much violence as the jailed Hells re-establish themselves on the streets. "The Hells Angels are not interested in going to war against their junior clubs," he says. "There is a certain cohesion since everyone hopes to join this mythic club someday."
Not that everyone thinks it will be a smooth and painless process. Edwards, the Star reporter, suggests that there will be a potential for inner conflict. "If someone goes to jail, his drug routes are picked up," he says. "And eventually, [the person who picks them up] is going to think it's his."
And while there are rules that govern conflict resolution, Edwards says, in a lot of instances "these are extreme personalities. They are not that governable."
Governable or not, the Hells Angels remain the biggest motorcycle club in the country, by far. It's estimated there are about 450 HA members across Canada, more than all the other biker clubs combined.
And as recent courthouse fiascos in Montreal have demonstrated, dismantling the Hells in any permanent way is extremely difficult. And as they emerge from the 2009 roundup and rebuild their organization, de Champlain says the Hells Angels will grow even more powerful, especially in Quebec, where the Canadian presence began.
"The Hells Angels won't replace the Italian Mafia, but they will be bargaining from a powerful position," he says. "The next boss of the Montreal Mafia will need to have a lot of charisma and force of personality to deal with Salvatore Cazzetta."
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- Vice Blog