Canada's biker war tests free assembly
On the streets of New York and across Canada it's sold as "Quebec Gold." But this potent strain of marijuana sown in the rich soil south of Montreal is fueling one of the world's bloodiest gang wars.Skip to next paragraph
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Control of the province's lucrative drug trade is now at stake in a biker battle between Quebec's Hell's Angels and its rival, the Rock Machine. The conflict, now in its seventh year, has claimed more than 150 lives since 1994.
Car bombings and shootings have become so public and frequent that some in Canada are comparing the drug war to the October Crisis of 1970, when then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act against separatist terrorists in Quebec. Civil liberties were suspended and federal troops were sent into the streets of Montreal.
Earlier this month, a particularly high-profile noncombatant became a casualty: Michel Auger, an investigative reporter with the Journal de Montral, is recovering under police guard after being shot in the back five times in the parking lot of his newspaper.
Law enforcement officials appear helpless to stop the carnage. "A hundred fifty people dead in Quebec. No convictions. Who's winning this war?" asked Myron Thompson, a member of the opposition Alliance during an emergency debate on the
issue in the House of Commons Sept. 18.
Quebec officials are calling for strong legislative action from Ottawa. But other voices are calling for caution, lest civil liberties become another casualty. After all, they point out, the bad things gangs do are already illegal.
Police officials, such as Staff Sgt. Jean-Pierre Lvesque of the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada, an expert on biker gangs, are waiting to see any new legislative proposals before commenting on what new tools they feel they need.
Prime Minister Jean Chrtien's Liberal government has every reason to respond to public concern, however. He will be seeking a third mandate this spring, if not before, and he will need every vote he can get in Quebec. Antigang amendments to the criminal code last came in an election year, 1997. And so it is perhaps no surprise that his justice minister, Anne McLellan, has been saying, "If we need new laws in this country to break the back of organized crime, we will have those new laws."
But she has also called for caution in invoking the "notwithstanding clause" of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to suspend the right to freedom of association. "It is to be used in only the most extraordinary circumstances," Ms. McLellan said.
Organized crime has already been identified as Priority No. 1 by federal and provincial justice ministers. Indeed, the week Mr. Auger was shot, McLellan was meeting on the subject with her provincial colleagues in Iqaluit, Nunavut. All of Canada's provinces and territories must be involved if the criminal code is to be changed, and although "extensive consultations" are under way, says her spokeswoman, "we won't be rushed."