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.

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."

Biker gangs are a problem in Quebec as nowhere else. The current war stems from a Hell's Angels attempted takeover of the rival Rock Machine in 1994 at a time when the latter's leader was in jail pending extradition to the United States on drug charges. The Rock Machine refused the offer; a rash of car bombs and brutal executions broke out and hasn't stopped since.

The situation was intensified, says University of Montreal criminologist Pierre Tremblay, by the "botched prosecution" in the case of Maurice ("Mom") Boucher, on trial for conspiracy in the 1997 murders of two prison guards. Prosecutors relied too heavily on informants' testimony, Mr. Tremblay says, and the subsequent acquittal sent a "message of impunity" to the gangs.

Tremblay also suggests that part of the problem in Quebec is jurisdictional rivalry among law enforcement agencies, particularly between the Montreal police and the provincial force, the Sret du Quebec.

McLellan alluded to this last week: "If you don't have those forces working together sharing information, integrating their efforts, it doesn't matter what law you have on the books, it's simply not going to be effective."

The Hell's Angels are estimated to number about 250 full-fledged members across Canada, with 2,000 to 3,000 "associates." In western Canada, however, they behave differently from their Quebec counterparts.

"Some are criminally involved, but they don't commit crimes as a chapter," says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

But even there, Canada's Charter protections can make hard-nosed law enforcement difficult. Last month, Mr. Boyd testified in a case where a judge in Alberta ruled that that province's "zero tolerance" initiative against the Hell's Angels was a violation of members' Charter rights. The court found that police roadblocks, ostensibly intended to inspect their vehicles, were actually intended to impede the group's expansion and to gather intelligence on it.

In British Columbia, marijuana is typically cultivated indoors, but the favored modus operandi in Quebec is for growers to "squat" on the land of legitimate farmers, using razor wire to fence a long, thin strip of cornfield and relying on intimidation to keep landowners silent.

This is an important issue both for Parti Qubcois, who run the provincial government, and sister party Bloc Qubcois, opposition in Ottawa; both have a large rural constituency. At least two MPs who have spoken out against squatters have received death threats; one, Yvan Loubier, remains under 24-hour police protection, along with his family.

The 1997 changes to the criminal code take Canada down a path close to that followed by the United States with its RICO legislation: They help prosecutors get at the proceeds of crime, and while they don't ban membership per se in "criminal organizations," they do allow for stiffer sentences for those convicted of offenses committed as a member of a "criminal organization."

Since 1997, assets valued at $140 million have been seized by authorities Canada-wide.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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