Canada tries to rein in biker gang

A national surge in Hell's Angels membership spurs some provinces to respond with tougher laws and oversight.

From a distance, it looks much like any other warehouse situated within this industrial patch of Toronto. But its gothic sign and menacing sculpture of a winged skeleton head at the doorway are an emphatic proclamation: The Hell's Angels have arrived.

It's a dramatic evolution for Canada's most notorious outlaws. The biker gang, which once confined its criminal activities to a small part of the country, is morphing into a national force. Now, as Hell's Angels pockets spring up in Toronto, Winnipeg, and beyond, law-enforcement officials are trying to put the lid on things before the bloody biker wars of Quebec spill over into the rest of Canada.

"The bullets have started to fly across the country," says veteran biker investigator Guy Ouellette, now retired from the Quebec police force, who followed the gang's activities for more than a decade. "These guys are greedy. They're looking for a bigger piece of the pie. And they now want their flag in every province."

Members of the biker group deny that they promote violence - or that they are staging a turf war across the country. Many say they simply enjoy membership in the organization and do not circumvent the law.

But over the past decade, members of the Hell's Angels were locked in a violent turf war in Quebec with a rival biker group - the Rock Machine - for control of Quebec's billion-dollar drug trade. The death toll in the conflict, which has died down, has been staggering; 162 dead since 1994, including an 11-year-old boy who was hit by shrapnel. A local journalist was also gunned down in 2000 for an exposé he wrote on the group.

The death figures far outnumber those in the United States, according to the experts, largely because of the unparalleled gang wars of the past decade.

With a number of high-profile prosecutions under way in Quebec - on the heels of the conviction of Hell's Angels leader Maurice "Mom" Boucher last year - the gang has set its sights on national expansion.

More than a quarter of the world's 2,200 Hell's Angels members live in Canada, where they have 34 chapters. Their Canadian presence is eclipsed in terms of worldwide membership only by the US's 60 chapters.

While the gang's Canadian tentacles now stretch from the waterfront in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the western ports of Vancouver, its most rapid growth has been in Ontario. The richest and most populous province in Canada, Ontario had no members three years ago, but is now home to 40 percent of the gang's Canadian membership, or 270 bikers.

Julian Sher, coauthor of a new book on biker gangs, says poor police work and infighting, combined with a weak justice system, have contributed to the unfettered violence and growth of the organization.

He says the Canadian Hell's Angels are far more organized than those in the United States. "In the States there is still this myth of the easy rider. They're the bad boys, the rogues who might drink too much booze, but not organized criminals," Mr. Sher says. "In Canada, they are now recognized as not only criminal, but as the only national organized crime group in the country."

A bid to improve their image

In Ontario, the Hell's Angels have been trying to fight this image, engaging in a public-relations war in the wake of more than 10 years of bad publicity in Quebec. They've donated money to local children's charities and had their pictures taken shaking the hands of local politicians.

Donny Petersen, Ontario spokesman for the Hell's Angels, says he's a typical member. "I'm 56 years old and I've been a biker for most of my life. And I don't have a criminal record. I think that tells you everything you need to know," Mr. Petersen says, "We don't engage in violence. That just boggles my mind that people think we do."

But Detective Sgt. Scott Mills of the Ontario Provincial Police says the Hell's Angels are remaking themselves in a bid to protect several billion dollars in illicit profits from drugs, pornography, and prostitution. "These guys look more like bankers than bikers these days," he says. "They're constantly evolving, trying to protect their franchise."

Provincial police have recently banded together in a bid to stem the rapid advance of the Hell's Angels franchise. Hoping to thwart the kind of bloodletting that Quebec saw, 18 law- enforcement units have united to combat motorcycle gangs.

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, where new Hell's Angels chapters are also assembling, the official mood has been decidedly more confrontational. Since 2001, there have been more than dozen gang-related attempted murders, and three unsolved murders said to be linked to the Angels.

Tough antigang laws

Manitoba has reacted by passing the toughest antigang laws in the country, designed to stop gang members from operating retail stores and wearing gang colors in bars. Nearly three weeks ago, the government also proposed new legislation, expected to pass, that would strip gang members of their assets even if they were not convicted of an offense.

Manitoba Justice Minister Gordon Mackintosh makes no apologies for what his government is doing. "Our approach is to help create a hostile environment for organized crime in this province," Mr. Mackintosh says.

At the federal level, Ottawa enacted Bill C-24 about a year ago to give police and prosecutors powers to crack down on organized crime. These include meting out heftier sentences for those convicted, and stronger protection for witnesses and jurors. Police also have new powers to commit crimes, such as purchasing drugs, during undercover operations.

Sher welcomes these measures. "This is not a Hollywood movie where the good guys win," he says. "We don't know who is going to win overall. We should all be concerned."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.