If police really want to end the gang war raging throughout the Lower Mainland, they might want to have a sit-down with the Hell's Angels.
That is one of the more provocative suggestions by criminologist Stephen Schneider, who has written a new book called Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada.
"The most powerful criminal group in B.C. is probably the Hell's Angels," Schneider said. "They have a lot of ties to the United Nations gang, so they could possibly step in and end the violence."
Born and raised in Richmond, Schneider now teaches criminology at St. Mary's University in Halifax. He went to Steveston secondary. His parents, Werner and Shirley, still live in Richmond.
In an interview with the News, Schneider said organized crime has deep roots in Canada -- largely tied to smuggling -- and is not going to go away.
"If you are going to outlaw certain vices and certain substances that are in high demand -- like cocaine or marijuana -- you're going to have organized crime, and you're going to get violence. And you just have accept this is the reality."
Not that Schneider believes legalizing drugs is necessarily the answer. But neither is what he calls "ad hoc, piecemeal" laws like the Conservative government's new crime bill, which includes minimum sentences for some crimes.
For one thing, punitive measures don't have much of a deterrent on the lower echelon criminals who carry out the grunt work for organized crime, largely due to their upbringing. "It may deter you and me, but it is not going to deter the chronic offender," he said.
The biggest impact of the crime bill may be on prosecutors. "The prosecutorial services are just completely overwhelmed," he said. "By bringing in minimum sentencing, what you've done is create even more work for the prosecutors."
Richmond has been spared the recent spate of gang slayings, although it still has a significant organized crime presence, Schneider said.
The gangs here are largely Asian -- not surprising, given its demographics, he added.
Schneider said he is surprised by all the "hand-wringing" over the recent spate of gang-related shootings in the Lower Mainland.
The public is reacting like this is something new, when in fact gang wars have been erupting in Canada for the last couple of decades, he said. "It was ignored and downplayed by police officials and politicians for years, and now it's caught up to us and sort of bit us on the ass," he said. "Now we're dealing with the aftermath of a lot of neglect."
Schneider said there has been more gangland violence in the last 20 years than any other period in our history.
He blames the recent trend, in part, on a rising "underclass" that has produced a generation of young men coming from poverty and broken homes who are easily drawn into the criminal lifestyle.
He said the few countries that have had success fighting organized crime are countries like Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which have put resources into addressing the root causes of crime. "They're fairly crime-free because they have such a strong social welfare system."
Schneider has studied the roots of organized crime in Canada and found they go back as far as the 17th century, when pirates operated of the Atlantic coast.
The one constant in organized crime here is smuggling.
Canada was the back door for smuggling booze into the U.S. during prohibition. And whereas today B.C. is famous for its marijuana, at the turn of the century B.C. was famous for producing opium.
With three vast coastlines to police, Schneider said Canada simply does not have the resources to stop the smuggling of drugs, or any other contraband, that fuels organized crime.
He concedes there may be some legitimacy to the criticism -- the U.S. being our harshest critics -- that Canadian laws and immigration policies are too lax and help fuel the drug trade that is the bread and butter for organized crime.
"I do believe that the lenient prosecution of marijuana traffickers may help the proliferation of the industry," he said. "But on the converse of that, there's no evidence whatsoever that strong punitive penalties have any impact on organized crime. If that were the case, then China and the United States and Russia would be the most crime-free countries in the world and they're not."
If there is any hope of ending the current gang war in B.C., it may come -- ironically enough -- from organized crime itself. "Quite frankly, law enforcement is quite limited in what they can do," Schneider said.
Gang wars draw a lot of heat, and sometimes prompt the more powerful organized crime leaders to step in because it is bad for business.
In the 1990s, a biker war in Quebec resulted in 160 deaths.
Schneider said it is widely believed that it was Montreal Mafia boss -- Vito Rizzuto -- who stepped in and helped put a stop to the killings. And in the 1980s, Schneider said it is believed some high-powered crime bosses from China intervened in a gang war raging in Vancouver among Asian gangs.
He said the Hell's Angels may well be the organization best position to put a stop to the blood feud going on.
He believes B.C. has been spared the kind of biker wars Quebec has suffered because the Hell's Angels are in control here. "There was never any biker war in B.C. because the Hell's Angels were the only biker gang in town. They controlled everything."
Thanks to Nelson Bennett
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