Northern Connection: Inside Canada’s Deadliest Mafia Family
By Peter Edwards
Montreal, QC: Optimum Publishing International, 2006
During the 1970s, a Quebec government inquiry into organized crime discovered that companies linked to Montreal’s powerful Italian Mafia were supplying meat to the city’s world’s fair held in 1967. The probe also found that most of the wieners and burgers sold to the Expo concessionaires – 400,000 pounds to be exact – was unfit for human consumption. A butcher who worked at one of the Mafia-controlled meat suppliers provided the inquiry with his recipe for a batch of hamburger patties: 20 pounds of turkey giblets, 40 pounds of beef, 60 pounds of horsemeat and seven or eight pounds of protein. He also admitted that some of the meat had been “recycled” from waste supplied by a local abattoir.
As unflattering as this may sound, this is perhaps the best analogy that I can use to describe Peter Edwards 2006 book, Northern Connection: Inside Canada’s Deadliest Mafia Family. For not unlike the hamburgers and hot dogs fed to unsuspecting consumers at the 1967 World Exposition, the book’s contents are for the most part recycled word-for-word from Edwards’ 1990 book Blood Brothers: How Canada’s Most Powerful Mafia Family Runs its Business (save for a few extra chapters at the end to bring the Montreal Mafia’s saga up to date).
This is not to deprive the new publication of the deserving sobriquet of the most authoritative read on the Cotroni crime group, which for decades was the vortex around which the winds of the Montreal crime world swirled. Nor is such an unappealing analogy meant as a criticism of Peter Edwards, an engaging writer who has created an enjoyable and informative look at the post-war history of the Mafia in Quebec. Edwards, a long-time reporter with the Toronto Star, not only offers up biographies of such central organized crime figures as the Montreal Mafia patriarch Vincenzo (Vic) Cotroni, his successor Paolo Violi, and his eventual successor Vito Rizzuto, but he also sheds some light into the unique characteristics of the Montreal Mafia (which was once called an “exceptional” mixture of Calabrian and Sicilian gangsters that was rare in the U.S. and non-existent in Italy).
Like the post-war history of the Italian Mafia in Quebec, the book can be broken down into three parts. The first part follows the early life and criminal career of Vic Cotroni and then delves into the criminal empire he helped build. Edwards contextualizes this biographical account with details on the fertile conditions within Montreal that gave rise to the city’s vast criminal underworld, as well as the instrumental role played by the New York Mafia families, and the Bonanno family in particular, in consolidating Montreal’s rackets under the tutelage of Cotroni. The second part chronicles the glory years of the Cotroni clan – the 1950s and 1960s – in which it made millions from heroin trafficking, gambling, extortion and numerous other illegal and semi-legal activities. The second part ends with the twilight of Cotroni’s leadership, and the meteoric rise (and equally rapid fall) of his ambitious Calabrian lieutenant and archetypical Mafiosi, Paolo Violi. The third part of the book, which makes up the new chapters, documents the reconstituted Montreal Mafia following the violent coup d’état engineered by Nicolò (Nick) Rizzuto, the estranged leader of the Sicilian faction of the Montreal Mafia, who would quickly bequeath control to his son Vito. The book is recent enough to include details on the 2004 arrest of Vito Rizzuto, who at the time of this publication is currently in jail in the United States awaiting a trial on murder charges, although it is not recent enough to document the November 2006 police raids against the Montreal Mafia that led to the arrest of 70 people, including 82-year old Nick Rizzuto.
Like most books on organized crime written by journalists, Edwards’s text is long on description, but short on analysis. Noticeably absent is a thorough exploration of the philosophy, behaviour, and, indeed, way of life that constitutes the complex phenomenon that is the Italian Mafia. This is particularly regrettable given that Edwards had access to hundreds of pages of public reports issued by the aforementioned government inquiry that meticulously transcribes police recordings of Paolo Violi’s conversations with other Mafiosis from Canada, the United States, and Italy, which are a gold mine of information for any researcher interested in the Mafia’s twisted conception of honour and respect. With that said, Edwards does provide a must read for anyone who wishes to delve into this significant part of Canadian organized crime history.
Saint Mary’s University