Quebec construction inquiry hears about Mafia corruption in Ontario

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL – A veteran Ontario detective has testified in a public inquiry that the Italian Mafia’s reach in that province extends to all kinds of legitimate businesses that mask criminal proceeds.

Mike Amato, a detective with the York Regional police, testified Thursday before the Quebec inquiry looking into allegations of corruption in the province’s construction industry.

Called to provide a portrait of the reach and scope of the Italian Mafia in Ontario, Amato described a group that, over the years, has managed to root itself deeply into everyday society.

The veteran officer says the modern-day Mafioso is dressed in business suits, works 9-to-5 hours and holds jobs ranging from banker, to accountant to bus driver.

“They think it’s a bunch of old guys smoking cigars, playing cards in a coffee shop, and that’s not the modern-day Mafia,” Amato told the Charbonneau Commission.

“They hold meetings in restaurants, they do not operate in the dark and they operate in the light amongst us.”

Amato said Mafia-controlled legitimate businesses in his region include everything from garden centres to financial institutions to banquet halls.

“They need these businesses to launder criminal proceeds,” Amato said. “It also allows them to explain their wealth … you can mask it in a business where you can hide your illegitimate wealth.”

Amato, who has worked for a quarter-century in law enforcement and the last six as an intelligence officer gathering information on the Mob, says many players have managed to legitimize themselves over time.

Amato said some of the young criminals police used to collar in their 20s have, decades later, transformed themselves into businessmen who operate a regular business.

Ontario boasts many of the hallmark Mob industries — smuggling, drug trafficking and bookmaking. Then there are more modern ones such as stock manipulation.

“As we evolve as a society, so too does organized crime,” Amato said.

“They are just sometimes a little bit quicker, better and faster at it than we are.”

What’s noticeable about Ontario, Amato says, is a lack of the same level of visible violence as has been seen in recent years in Quebec and witnesses who are willing to testify about it.

“If there is numerous murders, a lot of violence, if there are a lot of bombings, it attracts attention from politicians, from the community, from police,” Amato said.

“You cannot build a successful criminal enterprise if you’re continually being investigated by the police.”

Any tensions in that province have been mostly resolved quietly or away from the reach of law enforcement.

And in Ontario, that has meant it’s difficult to justify digging deeper, Amato says. Whereas a few dozen police officers may have investigated the Mob in the past, now there might be a handful.

The detective said the reach in Ontario extends to certain construction-related industries like trucking, home-building and excavation — and added that these businesses are difficult to compete against because they are infused with illegal cash.

“How can you compete against someone where it doesn’t matter if he turns a profit on the job,” said Amato.

Amato’s testimony followed reports this week by Radio-Canada and the Toronto Star that suggested the secretive Calabrian Mob sits atop the criminal food chain in Canada.

A former RCMP chief superintendent, Ben Soave, told both media organizations that organized crime has infiltrated Ontario’s economy at least as much as it has in Quebec.

That prompted Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to demand proof for such claims.

Amato did not directly address the report in his testimony on Thursday. He said that in terms of sheer numbers, the ‘Ndrangheta, or the Calabrian Mafia, is the strongest group in Ontario.

The Cosa Nostra, or Sicilian Mafia, also has some presence in Ontario and both groups tend to co-exist. To a lesser extent, the Camorra (originating from Naples) also has a presence in Ontario.

The Calabrian Mob is believed to have a strong influence in Ontario. The Sicilian Mafia, notably the Rizzuto family, is based out of Montreal.

Amato noted that Ontario and Quebec Mafia groups have tended to mainly co-exist. An RCMP investigation into the Quebec Mafia showed that in some instances, Ontario clans invested in Quebec schemes.

“They are not necessarily in competing markets but they both co-exist in markets they both enjoy, whether it’s drug trafficking, whether it’s gambling,” Amato said.

The inquiry resumes next Monday with more witnesses.