Ontario detective talks mafia, Quebec listens

Mike Amato gave the Charbonneau Commission a history lesson on the mob, from 1911 to today
A woman walks by a sign pointing towards a security checkpoint in Montreal, Monday, June 4, 2012 at a Quebec inquiry looking into allegations of corruption in the province’s construction industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Mike Amato looks every bit like the cop he is: big, broad-shouldered, bullet-headed, with a near-palpable unease with sitting behind a desk and being asked questions. Yet for two hours Amato did just this, as the 25-year-veteran of the York Regional Police testified for the so-called Charbonneau Commission, the Quebec government’s investigation into corruption within the province’s construction industry. Amato, who has spent the last 15 years working in York’s organized crime division, was the second expert to outline the broad strokes of the mafia’s reach and power in Italy and abroad—and the first to offer context and comparison with Quebec’s perpetual sparring partner that is Ontario. Yet anyone wanting to know whether one province is more mobbed up than the other—and there are certainly those who want to do just that—was left guessing with his testimony.

Thankfully, Amato was clear-eyed enough to provide analysis of Ontario’s mafia, not opinion on the perpetual pissing match between the two provinces. He said the first instances of the mafia’s presence in Ontario date back to 1911 in a report prepared for the City of Toronto, in which a shopkeeper killed a man; he did so, he told police after, because the man was collecting protection money from him and, as Amato put it, was “worried about his safety and that of his family in Italy.” The man was acquitted of killing a member of the mafia.

Today’s mafia is a very different beast than in the early 1900s when, as Amato noted, mobbed-up types were stealing cattle along with threatening lowly shopkeepers into buying protection. It is a modern and rather open mafia that has replaced the Godfather-style version of the mob, with “a bunch of old guys sitting around smoking cigars and playing cards,” as Amato put it. Mobsters now wear suits, work nine-to-five, and have legitimate jobs. They donate to charity. They are keenly self-aware and worried about their self-image.  “There are people who have criminal records, they’re suspects in murders, who are great soccer coaches for kids,” Amato said. And as constrained as it may be by blood lines, the Mafia has nonetheless become a franchise of sorts stemming from Italy to Canada, the U.S. and beyond. “This is an organization that is as wealthy as the Rothchilds. They know they don’t have to meet at someone’s house anymore. If they want to they can buy a first class ticket to Geneva and talk there,” Amato said, adding, “As a police officer it is very difficult to follow this.”

Ontario Mafioso is discreet, near-silent, and willing to cooperate with fellow families and cartels in the interests of making money and keeping out of the public eye. “They operate with no conflict because that means we don’t investigate them,” Amato says. “In Quebec and Ontario, they co-exist in markets, whether it’s drugs or gambling. It’s better to share and co-exist.”

Amato was relatively mum on the hot-button topic of the week: whether Ontario’s construction industry was as mobbed up as Quebec’s. “There are persons we are aware of that are in the construction industry,” he said, rather obliquely. “They’re in trucking, excavation. They are home builders.” Certainly, though, Ontario’s construction industry is as sweet a plum as it is anywhere else, for one simple reason: it is a capital-intensive industry where oodles of cash can be scrubbed. “They’ll be in any business where thy can earn money,” he said. A Mafioso can sink the $2 million he made selling coke into a construction company and undercut legitimate business because he cares less about profit than he does about making his dirty money clean again. “How can you compete against someone who doesn’t care about making a profit?”

The commission is off tomorrow and resumes Monday with a promise of more interesting witnesses.