The history of organized crime in Canada revolves around a few major markets and families; for Listed this week, in conjunction with our Boardwalk Empire Blu-ray giveaway, we present a beginner’s guide to the made men (and one woman) of the Canadian mafia.
7. Johnny “Pops” Papalia
By most accounts Papalia was not one for making friends, and grew increasingly weary of outsiders as he aged. Lacking the literal and symbolic support of a successor, in May of 1997 he was fatally shot at his home in a hit ordered by the rival Mustinano family.
6. Nicolo “Nick” Rizzuto ??
Sicilian-born Nicolo Rizzuto was already pushing 30 when he settled in Montreal. Blood relatives and a stacked mafia rolodex made his integration into North American crime a cinch and by the late ‘70s Rizzuto’s operation had forced out the reigning Contronis (see below) and taken over the drug trade.
Rizzuto didn’t become known to the majority of Canadians until his empire began to crumble. In 2006 the 82-year-old was arrested in the massive Operation Colisée (“Coliseum”) for a laundry list of crimes, but authorities could only convict him of tax evasion and he received no prison time. This, coupled with his son and current organization boss Vito’s incarceration for murder, set off a territorial war he was not fit to match.
In 2010 Rizzuto was fatally shot by a sniper through a window in his mansion, essentially eroding whatever power his empire had left.
5. Vincenzo “The Egg” Cotroni
From the 1940s to its collapse at the foot of Nicolo Rizzuto, the Cotroni family conducted all manner of criminal activity, controlling a huge amount of territory in Quebec and Ontario. ??
Vic Cotroni was the son of law-abiding immigrants, and in his youth worked professionally as a carpenter and wrestler. In the mid ‘40s he began purchasing bars and cafés for the purposes of hosting illegal gambling dens. He was soon taken under the wing of New York boss Joseph Bonanno, and their operation flourished for the next several decades.
By 1970 a war between Cotroni and rival boss Nick Rizzuto had broken out, culminating in the murder of Bonanno lieutenant Paolo Violi and several members of Violi’s family and inner circle. Cotroni eventually ceded territorial control, dying of cancer in 1984.
4. + 3. Michele “Mike the Baker” Racco and Domenic Racco
Italian immigrant Mike Racco was the Vito Corleone of Canadian organized crime, a relatively moral man engaged in horrible crime. Within the limited moral boundaries of his profession, he tried to keep hold of an extortion and gambling racket far from gunplay and drug trafficking, and kept a combination ice cream shop and bakery as his business front. He also kept a close eye on the organized principles of the mafia, playing a large role in the creation of the Siderno Group, an affiliation of gangs with ethnic ties to the small coastal town of Siderno, Italy. ?
His son Domenic (pictured above) was, however, a man with no moral compass and a host of bad appetites, including cocaine addiction. After surviving an assassination plot from the Musitano family (from which the conspirators were actually convicted) he died of a heart attack in 1995 at age 57. ?
2. + 1. Rocco Perri and Besha “Bessie” Starkman
While the real-life men of Boardwalk Empire were pulling Canadian Club over the border, Rocco Perri was their connection. The Calabrian gangster dominated the bootlegging trade through the aid of local distilleries and his ruthlessly intelligent wife Besha “Bessie” Perri (née Starkman.)
The Perri bootlegging operation began before the 1920s, when temperance movements began applying pressure on provinces to enact their own prohibition laws. Most of these laws were repealed by 1925, and they were much looser than those south of the border, which would remain in place until 1933; Ontario did not actively close wineries or most distilleries even during the height of anti-alcohol legislation.
??One of the towering female figures in organized crime history, Besha Starkman was known as a restless, ambitious woman. In 1916 she abandoned her family in Toronto to live with Perri in St. Catharines; by 1920 she was his head of operations, with a characteristic sense of defiance that may have led to her demise. In 1930 she was ambushed and shot in a parking garage, and though no one was ever tried for the crime, whispers of her refusal to pay dues to American mobsters has been cited as a motive.
Fourteen years later Rocco disappeared. Though many believed his remains were thrown into Burlington Bay, no trace of the infamous bootlegger was ever found. ?
Check out our other article about how the Mafia Built Las Vegas.