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Ontario must root out the Mafia in its midst

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Quebecers have been getting daily lessons in how deeply organized crime has become embedded in their province's construction industry. At the Charbonneau commission hearings into the industry, they've heard allegations that the Mafia routinely took a cut of municipal contracts. Even the mayor of Montreal has been tarnished by testimony that kickbacks were paid to his party.

The scandal threatens to spread throughout the province -- and possibly to Ottawa.

Ontarians watching this unseemly spectacle should not be complacent -- especially those tempted to assume that Quebec is somehow more prone than other provinces to this sort of thing. The evidence is quickly mounting that we have a bigger problem than we thought right under our own noses.

At the Quebec inquiry, a police Mafia expert let it drop that Peel Regional Police may be investigating government contracts awarded to organized crime groups. More disturbing still, an ongoing investigation by the Star and Radio-Canada finds that police here and in Italy are concerned that Ontario has become a haven -- a comfortable "penal colony," according to some -- for alleged Italian crime figures associated with the Calabrian syndicate known as the 'Ndrangheta. Senior RCMP investigators and Mafia hunters in Italy tell Star reporters that the 'Ndrangheta uses the province as a major base for money laundering and, possibly, political corruption.

That's certainly alarming. But it also appears that Canadian and Italian police are stuck in a pattern of finger-pointing and mutual distrust that has let this situation fester for far too long. The Italians complain they have sent information about wanted criminals who have taken refuge in Canada, but get no action from Canadian police.

The Canadians, in turn, say they can't act on charges under Italy's sweeping law forbidding "Mafia association," but need evidence of specific crimes under Canadian law.

Italy has been fighting the Mafia under its various guises for generations, so it's understandable that it has special laws targeting those linked to these outfits.

Canada isn't about to go down that path, but it could do better with the laws already on the books. The Canadian law on criminal organizations has been used against biker gangs, but not against Mafia groups. That should change.

Police forces also need to keep their focus on the Mafia. Kevin Harrison, superintendent of the RCMP's Combined Special Forces Enforcement Unit in Toronto, acknowledged to the Star's investigative team that at one point police let their attention drift away from what they officially call "traditional organized crime." Their intelligence got "stale," he said, and "it's a big hill to climb to get back to where we need to be."

That can't happen again, given the troubling new evidence of how pervasive mob influence may well be in this province.

At this point there's no smoking gun we know of in the form of evidence about specific crimes or corruption. But that should be cold comfort, given the pattern of events next door in Quebec.

For a long time, the crime headlines there were dominated by wars among rival biker gangs. But as testimony at the Charbonneau commission is showing, old-style Mafia groups were burrowing deeper into the life of the province and quite likely corrupting public officials. Ontario must not stand by and risk the same thing happening here.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2012 A10

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