“It was like the wild west.”
Private Investigator Robert Buellac describing the conditions of crime and law enforcement in Quebec in the late 1970s.
In a post titled Quebec 1977: Who was the Bootlace Killer, I presented information to suggest a possible connection between approximately 20 disappearances and unsolved murders in the province of Quebec in the late 1970s. Between 1975 and 1981 young women routinely went missing and turned up dead in rural and wooded areas. Many of them were straggled, raped and brutally beaten.
In the Winter of 1977, the Quebec tabloid, Allo Police reported that there had been 212 homicides in the province in 1976, 4 per week, with 1 in 4 of those crimes going unsolved by the police. Two years later the Sherbrooke Record proclaimed “Townships Crime worst in Quebec”. Statistics released by the Quebec Police Commission showed that the Eastern Townships had the highest rate of crime of any region in Quebec in 1978. The report noted that crimes against persons had “skyrocketed” in the region. The eleven Township municipalities having their own police forces collectively logged 377 crimes in the nature of homicides, rapes, sex crimes, armed robberies and other assaults in the year 1978. This was a 9% increase from the 345 crimes against persons reported in 1977. For those Township municipalities that did not have their own police forces – towns patrolled by the Quebec Police Forces (QPF) – the figures were even worse. The QPF showed a rise in violent crimes against persons from 87 in 1977 to 142 in 1978, a staggering increase of 63%. Raynald Gendron, the director of the police commission’s research and statistics division stated there was no accounting for the increase in crime.
Gendron’s statement is false and irresponsible. Though the specific actions that led to these crimes – and more pointedly to the murders and disappearances cited in the Bootlace Killer piece – are to this day unknown, the conditions which gave rise to this environment of disorder and lawlessness are familiar and well documented:
In the 1976 provincial election, the Parti Québécois was elected for the first time to form the government of Quebec. Regardless of where you sit on the argument of whether this was ultimately good or bad for the province, the original elected members of the Parti Québécois were academics, not managers. They were not well equipped with the tools of decision making, communication and leadership that were so greatly need in a time of social upheaval and change. The Quiet Revolution unfolded with the previous Liberal administration; the PQ government was not well positioned to manage it. Almost immediately the new party got down to the business of what is always most important in regime change: investigating the actions of the prior government. In 1977 René Lévesque launchds the Malouf Commission’s Public Inquiry into Jean Drapeau’s 1976 Montreal Olympics (and you thought Charbonneau was something new). The Commission was a huge time-suck on the new and inexperienced PQ government. While attending to grand spectacles like public inquiries, the Parti Québécois took its eye off the ball of the day-to-day aspects of governing like public safety, organized crime, and education; with education specifically coming home to roost in their indecision over granting a certain small Eastern Township CEGEP permission to build a new dormitory for their newly created college. Champlain college would continue to use their grossly inadequate facility in Compton, Quebec, resulting in disastrous consequences for students (as documented many times on this website).
Police Force Consolidation
After assuming power, the Parti Québécois began a project of consolidation that was merging smaller police forces under the umbrella of the Quebec Police Forces (QPF, and later the Surete du Quebec or “SQ”). In 1978, larger municipalities such as Sherbrooke and Magog were able to keep their forces in tact. By contrast, other towns such as Lennoxville and Brome were teetering on the brink of being swallowed up by the Provincial force. Still others such as Compton, Ayer’s Cliff and North Hatley had already succumbed to consolidation and lost their forces altogether. With consolidation came confusion. The QPF’s jurisdiction and responsibilities were growing at an accelerated pace. They were unfamiliar with the new territory and struggled to keep up adequate levels of service. The QPF force known as the Coaticook division had just eighteen men to cover over 2500 square miles, from Lake Memphremagog in the east to the New Hampshire border in the west, from the outskirts of Sherbrooke all the way South to the town of Stanstead on the Vermont border. The changes were confusing to both the police and public. For example, a short, two mile drive on route 143 – the main drag through Lennoxville -would take you through no less than three police jurisdictions – those of the Sherbrooke Municipal Police, the Coaticook division of the QPF, and the town police force of Lennoxville.
Similar problems were mirrored in cities like Montreal. Depending on where a crime took place in “Montreal”, the investigating force could be the Montreal police (SPVM), the provincial police (QPF / SQ), off-island police from Longueuil or Laval, or Federal investigators from the RCMP, or a combination of these forces! In the case of Katherine Hawkes, because the body was found at a CN train station, it was on federal land, so the RCMP took the lead, even though the Val Royal train station is squarely in the middle of the island of Montreal. The Hawkes case has been investigated largely in isolation from other Montreal crimes for over 37 years, more than likely a large contributor to why the case remains unsolved.
For as long as there have been motorcycles there have been biker gangs in Quebec, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the gangs became organized. Ganks like the Popeyes and the Devil’s Disciples were the forerunners of the Hells Angels in Quebec, with the first Hells chapter being formed in Sorel, Quebec in late 1977. In 1978, the newspapers were filled with tales of ‘Bébé’ Laverdière and the Black Spiders, who had full reign over the province.. Reports of drug killings, strangled go-go dancers, bodies of rival gang members turning up in local rivers anchored to wheel rims and cement blocks where weekly events. In 1978 the SQ stated that the biker problem was their number one priority. As documented by Paul Cherry in The Gazette, the disruption and chaos caused by conflicting biker factions continued for a decade until the Lennoxille Massacre in 1985; the violent murder of five Laval Hells members which ultimately lead to a period of relative quite and consolidation in Quebec biker culture. Almost 20 years and a biker war later we would learn what we had always suspected: that the relationship between police, the government and organized crime in Quebec was compromised, and that all parties had a long history of working together.
The Cotroni crime family was a Mafia organization based in Montreal with strong ties to the Bonanno crime family in New York. From the 1950s through to the mid-1970s the Cotroni family controlled the Montreal drug trade, led by the family boss, Vic Cotroni. By 1975 Vic Cotroni was ailing in health, and operations were turned over the the family heir to the throne, Paolo Violi. In January 1978, Violi was assassinated. Eventually, Vic’s younger brother, Frank would take control of organized crime in Montreal, but that wasn’t until the Spring of 1979 when Frank Cotroni was paroled from a U.S. penitentiary. For almost a year-and-a-half there was a virtual power vacuum in organized crime in Quebec.
Disorganization in organized crime, gang culture and the government; this was the environment in the late 1970s in which the murders of Sharron Prior, Denise Bazinet, Helene Monast, Louise Camirand, Jocelyne Houle, Johanne Dorion, Katherine Hawkes, Claudette Poirier, Chantal Tremblay, Manon Dube and Theresa Allore occured.
Do these cases remain unsolved due to conspiracy or incompetence, a culture of indifference and compromise? We do not know.
But consider the following cartoon from a 1975 edition of Photo Police:
(PHOTO REMOVED AT REQUEST OF PUBLISHER)
Further consider that at least two of the victims mentioned above had been violated by blunt objects. Now consider what the cartoon actually suggests: Not only was rape an accepted cultural norm in Quebec society in the 1970s, it was invited, considered humorous, and suggestively practiced by the very agents elected to protect citizens from harm and victimization.
(All photos are the property/used courtesy of Allo Police/Section Rouge Média Inc.)