by Wyatt Fine-Gagné

At the corner of Rue Jarry and Rue des Forges, in the north-end of Montreal, there is a small plaza. At first glance, it appears fairly ordinary–there are several independent shops, a karaoke bar, a couple of cafés, and a Uniprix. The area is close to the highway, but quiet enough so that there are only a few intersections with traffic lights nearby. Despite its unremarkable appearance, the plaza was once home to the Consenza Social Club, the former headquarters of the Rizzuto crime family and a known hangout for Montreal mobsters.

For decades, the Rizzutos have been Canada’s most prominent crime family, but a number of deaths and arrests over the past several years has led to a decline in the family’s power. A number of reporters and members of the public have labelled this decline the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. With this shift, the Rizzutos have left a legacy as perhaps the most famous crime family in Canadian history.

Much like the plaza, there is nothing about Montreal that makes it look or feel distinctly like a city with deep ties to organized crime. It is difficult to say why Montreal became such a hub for these activities; however, its roots stem from the mid-20th century, when Montreal was growing rapidly, making it a natural landing spot for recent immigrants from Europe. Its close proximity to New York, where the mafia was already established, and its shipping port—which provides easy access to international markets—may have also been factors, but it’s impossible to point to one as the sole cause.

Perhaps part of the reason that Montreal does not seem like a natural fit for organized crime is that our vision of that world is partially shaped by films and other entertainment. The death of the former head of the Rizzuto family, Vito Rizzuto, in 2013 was quiet, with Rizzuto passing away in Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur Hospital a day after being admitted with pulmonary problems. There has been no shortage of violent ends in Montreal’s underworld, but those deaths seem discreet and clean when propped up against the type of murder taking place in Scarface. In contrast to the actors of the film, Vito Rizzuto was known for keeping a low profile, dealing primarily with close, trusted associates as head of the family. He was also an impressive negotiator, creating strategic partnerships with other criminal organizations such as the Hell’s Angels. His death came just a few years after the assassinations of both his father and son, and left many asking what would become of the Rizzuto dynasty.

“You’re not only burying an individual, you’re burying a Mafia leader, but also, in many ways, you’re putting to bed a dynasty.”

“You’re not only burying an individual, you’re burying a Mafia leader, but also, in many ways, you’re putting to bed a dynasty,” Julian Sher, a senior producer of the investigative television program The Fifth Estate, told the CBC in 2013. “The big question everyone inside the Mafia, the public, and the police are asking themselves is, ‘Who comes next and will there ever be someone of that power and stature in the future?’”

When Nicolo Rizzuto Sr. and his family arrived in Halifax from Sicily in 1954 aboard the MS Vulcania, the Montreal mafia was already operating. After immigrating with his family to Montreal from Calabria, Italy, Vincenzo Cotroni established Montreal’s first syndicate in the 1940s. By the 1950s, the operation had developed into an important branch of the Bonanno family–a powerful New York City mafia with Sicilian ties.

Rizzuto Sr. began his career in the mafia as an associate of the Cotroni family, forming a crew by way of his roots, and getting help from relatives and associates with ties to Sicily. Rizzuto Sr. was often closely linked to the Sicilian Mafia and did not care for the traditional system of command within the Calabrian Cotroni family. This became a source of tension, and before long, a war broke out between the Calabrian and Sicilian factions of the Montreal mafia.

“He is going from one side to the other, here and there, he says nothing to nobody, he is doing business and nobody knows anything,” Paolo Violi said in 1976, which was documented in the Commission du police du Quebec report, “Enquête sur le crime organisé,” Montreal 1976. Violi succeeded Vic Cotroni as the family boss of the Cotroni family in the 1970s, and was clearly unhappy with the independence of Rizzuto Sr.’s Sicilian faction. The Bonanno family sent representatives to Montreal to try to settle the issue, but nothing could be resolved. Thanks in part to its Sicilian background, the Bonanno family ultimately sided with Rizzuto Sr., giving him approval to try to end the dispute.

War between the Sicilian and Calabrian factions broke out in 1976 with the Rizzuto family orchestrating the murder of one of Violi’s advisors, Pietro Sciara. A year later, two Rizzuto gunmen shot and killed one of Violi’s brothers, Francesco. Violi clearly had a target on his back as well, but a brief stint in jail granted him a bit of safety. In 1978, shortly after his release, however, Violi was murdered. He was shot in the head at close range while playing cards in a café owned by Sicilians. Rizzuto Sr. was alleged to have participated in some form.

In 1980, Calabrians were destroyed. Rocco Violi, Paolo’s last brother, was shot by a sniper rifle while sitting down to dinner with his family, effectively ending the war. The Rizzutos were now Montreal’s foremost crime family, overseeing drug trafficking, illegal gambling, money laundering, contract killings, and more. It was around this time that Rizzuto Sr. handed over the family business to his son Vito.

Until his death, Vito oversaw an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But the family’s foundation had been shaken even in the years prior to Vito’s passing. In 2009, Vito’s son Nick Rizzuto Jr. was gunned down in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood. Agostino Cuntrera, widely seen as Vito’s successor, was murdered in broad daylight less than a year after Rizzuto Jr.’s death. Finally, five months after Cuntrera was killed, Nicolo Rizzuto Sr. was assassinated while eating dinner with his daughter and wife.

In a span of less than two years, the Rizzuto family’s past and future were dealt serious blows. The decade leading up to these murders, however, had been far from easy for the family thanks to a series of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigations and legal battles.

In 1981, Vito Rizzuto took a trip to New York City, which police believe represented his formal induction into the Bonanno crime organization. The purpose of the trip was to allegedly aid the Bonannos with the murder of three of the family’s captains who were suspected of being disloyal. Rizzuto was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in 2004 following a police crackdown on the mafia in New York. U.S. officials pushed hard for Rizzuto to be extradited, but his team of lawyers claimed the statute of limitations for the alleged crimes had expired. Despite an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, Rizzuto was eventually extradited and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His arrest was a major hit to the family business, and it forced Rizzuto Sr. to acquire a bigger role in the operation.

Around the same time, the RCMP was beginning to make arrests and lay charges using evidence gathered in “Operation Colisée,” a four-year investigation consisting of millions of hours of taped conversations between high-ranking Mafia members. Authorities laid hundreds of charges against Rizzuto family members and their associates, but Rizzuto Sr. managed to escape without serving any jail time. With millions in assets seized, however, there was clearly significant damage done, made all the worse by Vito’s absence due to his own legal troubles.

Perhaps the most famous thing to emerge from “Operation Colisée” was the Charbonneau Commission. The Commission revealed significant corruption in Quebec’s construction industry and led to the resignation of both Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay and his successor Michael Applebaum. It also offered a glimpse of how far the Rizzutos’ reach extended. The heads of nearly every major construction company in the province were connected to the family, with many spending ample time at the Consenza Social Club. For example, Nicolo Milioto—former President of Mivela Construction—was seen at the café 236 times during “Operation Colisée,” often exchanging money with Rizzuto family members or associates.

Vito Rizzuto’s death did not mean that the Mafia enterprise simply stopped. Despite Montreal’s Mafia lacking a true ‘Godfather,’ most operations have continued unchanged. What is clear, however, is that the power structure in the Montreal underworld is currently in flux.

“To have [Vito] now permanently removed from the underworld, the crime landscape, it’ll just open up the floodgates to everyone jockeying for positions,” Adrian Humphreys, author of The Sixth Family, which describes the rise of Vito Rizzuto, told the CBC.

When Vito was freed from jail in 2012, he returned to a drastically different landscape than the one he’d left behind. Though there are remaining Rizzuto family supporters, Vito’s death marked the end of an era. What comes next is unclear. particularly because this is the point in mafia films when the screen goes dark and the credits roll. Whatever does happen, this much is apparent: It is going to take a lot to replace the Rizzutos as Canada’s ‘First Criminal Family.’