Last month’s violence involving motorcycle gangs in Texas — where a brawl begat a firefight killing nine — is a sharp reminder of the unpredictable core of outlaw biker life.
The intense coverage of the incident, with the gritty, telegenic pageantry of the bikers, brought motorcycle gangs into the spotlight in the United States like little else before but it is something Canadians are grimly accustomed to.
Canada already had its “Waco moment” — several, in fact — that roused the public, police and politicians, shifting the biker gang image from freewheeling brotherhood of rogues towards that of a criminal cult: such as a purge in 2006 that killed eight members of an Ontario club and a war in Quebec by the Hells Angels offering a staccato of Waco-like moments as bombs and bullets killed 160 people.
While outlaw biker clubs in Canada have avoided those kinds of headlines recently, their landscape has shifted dramatically: Allegiances changing, new clubs starting, others collapsing.
Police monitor so-called “1%” clubs, a term emerging decades ago after a claim that 99 per cent of motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens. Outlaw clubs declared they were the one per cent who weren’t.
The 1% clubs are “organized crime that advertises. They wear a neon sign on their back advertising who they are,” says OPP Det.-Staff Sgt. Len Isnor, officer in charge of Ontario’s Biker Enforcement Unit.
“Their bread and butter is the patch on their backs,” says RCMP Sgt. Randy Mortensen, sergeant-in-charge of B.C.’s Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Unit. Court cases document the use of a patch — called a club’s “colours” — in murders, extortions, thefts, threats, witness tampering, drug trafficking, even charging a tax from other criminals to operate.
Police watch them carefully but nowhere are the changes likely tracked more fastidiously than in the clubhouses of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
From its base in California the Angels reach around the world and, in Canada, is the dominant club by a wide margin. It currently boasts 31 active chapters here with close to 400 members on the streets.
That dominance does not mean a monopoly.
Today, the Angels face more competition than they have in years.
In recent months alone, notorious biker clubs from Europe, the United States and Australia — all strong, international organizations with a history of violence and crime — have each established new chapters in Canada. Each region has its own story of acquiescence and acrimony.
This spring, as riding season began, Satudarah Motorcycle Club, a Dutch-based group with a violent reputation in Europe, unveiled a surprise Canadian chapter in Toronto.
Satudarah offer a twist, being an overtly bi-racial group. (The dominant 1% clubs are vastly white.) The racial mix is reflected in its logo: a black and a white warrior, back to back wearing the same headdress.
Despite the progressive policy, Satudarah cause concern for police because of their reputation for violence. Since their 1990 launch in the Netherlands, tension between the Satudarah and the Angels has been widely reported in Europe. For now, the Toronto chapter has kept such a low profile, though, police are yet to document patches in public.
“It is a concern of ours. They are rivals of the Hells Angels so, if they are here, we’re certainly going to pay attention to that,” Isnor says.
There is more rumbling in Ontario.
On Nov. 8, 2014, three chapters of the Red Devils — formed in 1948 in Hamilton, making it the oldest in Canada — patched over to join the Bacchus Motorcycle Club. Overnight, it became the second largest in Canada, with nine chapters and about 100 members.
The switch followed a year of intrigue.
For years the Hells Angels kept their international support club, also called the Red Devils, out of Canada, likely in respect of the older brand. The original Red Devils, however, grew close with Bacchus and members of the two Canadian clubs wore a patch celebrating their “shared brotherhood.”
It is likely the Angels took that to mean the Red Devils were no longer a neutral club and in response unleashed their own Red Devils brand, first seen in Ottawa in 2014. Soon after, the original club merged with Bacchus.
Bacchus was once aligned with the Angels but is now seen as a rival, though police don’t expect a direct challenge.
“It’d be like a row boat going up against a battleship,” Isnor says.
A sign of acquiescence came in March: Bacchus switched the “bottom rocker” on their jackets from “Ontario” to “Canada,” likely to avoid conflict with the Angels who claim the exclusive right to have a province written on their backs.
Other clubs do the same.
The Rebels Motorcycle Club, the largest club in Australia with chapters in Europe and the United States, formed three chapters in Canada last summer: in Stratford, Ont., the Vancouver area and Edmonton.
The Vagos Motorcycle Club — one of the fastest growing outlaw clubs south of the border — formed a chapter in Peterborough in 2012. In February there was a schism, with some members defecting to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The former Vagos may even have formed a new Outlaws chapter.
The presence of Outlaws — a large, international club from the United States and the Angels’ oldest rivals — is always aggravating for the larger club.
“There is only one real competitor to the Hells Angels in terms of outlaw motorcycle gangs in Canada and that’s the Outlaws,” Isnor says. “They don’t like each other. They don’t respect each other. And on a worldwide basis they are at each other’s throats.”
The Outlaws recently merged three of its Toronto chapters into one as part of its reorganization, police say.
As for the Hells Angels in Ontario, it crept to 14 chapters, although one, Thunder Bay, is currently frozen after too many members were arrested.
Quebec epitomized biker club danger in the 1990s during the Hells Angels’ deadly war with the Rock Machine and the Bandidos, until a series of police operations saw almost every Angel in the province arrested.
All of the Angels’ Quebec chapters were frozen because rules require six members on the street.
Operation SharQc in 2009 led to guilty pleas from 101 of those arrested. Another 10 Angels have their mega trial scheduled to begin in August. The process has taken so long that many who accepted quick guilty pleas are trickling out of prison.
One chapter, Montreal, has reopened. Others are close.
Meanwhile, members of numerous biker clubs affiliated with the Angels are parading their colours. The list is long, including Dark Souls’, Devils Ghosts and Devils Warriors.
They suggest not competition for the Angels, but rejuvenation.
It is seen as a clever way to reboot an organization tarnished by the war: Have people wearing other patches do any dirty work and then, maybe, the best of them will become Hells Angels.
More than anywhere else, in British Columbia the Hells Angels are entrenched, stable and dominant.
They arrived in B.C. in 1983, forming four chapters and then adding five more, the most recent, the West Point chapter, in 2012. Provincial membership hovers around 100 members. Their power extends far beyond that, police say, through associates, prospective members and support clubs, including the Devils Army.
“In B.C., the Hells Angels — love ‘em or hate ‘em — have been able to take and keep control for the past 30 years,” says Mortensen. “Nobody has been able to wage any sort of war against such an entrenched group.”
Some tried. There were moves by the Rock Machine, the Bandidos and the Outlaws, but none took root.
One new club is now trying: a chapter of the Rebels has formed in the Vancouver area, although the chapter was described as “fragile,” by a source.
“The reason we haven’t seen much biker violence — not that they aren’t inherently violent — is here they haven’t needed to resort to violence,” says Mortensen. “They are an organized crime group that has learned from the mistakes of others.”
A lack of violence is not a signal of a lack of crime. Often it means the opposite: A smooth-running machine makes little noise.
The Angels influence over the province’s busy port fuels its power and profits. For the western province’s, it is the main source of drugs. As one Prairie investigator says: “Vancouver is our Colombia.”
Alberta’s oil boom brought new jobs but also new biker clubs feeding on an increased demand for drugs, police say. From three or four clubs a few years ago there are now more than two-dozen.
Most of them are new support clubs for the Hells Angels.
“They came here when oil was booming. If you’re going to build a business, you want to build the business where you can make the most money,” says Insp. Darcy Strang, officer-in-charge of northern Alberta’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit. “Every time we turn around we seems to see a new Hell Angels support club.”
The province now contends with surprising intrusions by four other international biker clubs: The Mongols, the Rebels, the Vagos and the Warlocks.
Police documented 20 incidents of conflict between Angels and Warlocks within two months last year. At least some members of the Warlock’s Drayton Valley chapter are believed to have become Rebels. The Rebels may even have more than one chapter in Alberta.
Also new to Alberta this spring is a chapter of the Vagos — although it may be a group unsanctioned by the U.S. mother club, police say — and a chapter of the Mongols. Both clubs, internationally, have had difficulty coexisting with Hells Angels.
The Mongols tried to start in Canada before, in 2007 in Toronto, but collapsed a few years later. In Alberta they have a presence in various parts of the province.
The Mongols are “the baddest 1%er motorcycle club known worldwide,” according to the Mongols anyway. Their website also announces the California-based club’s Canadian presence.
Police are actively watching, says Strang.
“The last thing we want is a gang war.”
Saskatchewan is also Hells Angels territory but police are concerned a chapter of the Outlaws, formed in Saskatoon in 2012, could spoil the peace.
“The Hells Angels are certainly trying to grow. They have a plan. But now they have a little competition,” says Saskatoon Police Services Detective Inspector Jerome Engele.
The Outlaws have had birthing pains, moving their clubhouse from Saskatoon to Prince Albert. The Angels, too, had stumbles, including a police probe targeting their aggressive support club the Fallen Saints.
The ebb and flow creates uncertainty.
“I think we’ll see some confrontation in the near future. As the province becomes more affluent, we will see more activity,” says Engele.
Manitoba has a robust biker culture despite the primary crime presence being from aboriginal-based street gangs. The Hells Angels chapter in Winnipeg is seen as the top of the heap but they have competition from the Rock Machine.
The Rock Machine is notorious for fighting the Hells Angels during Quebec’s biker war. The new incarnation of the club attempts a juggling act — claiming, like all clubs, not to be a criminal gang while accepting its dark roots, saying “we defended ourselves from our enemies,” on its website.
The Rock Machine reformed in 2008 and claim chapters abroad. It makes it biggest mark in Canada in Winnipeg. Policing has been aggressive, hitting both clubs with arrests.
The destabilization hurts the Rock Machine more.
Atlantic Canada is one of the few regions where the Hells Angels aren’t dominant.
The New Brunswick-based club Bacchus was auditioning to become Hells Angels in 2001 but after a year the Angels voted to end the relationship, police say.
After arrests, the Angel’s Halifax chapter closed in 2003. That gave Bacchus a chance to expand and it spread across the Maritimes and into Ontario.
One biker gang Canada no longer contends with is the Bandidos, the club at the heart of the Texas shootout. It’s 2006 massacre of its own members in Ontario led to the club abandoning Canada.
“We’ve not seen another Bandidos wearing their colours in this country since,” says Isnor. “I don’t think we’ll see them here again for a long, long time.”
That is something both police and the Hells Angels likely appreciate.