The Great Maple Syrup Heist

Like any crops, maple syrup production can be affected by the weather. A bad year can result in less maple syrup and increase prices. Furthermore, 75% of the maple syrup produced globally comes from Québec so it’s important that the trade was reliable. To address this, the Canadian government put together The Federation of Maple Syrup Producers to control and stockpile maple syrup which they could introduce into the supply chain to ensure prices remained consistent and the entire Canadian economy remained stable.

For some maple syrup producers this was a wonderful thing – prices were much more consistent and fewer businesses filed for bankruptcy. Normand Urbain, son of one of the second vice-president of the Federation, maple syrup producer in his own right and a commerce graduate has said “In the past 15 years, we have doubled our exports and tripled its value. And if you look at the industry which was worth less than 100 million 20 years ago now it’s worth half a billion in the province of Québec alone” (Dirty Money). However, there were those who didn’t like the amount of control the Federation had over their product.

Some people were actively against the Federation’s input into the maple syrup business as they imposed quotas, set the prices, and imposed hefty fines to those who didn’t co-operate. They were frequently described as a legal cartel. The rebels, as they became known, attempted to work around them, lobbying for a return of a free-market. A black market of maple syrup emerged. In a country where drugs were being decriminalized, maple syrup was being criminalized.

The Federation’s stockpile consisted of a warehouse filled with barrels of maple syrup. In 2012, an accountant named Michel Gauvreau was hired by the Federation to run inventory on the warehouse, counting the barrels and ensuring all the figures tallied as the financial year was coming to a close. Stepping up onto a barrel, the barrel shifted underneath him and he very nearly fell. Thankfully, he maintained his balance but was unnerved that the barrel should have been able to move so easily – maple syrup is heavy in that quantity. The barrel was, in fact, empty.

A quick look in some of the other nearby barrels yielded the same result. This was a big problem. A search of every barrel in the warehouse was ordered to identify just how bad the situation was. Then they noticed some barrels with rust, maple syrup’s properties mean that the rust isn’t possible. Further investigation showed that, as well as the empty barrels, there were some barrels that had been filled with water to hide the theft. Around 3,000 tons which equated to roughly $18 million worth of maple syrup was discovered missing. They determined the syrup pilfering had been on-going for around a year to have removed the sheer quantity they did.

The police were called, but unlike when jewellery or cars are stolen, the stolen maple syrup would have been eaten leaving no evidence behind, no serial numbers to trace or GPS that could be followed. If any syrup was found, would be very difficult to prove what tree or region it came from. Furthermore, it could also have been sold to anywhere in the world.

 In the Federation warehouses, special equipment is used to move the heavy barrels without damaging, scratching, or otherwise leaving a mark. The police noticed that some of the empty barrels had been scratched and knocked in a way that was consistent with a forklift truck. The police conducted hundreds of interviews to try and establish how this had happened as well as looking at known rebels.

An initial suspect was Richard Vallières who was well known for selling syrup on the black market. He had been suspected in a previous maple syrup theft, although there hadn’t been enough evidence to arrest or bring about any convictions. Police theorised he was responsible for organising and moving the syrup from the warehouse.

Another person of interest was Étienne St-Pierre who was known for selling Québec maple syrup outside of the Federation’s restrictions. An investigation into his finances showed a dramatic increase in profit around the time the theft was suspected of beginning. This lead police to believe he was the fence for the stolen syrup.

The warehouse which houses the supply didn’t have the best security; there was a single padlock on the door and a guard who came round once a day. But who would have known that was the storage location and it lacked security? Avik Caron – the owner of the warehouse who rented it to the Federation. A quick background search showed he had a criminal history. For his part in the theft, Avik Caron was sentenced to 6 years in jail and handed a $1.7 million fine.

Vallières claimed in court he was coerced into replacing the barrels contents with water with threats of violence against him and his family, a claim the jury did not believe and he was found guilty on several counts of theft, fraud and trafficking stolen property. He received 8 years in jail and a $10 million fine

It was believed that St-Pierre’s part in the operation was to buy the stolen maple syrup and sell it on as New Brunswick syrup. Although it’s not thought he was involved in the actual theft of the syrup, he did sell it on, which was illegal. He was also found guilty of fraud and trafficking stolen property with 2 years home imprisonment and $1.03 million fine.

There were 26 arrests and over 200 hundred witness statements were taken, a huge amount of man power. Most of the maple syrup was never recovered.

References:  Bloomberg.com  –  Theculturetrip.com  –  True North Heists  –  Cbc.ca

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