A slice of Canada’s gritty criminal history

A slice of Canada’s gritty criminal history
Wrong Side of the Law: True Stories of Crime by Edward Butts; Dundurn Press, 2013; pp. 224; $19.99.
As of this writing, American fugitive Edward Snowden — on the lam after releasing details of the National Security Agency’s domestic and international spying programs — is stuck in the international transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. A hundred years ago, Snowden might have had an easier time escaping the clutches of the U.S. justice system — he could have just hopped over the sparsely populated, largely unguarded border with Canada and found a nice spot to hide out.

(Of course, 100 years ago people would have said, “Internet? What is this sorcery?” But you see my point.)

During the old West days, many American outlaws fled north, where they faced potential capture by the North West Mounted Police, but that was better than a lynch mob. And in Alberta and British Columbia, there were still plenty of banks to rob and livestock to steal.

The notorious “Dutch Henry,” a staple of newspapers and pulp magazines from the period, was particularly handy with a “running iron” — which could be used to change the brands on cattle and horses — and made a good living driving them from Montana to Western Canada. The Newton Boys, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke in a 1998 movie, pulled off a daring bank robbery in downtown Toronto.

Mind you, Canada produced enough outlaws on its own without having to import them from the United States. And sometimes, it even went the other way around — a Nova Scotia boy named Charles Nelson would go on to become “Sam Kelly” of Butch Cassidy’s legendary Wild Bunch. As his colleagues were jailed or arrested, Nelson/Kelly — tired of running from authorities in Canada, the United States, and Mexico — turned himself in, settled in Saskatchewan after his release, and actually reached old age. (His neighbours couldn’t help noticing how many mysterious American strangers kept visiting his ranch, though.)

There are many more long-forgotten Canadian crime stories where these came from, and Edward Butts’ very entertaining Wrong Side of the Law: True Stories of Crime will surprise many readers who didn’t know this peaceful country had such a rich criminal history.

There was the Polka Dot Gang, named for the polka-dot bandannas they used to hide their faces, who terrorized southern Ontario banks — and became a media sensation — in the 40s. Perhaps the most compelling chapter is about Lucien Rivard, a Montreal hoodlum whose audacious escape from prison was a huge embarrassment to the federal and Quebec governments — especially when opposition politicians started asking embarrassing questions about his alleged ties to officials in the government of Lester Pearson. Federal Justice minister at the time Guy Favreau was forced to resign, and Rivard was named “Canadian newsmaker of the year” in 1965.

And yet, in 2013, you could probably ask 100 random people on a Canadian street, and none of them would have any idea who Lucien Rivard was. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have Hollywood at our disposal, or maybe we just think too highly of ourselves to acknowledge our own outlaws and gangsters, but these tales just haven’t penetrated our historical memory the way they would in the U.S. or many other countries.

That’s too bad, because if more Canadians knew about these colourful and fascinating figures, they might be more interested in their country’s allegedly “boring” history. Wrong Side of the Law is a very good place to start.

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