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Kings of Coke tells the tale of Montreal's infamous West End Gang


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Kings of Coke tells the tale of Montreal's infamous West End Gang

The documentary, directed by Julian Sher and streaming on Crave, chronicles the history of the group often referred to as the Irish Mafia.

 •  Montreal Gazette
 
Nov 08, 2022  •  1 day ago  •  4 minute read  •  Join the conversation 

Montreal journalist and documentary filmmaker Julian Sher says it was important to not glorify the West End Gang, whose members tried to pass themselves off as Robin Hoods. Montreal journalist and documentary filmmaker Julian Sher says it was important to not glorify the West End Gang, whose members tried to pass themselves off as Robin Hoods. Photo by John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette

Kings of Coke has a great story to tell — a uniquely Montreal yarn about gangsters, cold-blooded murder, corrupt cops and, as the title suggests, massive amounts of cocaine.

 

The Montreal-made documentary, which began streaming on Crave on Monday in  English and French versions, chronicles the history of the West End Gang, a rag-tag group of criminals born and bred in the working-class neighbourhood of Pointe-St-Charles and often referred to as the Irish Mafia.

They were also closely associated with Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where the seedy motels and bars south of the tracks in that neighbourhood served as one of their stomping grounds.

Members cut their teeth robbing banks back when Montreal was known as the bank-robbery capital of North America, and the gang’s influence grew when they moved into the drug business thanks to their control of illicit activity at the city’s port.

Julian Sher, the veteran Montreal journalist and documentary filmmaker, underlines that the West End Gang was different from the Hells Angels and the Italian Mafia, the two other main crime organizations in Montreal at the time.

 

“The thing about the Hells Angels and the Mafia is those are global organizations,” said Sher, who directed Kings of Coke and co-wrote it with Nick Rose, adapted from D’Arcy O’Connor’s book Montreal’s Irish Mafia.

“The Hells Angels are a global internationally trademarked organization,” Sher noted in an interview. “The Mafia is based in Italy. The West End Gang could only be born and thrive in this city and in a particular neighbourhood of this city. They had no desire to take over Toronto or even the north of the city. This was such an English-Montreal product. It’s like Fairmount bagels.”

These Irish Montreal gangsters are part of the city’s lore. Anyone reading English-language newspapers starting in the 1960s will be familiar with some of the tales recounted in the documentary, notably the famous Brinks truck robbery from March 1976, when West End Gang members stole $2.8 million with a little help from a U.S. army-issue anti-aircraft gun. 

 

The documentary also recounts how their influence stretched to the upper echelons of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, something that came to light in 1992 when Claude Savoie, in charge of the RCMP’s anti-drug squad, died by suicide just before he was to be interrogated by RCMP internal affairs officers. It was also the day before an investigative report on his activities, produced by Sher and journalist Dan Burke, was to air on CBC-TV’s The Fifth Estate.

Many of the most infamous West End gangsters are profiled in the film — including Frank “Dunie” Ryan, Allan Ross and Gerry Matticks — but Sher said it was important to not glorify them. He noted they had close ties to local Catholic churches, and would hand out turkeys to families in “the Point” at Christmas, but that was just one side of them.

 

“Gerry Matticks is on trial in the ’90s and a Roman Catholic priest comes to testify as a character witness,” Sher said. “You can’t make this stuff up. They tried to pass themselves off as the Robin Hoods but as (author) Kathy Dobson points out, that was part of the myth. Yes, they gave out turkeys and went to church, but they were bringing coke into the community and they were killing people.”

The film features a few former gang members, a number of police officers who were hunting them down, and a slew of journalists, including Burke and current Gazette crime reporter Paul Cherry.

The documentary captures just how unusual this criminal group was.

“One of the reasons the West End Gang was able to thrive is that they were able to some degree to fly under the radar, in a largely French city with a largely French police force,” Sher said. “The West End Gang came out of a community that was doubly marginalized. They’re an English minority in a French city, but they’re also poor and they’re Irish in English Montreal. They’re poor in a largely middle-class anglophone community. The Lachine Canal and the Ville-Marie Expressway could’ve been a fortress wall.”

 

Sher remembers the day he learned Savoie had killed himself. The Fifth Estate investigation was set to air the next day, and he was on the phone with Gazette TV critic Mike Boone when the news broke. He says the incident still haunts him, but he has no regrets.

“I didn’t kill him, I didn’t load the gun, I didn’t put the gun to his head,” Sher said. “He made his choices. I’m not responsible but if Dan and I had decided not to do the story, if we had not covered this stuff, would he be alive? He might have decided to kill himself when the RCMP (investigated him). … The lesson I learned from that is the consequences of our work. For many of the people we tell stories about, it’s their lives and sometimes their deaths.”

bkelly@postmedia.com

twitter.com/brendanshowbiz

https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/kings-of-coke-tells-the-tale-of-montreals-infamous-west-end-gang

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