It was difficult to be a journalist in Montreal in the 1990s and not cover, at one time or another, the biker war. You had to be a classical-music columnist or a technology reporter. Even then, depending on how democratic your newsroom was, you were as likely as not to be pulling a weekend shift when a bomb went off, a shoot-out erupted, or a small-time dealer was killed in what police would invariably write off as un règlement de comptes—a settling of scores.
I spent the early 1990s reporting on mostly Quebec politics. It meant filing almost daily articles on the pitch and yaw of constitutional negotiations and was even more boring to write about than to read. So when opportunities arose to cover something other than the Meech Lake Accord and “Quebec’s place within Canada,” I leapt at them. As the biker war heated up, I found myself leaping frequently at stories about the Hells Angels and their enemies.
I had been casually intrigued by the province’s bikers since moving to Montreal about a decade earlier. The city’s criminal pedigree—its eleven-year-old bank robbers, its turf wars between tow-truck drivers and pet store owners, its celebrities gone bad—had always impressed me.
And the nicknames of bikers—Zig-Zag, the Priest, the Traitor, Chop, Apache—that I learned from Allô Police! fascinated me. In time my interest grew more substantial. I began looking at bikers as a bizarre sub-culture. They were so childish in their attention-grabbing techniques —their loud motorbikes, their patches, their parades— and in their rituals of initiation, clubhouses and hierarchy. Yet, they were so deadly and serious in their criminal enterprises. On paper, they seemed utterly ill-suited to being a real organized-crime threat, yet police constantly warned that bikers were the fastest growing and most brutal mob out there.
Writing for newspapers, I wasn’t given any room to explore this aspect of the bikers when the battle for control of Montreal’s drug market—the fundamental conflict of the biker war—broke out. There wasn’t even much written about the human-interest side of the biker war. Where did these guys come from? Did they grow up wanting to be bikers? What was their family life like? Instead, the bikers were almost invariably portrayed as unknowable nasties, as deep as cartoon characters, with none of the human complexity or contradictions of the rest of us.
When I quit the security of a full-time daily newspaper job to freelance for magazines in 1996, my main motivation was to be able to dig more deeply and give some stories the attention they deserved. Near the top of my list was the biker war.
I wrote a few short pieces for publications such as The Economist, but it took years to convince a magazine to commission a long feature. I was writing regularly for Saturday Night at the time, but they had already bought a piece on the war, and even if the writer had disappeared without delivering it, they were hesitant about committing to another. There was also the question of finding the right “story within the story.”
Then, in the days following the mass arrests of Operation Springtime 2001, I came across a small article in the Journal de Montréal about the man described as the key informant in the case. The man, Dany Kane, had been a foot soldier in the biker war while being a longtime RCMP informant. He had also got off a murder charge due to contradictory RCMP testimony. Even more conveniently, he had committed suicide six months before the big bust, sparing the prosecution a problematic witness. And to top it all off, he was bisexual, a fact which gave headline writers untold joy. I suspected I had found my guy.
The magazine went for it and wasn't disappointed. The story only got better as I did my own research, knocking on doors, tracking down Kane's old friends, poring through documents. After the article appeared, however, a deluge of people who had categorically refused to talk earlier began to open up and hundreds of new documents became available. It slowly became the kind of story that journalists both treasure and fear—the ones that happen only once in a career so better not screw them up. The problem was, I'd already written and published an incomplete draft of it. At that point I realized it was a book rather than just a magazine article.
Daniel Sanger worked as a journalist in Quebec for almost two decades. In 1985 he co-founded the Montreal Mirror, moving onto The Gazette and later to the Canadian Press in 1988. Since 1996 Sanger has contributed to a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Economist, The Telegraph Magazine, Saturday Night, and a wide variety of newspapers in North America and England. He has been an editor with Saturday Night since 2000, while continuing to be the Quebec correspondent for The Economist, and has received three honourable mentions at the National Magazine Awards. Hell's Witness is his first book.