The fruit of Beneath The Bark Sugar Shack’s labour - bottles of dark maple syrup produced from the Comox Valley. Maple syrup is produced across the country but by far the biggest producer is Quebec. Photo by Erin Haluschak

The fruit of Beneath The Bark Sugar Shack’s labour - bottles of dark maple syrup produced from the Comox Valley. Maple syrup is produced across the country but by far the biggest producer is Quebec. Photo by Erin Haluschak

The OPEC of the syrup biz

There’s a dark underbelly to the world of maple syrup — a shadow world where gangsters trade in the sticky substance. It’s a world that doesn’t get much attention, but every now and then the crime is so big, the world notices.

Such was the case in 2012 when one Richard Vallières, and cohorts, stole some $18 million worth of syrup, the Great Canadian Syrup Heist. The case has risen to public attention again because the Supreme Court of Canada weighed in last week to restore the $9.1 million fine that a lower court had reduced to $1 million.

The Supreme Court said that Richard Vallières must pay a fine equal to the value of the stolen syrup — not just equal to the profit he made from it.

He has ten years to pay the fine or he must be jailed for six years.

So how did Vallières end up in this sticky situation?

Picture this. A maple syrup warehouse in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec. Syrup stored in unmarked, white barrels. Thousands of barrels. According to Wikipedia, thieves used trucks to transport barrels to a remote sugar shack, where they siphoned off the maple syrup, refilled the barrels with water, then returned them to the facility.

It was ingenious. The barrels were only inspected once a year, so the chances of being caught were fairly slight.

However, talk to any police officer and they will tell you that criminals often trip themselves up.

And such was the case with our sticky-fingered friends in Quebec. They got lazy. Why go to all the trouble of taking the barrels offsite, siphoning them and refilling them with water, they reasoned, when you could simply drain them onsite and leave them empty?

And thus began their downfall. Which actually did begin with a fall.

But first a little history. Maple syrup production in Canada is controlled mainly by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ), formed in 1966. They maintain the International Strategic Reserve — the syrup pool in simpler terms. Yup, it’s a thing. It was created to keep syrup in stock and ensure a constant supply for national and international markets, regardless of the size of a harvest.

In fact just last December the reserve began releasing 22.7 million kilograms of maple syrup after a thinner harvest than usual.

So, back to our lazy criminals and the fall.

All was going well. Stolen syrup was being trucked to unsuspecting buyers in Vermont and New Brunswick and sold. Vallières was making a tidy profit.

But then, the annual inspection. These warehouse are huge. One in Laurierville, is about the size of three Canadian football fields. But unfortunately for the thieves, the Inspector, one Michel Gauvreau, was a spry fellow and would climb the piles of barrels to randomly inspect. So he began to climb, grabbed onto what he thought was a full barrel, which would have supported his weight. But as luck would have it, it was an empty barrel, and down he went.

The jig was up. There were empty jugs where syrup was supposed to be.

Vallières was sentenced to eight years in prison plus the $9.4 million fine. The Quebec Court of Appeal was the entity that reduced the fine to $1 million, which the Supreme Court just reinstated. His cohorts also received varied prison terms and some fines.

Just to put it all into perspective a barrel of maple syrup from FPAQ is worth $1200 today. A barrel of oil is $103.83. Interestingly, FPAQ has been called the OPEC of the syrup biz.