French President Emmanuel Macron(R),wife Brigitte Macron(C))Premier of Quebec Philippe Couillard(R) and his wife Suzanne Pilote(L) look at maple syrup as they visit the historic city center.(Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images).
When most envision a heist, they usually conjure up in their minds is something along the lines of Ocean’s 11…
This visualization features a hand-picked group of highly-talented, motivated, and frankly quite handsome individuals, each perfectly suited to a specific role crucial to the burglary.
They’ re brought together in order to rob a casino, bank, or some other building associated with lots of money or expensive goods, and in the end, they realize the real treasure was the friends they made along the way.
In reality, this isn’t usually how it goes down. There are people out there who will rob just about anything, and don’t like making friends.
In 2004, for example, an entire 11-meter-long bridge was stolen in Ukraine.
In 2008, thieves stole hundreds of tons of white sand from a beach in Jamaica, presumably to build the world’s biggest hourglass.
In 2009, a 20-liter tank filled with $25,000 worth of liquid nitrogen, bull semen, and embryos were stolen from a farm in Canada, without so much as an apology.
When it comes to unusual Canadian heists on a grander scale, however, there’s one in particular that sticks out: The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist.
In the span of a year (2011 to 2012) a group of thieves stole nearly 10,000 barrels of maple syrup from a warehouse in the Canadian province of Quebec.
At first, maple syrup sounds like an unusual target, unless you also plan on robbing a lifetime supply of flour, eggs, and waffle makers.
But when you consider that a barrel of maple syrup is worth up to 25 times more than a barrel of crude oil, the payoff starts to sound a little sweeter.
In the end, the amount of maple syrup stolen was worth over $18 million Canadian, which in 2012 was almost on par with US dollars.
Adjusting for inflation, it was the most valuable heist in Canadian history.
To understand how and why the operation was planned, it’s important to first understand the maple syrup industry.
More than 70% of the world’s maple syrup supply comes from Quebec, and virtually all the maple syrup that comes from Quebec is controlled by the FPAQ, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.
The FPAQ subjects its members to quotas, meaning that all producers in Quebec are allowed to send them a fixed amount of maple syrup to be sold each year.
Naturally, the FPAQ takes a cut of the profits.
They’re often described as a cartel, and when you consider how forcefully they operate, it’s easy to see why.
Any excess syrup producers generate is stored in a reserve, known as the International Strategic Reserve, and is stored in warehouses across a number of small Quebec towns.
Crystal Ferreira, who recently taught a class centered on heists at the progressive educational institute Polyhistoria, explains why one of these warehouses was the perfect target:
“The impetus for the heist arose in 2011, after a bumper year forced the federation to rent out an additional warehouse, where it stored 16,000 drums of 54 gallons each.”
“When the Federation rented the space in June 2011, it knew there was minimal security at the warehouse. There were no cameras or alarms in place – but, it defended, it couldn’t have imagined someone wanting to steal maple syrup.”
This warehouse was partly owned by the wife of someone named Avik Caron. As it turns out, Caron was one of the men directly involved in the heist. He had smelled a delicious opportunity and is considered to be the “instigator of the operation.”
Caron needed more than just access to the warehouse in order to turn the syrup into gravy; he needed some way to sell it.
As Ferreira explains, there already existed a seemingly simple solution to that problem.
“Socio-economic grievances provide the impetus for pirating and the creation of black markets,” Ferreira explained.
“Think Somali pirates – their waters were over-fished. In turn, Somali fishermen started demanding ransom money from foreign ships over-fishing their waters. Long before 2011, Quebec had a thriving maple syrup black market,” she added.
“One of the ‘ringleaders’ of the maple syrup heist, Richard Vallières, testified that he was what is known as a ‘barrel roller’ in the maple industry — buying and selling syrup directly from producers in Quebec, bypassing the federation. He had been buying from the maple syrup black market (a very real trade in Canada) for 10 years.”
Richard’s father, Raymond Vallières, also became heavily involved, along with an out-of-province syrup reseller named Étienne St-Pierre.
What went down
The thieves rented out space in the warehouse, to avoid any suspicion being raised by their frequent comings and goings, and got a truck driver by the name of Sébastien Jutras involved.
Transporting a few of the maple syrup barrels away from the warehouse at a time, they moved their bounty to a separate location — where they had their own barrels waiting.
They siphoned out the maple syrup, replaced it with water, and returned the original barrels to the warehouse.
Then, they moved the maple syrup they had collected out of Quebec, where it was easier to sell away from the watchful eye of the FPAQ.
Ferreira mentions that: “Allegedly, according to court documents, a guard actually caught the theft much earlier and brought it to the attention of his supervisor. The supervisor bribed him to stay quiet.”
In spite of this, the operation ran pretty smoothly for about a year. In July 2012, however, it began to fall apart, almost literally.
An FPAQ inspector was at the warehouse conducting an annual inventory check, which involved climbing over some of the barrel stacks.
Each barrel weighs over 600 pounds when filled, so the inspector’s suspicions were raised pretty high when one of the barrels he was climbing almost toppled over.
Upon further examination, he discovered the barrel to be completely empty.
This would be the thread that, after a bit of pulling, would unravel the entire operation.
Crime doesn’t pay
It turns out the thieves had gotten careless, and started emptying barrels without refilling them with water.
Soon a massive investigation was launched, and dozens of people ended up being arrested.
The most prominent sentence was given to Richard Vallières who, in April 2017, was sentenced to eight years in prison and handed a $9.4 million fine, with an extension to 14 years if the fine isn’t paid.
Most of the stolen syrup had already made its way into the legal syrup market by the time the authorities began to hunt it down, and therefore couldn’t be traced or recovered.
Because of this, it’s likely that some of the thieves still ultimately view the operation as a success, where the main goal was to get back at the unpopular FPAQ for their perceived mistreatment of maple syrup producers. Raymond Vallières, for example, supposedly justified his actions by declaring that “stealing from thieves is not stealing.”
In the aftermath of the heist, the FPAQ has come under a lot of fire. Quebec’s minister of agriculture even commissioned a report calling on the federation to scrap its quotas and relax its regulations.
Whether or not they will ever choose to follow those guidelines is anybody’s guess, but it seems something may have to change if they want to stay ahead of the competition.
Since the early 2000s, Quebec has experienced the slowest growth in maple syrup production of anywhere in North America, with the fastest growth coming from the state of Vermont.
If this trend continues, it won’t be long before the Quebec maple syrup industry finds itself in a sticky situation — and not the good kind.
A deeper dive: Related reading on the 101
America’s drink has a lot more uses than you could imagine…
What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.