March 29, 2021

Episode 012: The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist


Talk about a sticky situation!

This episode will activate your sweet tooth and leave you scratching your head about one of the largest agricultural crimes in history. 

Becca starts off by taking us to maple syrup school, where she covers the history of maple syrup and teaches us how maple syrup is made. 

Then, Sarah dives into the great Canadian maple syrup heist. If you haven’t heard about this all-Canadian crime, then you’re in for a sweet treat. Nearly $19 million worth of maple syrup was stolen from the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve during a months-long theft that nearly went undetected. 

If this episode has you craving syrup, look no further! 

Check out these two Indigenous-owned maple syrup producers.

Wabanaki Maple https://www.wabanakimaple.com/ 

Giizhigat Maple Products https://giizhigatmapleproducts.com/

For a full list of references, visit our website.

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This podcast was produced by Geoff Devine at Earworm Radio. Follow Geoff @ewradio on Instagram or visit earwormradio.com.

Transcript

I am going to give you a brief history of maple syrup, how it's made and give you some insight into the industry.


Of the world’s maple syrup Canada produces a HUGE amount. Can you take a guess at how much we are produce, percentage-wise? A whopping 71%. That means that even if you aren’t Canadian, but you have tried maple syrup at some point, there is a very good chance that it came from here. Of that 71%, 91% comes from Quebec. Other Canadian regions for production include Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia (Pure Maple from Canada, n.d.).  It is also produced in Vermont, New York, Maine, Wisconsin, and a few other states (Maple Syrup World, n.d.). But generally areas with chillier climates; which makes up what’s called the Maple Belt.


HISTORY

Harvesting maple syrup was traditionally a process practiced by Canadian Indigenous communities. Historic documentation from Iroquois communities describe the process of collecting “sweet water” from trees (McCracken, 2018). It was often used to cook venison at the time, which is where the concept of maple-cured meats originated. This became a common preservation process that allowed for meats to last into the winter months. /// The Anishinaabe people have this tradition called “sugaring off” which is when the sap is collected from maple trees during the “maple moon” or “sugar month” (Werner, 2006). And this syrup season typically lasts from March to April each year.


The earliest references of maple syrup made by European settlers in Canada was in 1557 (McCracken, 2018). It is something that was appropriated and commercialized by settlers, which is of course, a dark side of our history that is not talked about enough. During this time, land and resources were stolen, areas were deforested and Indigenous people were forced out of their communities. But harvesting maple syrup is a long-standing tradition that has been taking place way before Canada was even called Canada.


Maple syrup was actually the first type of sugar that was ever produced in Eastern North America and it really had most of the market until 1875, when cane sugar was introduced to the area with the fur trade.


HOW IT’S MADE/SCIENCE


So now a bit on the production of maple syrup. Starch accumulates in sugar maple trees throughout the year. This starch is converted into the clear sugary sap in the spring when melting snow produces an abundance of water for the trees’ roots to absorb. 


Sap is harvested when the days are over 0 degrees but when the nights are still below freezing. This is because a positive pressure is created within the tree with these warmer daytime temperatures, which causes the flow of sap from the tree if it's tapped (Werner, 2006). So it creates a natural pressure system.


Before the sap is converted into syrup, it consists of about 97% water and 2-5% sugar; so it isn’t very concentrated at first. To collect the sap for commercial use, there will often be a network of tubes going from tree to tree that funnel into large collection containers. After the tree is tapped and the sap is extracted, the sap goes to what is called the “sugar shack” where it is boiled down and condensed into the sweet syrup, which becomes that darker hue we are familiar with. It is actually often called “pure liquid gold” because of this golden colour (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2011). 


There is also a more modern way of condensing the syrup through reverse osmosis, where pressure is applied to the mixture forcing the more watery sap through a membrane, and leaving you with the syrup. The syrup is then caramelized, filtered and bottled. It takes about 40 litres of this sap to produce 1 litre of syrup. And producers will collect only around 1.5 litres of syrup from each tree as to not deprive it of its nourishment - but a tree can produce up to 10x’s that amount (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2011). In only taking this amount of sap, the tree can be preserved and used for 100’s of years (Werner, 2006).


Have you tried Maple Taffy?


Maple syrup is graded based on its colour, density and flavour. Grade A has 4 categories, which include: golden, amber, dark and very dark. If it falls below a Grade A it is considered “Canada processing grade”. But regardless, all maple syrup in Canada must have a specific sugar content based on the Brix scale, which measures sugar in liquid products. So it must fall between 66-68.9 degrees on that scale or it cannot be sold as maple syrup (Werner, 2006).


The maple sugar in maple syrup has been a point of contention in recent years, when in 2018 the US FDA tried to include maple syrup and honey as “added sugars”. What do you think? Should maple syrup be considered “added sugar”? So the syrup industry was clearly outraged about this since they don’t add sugar to their products, and that label may confuse consumers into thinking that they do. But the FDA just didn’t want to create a new sugar claim in legislature for “unnecessary sugar” which is what they essentially claimed maple syrup to be. They quickly retracted this idea and now require maple syrup brands to add an asterisk on their front-of-package labels with a footnote on the nutrition facts label describing the number of grams of sugar in one serving and that it contributes to the daily value of “added sugars” in the diet (Clinton, 2018).


FACT CHECK: So, I actually had 3 bottles of Canadian MS at home. None of them mentioned “added sugars”, but the Nutrition Facts label did mention that anything over 15% of the daily value specified on the label is considered “A LOT”. And ¼ cup of MS contains 53% of that daily value of sugar. So the information on the bottle still allows you to make an informed decision.


INDUSTRY


As I was saying earlier, Canada is the main producer of maple syrup globally, and there are over 8,600 maple syrup businesses in Canada (Pure Maple from Canada, n.d.). In 2016 alone, more than 45 million kilograms of maple syrup were exported, which is worth about $381 million dollars. We typically produce less than that in a year, but will dip into previous Canadian reserve supplies to keep up with the demand. The US buys 65% of the total exported product, then it goes: Germany, Japan and the UK (Werner, 2006).


And just to wrap up this intro, there are some maple syrup brands that are owned and operated by Indigenous people in Canada, so I will mention two of the companies I found in my research. One is Wabanaki, situated on the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, which is 100% Indigenous female-owned. They have a list of recipes on their website that were making my mouth water. They will ship for free within Canada on purchases over $100, and it isn’t that hard to spend $100 on maple syrup. Then we have Giizhigat (GEE-JAA-GUT) Maple Products, which is a First Nation company, and they ship across North America. They have really fun stuff on their website, like trivia about the history of maple syrup and a blog keeping you up to date on all the relevant maple syrup news.


We will add the links to these two companies in our show notes.


https://www.wabanakimaple.com/ 

https://giizhigatmapleproducts.com/


I’m so excited to cover this story because it’s just so Canadian, and even though it’s one of the largest agricultural crimes ever committed and it’s the most lucrative Canadian heist of all time, it just feels a little wholesome. So if you haven’t guessed already, I’m going to be telling you all about the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist.


As per usual, all our sources will be linked on our website, but special shoutout to an episode of Dirty Money on Netflix called The Maple Syrup Heist and an article in Vanity Fair called Inside Quebec’s Great Multi-Million-Dollar Maple Syrup Heist by Rich Cohen who is a phenomenal writer and I wanted to start off by reading this teaser quote that I think you’ll appreciate from his article:


“When he unscrewed the cap, he discovered it empty. At first, it seemed like this might have been a glitch, a mistake, but soon more punk barrels were found-many more. Even barrels that seemed full had been emptied of syrup and filled with water-a sure sign of thieves who had covered their tracks. My God, they could be in Thunder Bay by now!”


Let’s set the scene. It’s 2012, and we’re in a small town just northeast of Montreal located on the Becancour river, in a gigantic warehouse that houses Canada’s global strategic reserve of maple syrup. The warehouse is filled with floor-to-ceiling stacks of these 620-lb blue-white barrels. Why are they 620lbs? Because they are filled with the greatest liquid known to mankind - maple syrup. At least, most of them are. Michael Gauvreau, a warehouse employee, is doing his inventory rounds and he begins to climb up a stack of barrels, and he realizes that it doesn’t feel as sturdy as it usually does, and upon further inspection, he realizes that one of the barrels is empty. No big deal, maybe it’s just a mistake. But as he continues to investigate, there are many more empty barrels and even more that seem full but have actually been filled up with water. This is because over the course of many months between 2011 and 2012, a group of thieves siphoned off over 540,000 gallons (!!!) of maple syrup worth over $18 million and sold it to the black market. 


And if you’re having a hard time visualizing 540,000 gallons, Canadians, one gallon is 3.8L so that works out to over 2 million litres of maple syrup. 


Now you might be wondering, how does one steal that much maple syrup? It’s SO sticky. What do you do with it? And most importantly, is it worth the trouble? A barrel of maple syrup is more valuable than a barrel of petroleum. Grade A Canadian maple syrup trades at about $32 per gallon, which adds up to $1,800 CDN per barrel, approximately 13 times (!!!) the price of crude oil. So this is a highly valuable product that is closely tied to Canadian identity. Canada actually  produces 80 percent of the world's supply of maple syrup, and QC accounts for 90 percent of Canadian production. That’s a LOT of syrup, and I know it feels kind of wholesome and cute (everyone loves pancakes), but it’s a HUGE economic force and employs over 11,000 producers in QC alone, and as we learned in the avocado episode, when things are valuable there is room for exploitation. 


Now, before we get into the details of the crime, I need to set the stage with some background information about the growing unrest amongst maple syrup producers in Quebec that is driven by current maple syrup regulations. 


Maple syrup is an agricultural product so it can be subjected to farming and economic policies. It’s not necessarily anything new - Governments all around the world might choose to control the price of certain commodities, and the goal is to stabilize the market and actually protect producers. So instead of leaving the producers vulnerable to things like large variances in season to season yields, they regulate the production and sale of maple syrup so that the yearly income of producers stays relatively the same. It also functions to keep setting the market price and driving the cost of maple syrup higher, which in theory also benefits the producers. However, there are many maple syrup producers in Quebec, called maple rebels, who resent this control and would prefer a free market, and they feel that they are being controlled by a cartel.


This “cartel” is actually called FPAQ or the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, a government-sanctioned private organization that regulates the production and sale of Quebec’s maple syrup. FPAQ was formed in 1966 to represent and advocate for maple syrup producers. At the time, most maple syrup producers were dairy farmers who tapped trees in the spring as a side hustle, and it was very challenging to make a decent living as just a maple syrup producer. Side note: The maple syrup harvest is only about six weeks long, in March and April (when this episode is released, the sap will be flowing)! As we move from winter to spring, the mix of cool nights and warm days helps sap to flow through the maple tree. The syrup producers in FPAQ all abide by a collective marketing agreement in which they establish policies, negotiate their selling strategy, enforce production quotas, set up criteria for quality assurance, and sponsor promotional activities. So how did federation come to be? It had to be put to a referendum and get at least 66% of the producers to vote in its favour, which finally happened in 1990. I think it’s important to note that before this vote for the collective marketing agreement, it was nearly impossible to make a full-time living as a maple syrup producer. Throughout the 1990s, maple syrup output continued to grow rapidly, largely thanks to FPAQ, and by the year 2000 the industry was actually producing between 1.3-2 million gallons of maple syrup each year. 


Around the year 2000, things were getting better and incomes were higher, but producers were still vulnerable to major fluctuations in income. So if it was a great year, and the maple trees were just pumping out the sap, and there was a surplus of syrup, the market price would be really low and the buyers would stockpile as much as possible. Then if the next year had a poor yield, the buyers would just use the extra syrup that they had bought the previous year and the producers would suffer and not make very much money. 


Things really changed in 2001. Quebec had a banger year for syrup, with over 8.2 million gallons produced, and because the supply was so great, prices plummeted and people were fed up. This prompted a change in the federation to take on more of a marketing and business role that could negotiate better prices with the buyers. To do this, they organized formally as a federation which allowed them to dictate the entire market. 


B: Just to be clear - FPAQ and the federation are the same thing? 


The federation also began to store surplus production, so when those low yield years came around, they would have the extra syrup available to pump into the market and keep prices from falling. So when there was extra syrup, producers would be forced to hand over their stock including the surplus. Initially, individual producers were free to make as much syrup as they wanted. However, in 2003, there was another banger year and they had so much syrup that had to be stored, that the federation began imposing quotas on producers, and a quota basically tells the maple syrup producers how much syrup they can produce and actually bring to market. If producers try to sell more than their quota, they risk punishment (fines).


Each year, any output that doesn’t get sold must be transferred to the strategic reserve and producers do not receive compensation for it until the federation sells it. Maple syrup doesn’t spoil, so it can be stored for a really long time, so producers could be waiting years for their compensation. 


B: Wait, why doesn’t it spoil? Is it because of the high sugar concentration


It’s actually because of the super high concentration of sugar! Which might be a little counterintuitive because we know sugar is a great source of energy, but when there is a lot of sugar in a solution, the sugar will draw in all the water from its environment. So basically, any microbe/bacteria that tries to come into your barrel of maple syrup, the sugar will draw the water out of it and it won't have any water available to support its own life, and it will dehydrate and die. If you’ve ever had maple syrup or jam go moldy on the top, that’s likely because there was some extra condensation or moisture on the surface or the lid, and you can typically scrape the mold and still enjoy the rest of it. 


Maple syrup is sold from the reserve when current production does not meet the demand from authorized buyers, so this is how the market is controlled - producers will still make money based off their contributions to the reserve during poor harvest years. In 2009, there were 4 back-to-back years of terrible production and the strategic reserve almost ran dry. Since then production has bounced back and the reserve is overflowing.


B: K wait, does everyone who makes maple syrup in Quebec have to join the federation or can you choose to do your own thing? 


Yes, so that’s the source of most of the frustration, all Quebecois maple syrup producers are obligated to sell their stock directly to FPAQ, and this is backed by Canadian civil courts, the federation has the monopoly for selling syrup and for exporting it outside Quebec. Producers are only allowed to sell cans of less than five litres to visitors to their personal sugar shack, so only on-site sale is permitted, and according to FPAQ, those sales represent 10% of the total sale of maple syrup in Quebec. So a very small percentage, not surprising considering sugar shacks are usually pretty rural.


Did you ever visit sugar shacks when you were a kid?


Producers can also sell to their local supermarkets, but then they have to pay a 12 cents per pound commission to the federation. I also read some reports that said that FPAQ pays the producers in instalments, and some are left waiting years for full payment. And so it’s not actually that surprising, that there is a growing black market of underground syrup suppliers fueled by the maple syrup producers that are frustrated with federation and the limitations on their income, aka the maple rebels.


Okay, so there are clearly good reasons that the federation exists. The federation provides a certain level of security, and actually has a lot of supporters and producers who benefit from the system, and are able to make a decent living as a maplesyrup producer which was very rare and maybe even impossible before the federation. But I want to take you into the mind of a maple rebel for a moment, because the anger and frustration is real for many maple syrup producers. Angele Grenier has been producing maple syrup with her husband on their farm located south of Quebec City for decades. Each winter and spring she taps her trees and harvests sap to produce maple syrup, but she is legally required to hand all of it, everything she produces, over to the federation. This was super frustrating, and so, Angele and her husband loaded up their truck with maple syrup under the cover of night and transported it across the border to New Brunswick before dawn for 12 years. That was illegal, because of the FPAQ rules, but they were fighting for their right to sell their syrup for a price of their choosing. She was visited by federation staff and hit with a $500,000 fine which she refused to pay, so FPAQ took her to court and Angele was ordered to hand over all of her product. In 2013, FPAQ came to her farm and seized her syrup, and a judge ruled that FPAQ could enter her property at any time to inspect her products- which seems very invasive. She tried to fight it by taking it to the QC Court of Appeal, but they denied her appeal, and so she took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada and they refused to hear her appeal. At this point, in 2014, Angele and her husband had spent $150,000 in legal fees and had $300,000 in remaining fines from FPAQ, and the last update I could find, she was thinking about leaving the maple syrup industry completely. So essentially, if you have been in the business for decades and then the federation is formed and completely forces you to change how you and your family have been conducting business, forces you to charge a certain price for the product, you don't have a choice. In fact, if you try to control your product and sell it on the black market, the federation will get you. There are reports of producer sneaking barrels of syrup out of their own sugar shacks and selling them to the black market and getting caught, and the fines are STEEP like in the $100,000s, and the federation responds by placing guards outside of problematic sugar shacks or even monitoring personal information like production logs and bank accounts. When rebels try to fight this in the court system, they are literally run dry and sometimes even forced to sell huge areas of sugar bush that have been in their families for years. 



So to summarize: pro’s of the federation include an enforced quota system and strategic reserve that help ensure financial stability for the producers. The work of the federation has created a MASSIVE boom in maple syrup production from QC, and also the federation enforces quality criteria that has given QC a worldwide reputation for producing the best maple syrup: never burnt, it’s never too watery, it’s always properly graded, it’s never cloudy or crystallized.


But, producers lose individual control of their product, and that’s really important to many. 


Okay so back to the warehouse that stores the global strategic reserve of maple syrup. There are actually 4 but we’re focussing on the one main warehouse. It’s August 24, 2012, a bunch of completely empty barrels have been found (remember Michael Gauvreau from the start of the story) and even more that have been filled with water. Almost 10,000 barrels have been stolen, and it’s immediately clear that this has been going on for some time. Apparently, the barrels at the world’s ONLY strategic syrup reserve are only inspected once a year, so it was easy to miss. At the time, the reserve had minimal security, like MINIMAL. This has since been updated, but at the time there were no cameras - which is shocking to me considering the value of maple syrup ($1800/barrel)! Right away, it was pretty clear that this must have been an inside job, someone with regular, non-suspicious access to the reserve must have been involved. 


Over 250 investigators flooded the scene, one of the largest investigations in Canadian history, and determined that nearly 10,000 barrels had been stolen, which is approximately 10% of the entire reserve. They interviewed over 200 witnesses and started to build their case. Almost immediately, Avik Caron stood out. He was the owner of the warehouse and had previously been involved in a fraudulent operation and is rumoured to have ties to the mafia, so a bit of a red flag. Another key suspect from the beginning was Richard Vallieres who was one of the best known barrel rollers in all of Quebec, which is a term for someone who buys and sells syrup directly from producers, bypassing the federation (which is illegal). Okay, so Avik had access to the warehouse, and Richard was an expert at selling syrup on the black market, but how the heck were two guys emptying 10,000 massive 600-lb barrels of syrup and transporting a super sticky liquid somewhere else? 


The lead investigator on the case, Luc Briand, noticed that the warehouse usually used a special forklift that was designed so that it didn’t mark up the exterior of the barrels, but investigators noticed that all the barrels that had been emptied or filled with water, had forklift marks all over them. So they went to local forklift rental places and checked out all the recent names of people who had rented forklifts, and sure enough, there was the name of a known maple syrup transporter, Sebastien Jutras. So now we have Avik, the guy with the warehouse, Sebastian, the guy with the truck, and Richard, the guy with the sales network. But still, how did they do it for so long without getting caught?


They had to introduce fake barrels - they got the exact same shade of blue-white paint and the exact same federation barrel stickers. The real barrels were removed from the warehouse and replaced with the fake decoy barrels, then the syrup was transported to another warehouse where the syrup was siphoned into another set of barrels. Then the original barrels from the warehouse were taken back to a creek and filled with water so that they were heavy, and then these were taken back to the strategic reserve and they replaced the temporary replica barrels. Then Richard Vallieres would sell the siphoned syrup to the US, Germany, and Japan, while a man named Etienne St. Pierre would sell it throughout New Brunswick. This plan was pretty successful and went on for months, but after a while the crew got lazy and started to just siphon the barrels right in the warehouse, cutting out all of those steps, and leaving barrels empty, which would ultimately be their demise. 


Once the police had their suspects, the heist crumbled pretty and they were quickly brought to trial. Sebastian maintained that he didn’t know the syrup was stolen and he was just a middle man, and he ended up testifying against Avik and Richard who were convicted for theft, fraud, and trafficking stolen goods. 

 

Avik Caron: 6 y in jail, 1.7 million dollar fine

Richard Vallieres: 8 years in jail, $10 million fine

Étienne St. Pierre: 2 years home imprisonment, $1.03 fine for purchasing the stolen maple syrup. 


Okay, so 9 years later, this sticky situation isn’t quite over. The  Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) granted leave for appeal (which basically means the appeal can continue) to the case this past September. The SCC will deal with the issue of whether the court can seize only the profit gained from the trafficked and stolen goods when charges are laid, and it’s thought that this case will inform courts on what proportional sentencing might look like moving forward in cases of major theft and fraud. I hope I got that right, legal jargon is not my area. 


And that’s basically it. The federation still exists, some people are still unhappy with it and some people are still happy with it. Great story though, and so truly Canadian I just love it!