Facts first: There’s a new documentary series on Netflix called Dirty Money. It comes from award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, etc.) The first season contains six hour-long episodes, each helmed by a different director and each focusing on a different tale of corporate corruption. There’s one on the Volkswagen emissions scandal, there’s one on Martin Shkreli and his brand of pharmaceutical shenanigans, there’s even one on Donald Trump called “The Confidence Man,” which is sure to liven up your family dinner conversation if you bring it up at a large gathering and don’t mind people throwing rolls at each other while you try to eat your mashed potatoes.
But we’re not going to talk about any of that right now. We are going to talk about the season’s fifth episode, directed by Brian McGinn (Amanda Knox). And the reason we are going to do that is because that episode is titled The Maple Syrup Heist.
Are you familiar with the Great Maple Syrup Heist? There’s no wrong answer here. Either you are and we get to discuss it all again or you aren’t and I get the pleasure — the privilege — of introducing you to it. Both scenarios are great because it is one of my favorite things that has ever happened. I love heists very much and a multimillion-dollar maple syrup heist is just about as good as it gets. Right up there with the gold bucket heist. That’s high praise.
Yes, you did just read the phrase “multimillion-dollar maple syrup heist.” I recommend saying it out loud. It’s really quite fun.
The quick version is as follows: In 2012, officials at the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ) discovered that over 1,000 barrels worth of maple syrup had been stolen from one of their warehouses, which is a big deal because a barrel of pure Canadian maple syrup is worth more than a barrel of crude oil. An investigation ensued and the people responsible for the heist were tracked down, but not before many obnoxious online goofballs (me, mostly) were able to get off their jokes about it all.
Vanity Fair did a deep dive on the heist in 2016, which completists should definitely read, because there’s something romantic about seeing things like this in the printed word.
It was the Lufthansa heist of the syrup world. In the summer of 2012, on one of those July days when the first hint of autumn cools the northern forest, Michel Gauvreau began his precarious climb up the barrels in St.-Louis-de-Blandford, a town outside Laurierville, where part of the Reserve was stored in a rented warehouse. Once a year, FPAQ takes an inventory of the barrels. Gauvreau was near the top of the stack when one of the barrels teetered, then nearly gave way. “He almost fell,” Cyr said, pausing to let the picture form. A small man, astride a tower of syrup, realizing, suddenly, there’s nothing beneath his feet. Normally, weighing more than 600 pounds when filled, the barrels are sturdy, so something was clearly amiss. When Gauvreau knocked on the barrel, it tolled like a gong. 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’d covered their tracks. My God, they could be in Thunder Bay by now! In most cases, when a boring, bureaucratic job turns interesting, there’s trouble.
So there’s that.
The documentary digs in on the story in a slightly different way. The heist itself is used as a launchpad to get into the history of the FPAQ and the way it exerts complete control over the maple syrup market in Quebec, kind of like what OPEC does with oil. We meet small maple syrup producers on both sides of the issue, with one saying the regulation and cartel-style manipulation is strangling her ability to earn a living and another saying the government’s control of the market is the only thing keeping it stable enough to be viable. It’s a whole thing and if you want to have an intense discussion about the pros and cons of the free market you are very welcome to do that somewhere else, because we are not going to talk about that right now, either.
What we are going to talk about is these four very real screencaps from the documentary, featuring four of the individuals involved in the heist in one way or another, presented from least to most delightful.
“Maple syrup exporter” might be the single most Canadian occupation I’ve ever heard. I would watch an entire documentary just about that, no heists necessary. I mean, I’d prefer heists, obviously, always, in every documentary. Maybe Ken Burns could do an eight-part series on heists throughout history. I’d watch that.
“Hey Julien, how’s work?”
“Oh, pretty good.”
“What are you up to? Got any big murder cases?”
“Nope, no murder cases.”
“So what then?”
“I’m prosecuting the men behind an $18 million maple syrup heist.”
“A what now?”
“An $18 million maple syrup heist.”
“Well… that’s cool as hell.”
I am pleased to inform all of you that there is a notorious black market maple syrup seller and he looks exactly like the image you get in your head when someone first says the phrase “a notorious black market maple syrup seller” to you.
Sometimes things just work out.
Maple syrup lawyer.
Maple syrup lawyer.
This whole thing is like a real-life French Canadian season of Fargo and I love it so much.