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Smuggling's price

Death of U.S. couple focuses spotlight on stopping cigarette 'runners'

Neco Cockburn , Ottawa Citizen

Published: Friday, November 21, 2008

CORNWALL - The sweeping metal dinosaur skeleton that is the Seaway International Bridge looms over rubble and old smokestacks at the former Domtar paper mill, near the bank of the St. Lawrence River.

One industry is dead, but another flourishes on the back of the beast.

Officers spot a small black car headed into Cornwall and riding low. It is coming from Akwesasne Mohawk Territory at the other end of the bridge.

RCMP Sgt. Michael Harvey, with seized contraband cigarettes at an RCMP impound facility in Cornwall, says Cornwall-area Mounties have seized hundreds of cars, trucks, boats and trailers over the past year, along with more than 253,000 cartons of cigarettes and almost 27,150 kilograms of fine-cut tobacco.View Larger Image View Larger Image

RCMP Sgt. Michael Harvey, with seized contraband cigarettes at an RCMP impound facility in Cornwall, says Cornwall-area Mounties have seized hundreds of cars, trucks, boats and trailers over the past year, along with more than 253,000 cartons of cigarettes and almost 27,150 kilograms of fine-cut tobacco.

Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen
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The New York State licence plate is run through a computer and the registered owner's background is checked.

Unmarked vehicles tail the car through the city, driving north along Brookdale Avenue, through a Tim Hortons drive-through lane and along the road until the female driver pulls into a parking lot.

The woman is approached and asked to open the trunk.

Negative, an officer relays to the team.

The crew reassembles and waits along one of the most infamous smuggling routes in Canada.

It's an area where 50 or more boats loaded with tobacco products speed across the St. Lawrence River from the U.S. side of Akwesasne Mohawk Territory each day before "runners" leave Cornwall Island and drive across the bridge to the mainland, according to one officer.

Smuggling has always carried risks, not just for lawbreakers, but the public.

Former Cornwall mayor Ron Martelle once described events in his city during the 1990s as "rival smugglers exchanging gunfire across the river, houses sprayed with automatic weapon fire and firebombed, countless high-speed chases, the bombings and destruction of a shopping mall, and bullets ripping through the doors of Cornwall's Civic Centre and nearby Federal Building."

Almost two decades later, the spotlight has again turned to the area after a suspected cigarette smuggler and a senior couple from upstate New York died in a collision on the island Nov. 14. A van driven by the 21-year-old man slammed into a car containing Edward and Eileen Kassian, both 77, of Massena, New York, about 20 kilometres southwest of Cornwall.

A funeral for the Kassians was held Friday.

Anger over their deaths lingers, although much of it is directed at police who chased the suspected smuggler, rather than smuggling itself.

Many people simply shrug at smuggling. Some blame the federal government for high taxes on tobacco. Others say contraband running will continue, just as it has for years, whether shipments involved fuel, humans, booze, drugs, guns or cigarettes.

Concerns about the economy on the Canadian side, highlighted by the closing of the Domtar mill and cuts at Satisfied Brake Products, were more pressing during the recent federal election campaign.

From the start, the layout of the area has given smugglers a foothold. Borders split the Mohawk territory between Ontario, Quebec and New York State, creating a jurisdictional nightmare. A policing potpourri of 13 law enforcement and customs agencies oversee bits and pieces of designated areas, while trying to pool their efforts and information.

Cornwall Mayor Bob Kilger calls the multiple jurisdictions a "field of dreams for illegal activity."

"It's a minefield for law enforcement and those people who try to live as law-abiding citizens," adds the mayor.


By now, supply lines are well-entrenched. Crime groups enlist members and runners of all ages.

Outside St. Joseph's Catholic Secondary School, Tony Thomas, 18, said it's easy for students to get into tobacco running through connections with relatives or other students.

Students cite the Domtar closing and say employment opportunities seem bleak. Smuggling, they say, is seen by some as an easy way to make quick money, sometimes hundreds of dollars per trip.

"You make bank, man," said Samantha Stitt, 16, calling it "white-collar crime."

Mayor Kilger calls it a "cop-out" to blame the attraction to smuggling to downturns in the manufacturing sector. Although the mayor acknowledged that blows to the sector have caused lower disposable incomes, he said the city's unemployment rate is lower than national and provincial averages.

"Doing the wrong thing, making the wrong choices? There's no justification through the closure or the reduction of the manufacturing sector," he said. "That's got more to do with a lower level of education."


Goods have been smuggled for as long as there's been a border. Natives in the early 1780s sidestepped customs officers to market baskets on both sides of the line.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mohawks acted as middlemen, selling untaxed cigarettes. At that time, then-mayor Mr. Martelle wore a bulletproof vest, called smugglers the "scum of the earth" and referred to his city as "Dodge City East."

He blamed the smuggling and the bombing of pool hall and gymnasium in 1992 on organized crime. At one point he went into hiding, saying his life and the lives of his family had been threatened.

After the mid-'90s, the federal government cut taxes as part of an attempt to curb smuggling. Human trafficking increased, according to police.

The security crackdown following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S. made smuggling people too risky. And cigarette taxes and duties were restored to their pre-1994 level by 2002 and have risen since, police said.

With many of an estimated 12 factories on the U.S. side of Akwesasne now making cigarettes for $2 a carton, it's only too easy for smugglers to ship them across the St. Lawrence River by boat to temporary warehouses on the Canadian side.

There, some smugglers may rip backseats out of cars and fill them with cardboard boxes of cigarettes, or load trailers with black garbage bags of fine-cut tobacco destined for other cigarette manufacturers before heading across the bridge.

Smoke shacks on reserves sell the cigarettes for about $6 a carton, while legal cartons of cigarettes carry a price of $75 to $90 each - about 70 to 75 per cent of which is federal and provincial taxes, according to police.

The RCMP, which released a Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Strategy earlier this year, says seizures have increased as police forces work on combining their efforts and educating the public.

Cornwall-area RCMP have seized hundreds of cars, trucks, boats and trailers over the past year, along with more than 253,000 cartons of cigarettes and almost 27,150 kilograms of fine-cut tobacco, said RCMP Sgt. Michael Harvey.

He said 42 organized crime groups are involved in the illicit tobacco trade in the Cornwall-Valleyfield, Que. area, ranging from mom-and-pop operations to traditional criminal groups.


Police are seeing an increase in people fleeing from officers

as smuggling becomes more brazen and runners panic, Sgt. Harvey said.

"They're speeding, they're not obeying the stop signs," he said, adding that smugglers or their scouts have surrounded, rammed or interfered with cruisers. Officers have had bullets fired in the air over their heads and rocks thrown at them.

That harkens to the days of Mr. Martelle. The former mayor, who died of cancer in 2001, took a more militant approach regarding law enforcement and probably would have been "more prone to accepting the reduction of taxes to curtail the activity," said Mr. Kilger, who was his good friend.

Mr. Kilger considers his approach more balanced, relying on his experience of more than 15 years as the area's MP. He said he does not believe lower tobacco taxes benefit society.

"We saw government reduce taxes and we saw smoking percentages go up, specifically amongst youth. You increase taxes, you see percentages go down, particularly amongst youth," he said. "Maybe it doesn't reflect itself quite as clearly in Cornwall because of the proximity and the amount available. But nationally, from a policy perspective, it is a very, very difficult thing to balance.

"I still think you need a fairly aggressive taxation policy on that commodity. If you lower it beyond a certain level ... the health of people, which is a hell of a lot more important, and all those related costs, will skyrocket."


Taxes are only part of the cigarette story for many Mohawks living on Akwesasne.

In a way, tobacco has come to symbolize battles over jurisdiction and authority. Some people living on the island believe it is their right to trade with other native communities and are dissatisfied that they are policed by what they see as outside rules.

"It's smuggling when Canada says it's smuggling," said island resident Lloyd Benedict.

Some, like Doug George-Kanentiio, a writer and former editor of Akwesasne Notes magazine, call for elimination of the border.

"Mohawks have to have one government that oversees the entire community, and we have to have the physical means of enforcing our own law," he said.

In the late 1980s, Mr. George-Kanentiio sat on the Mohawk Nation's business committee, drafting proposals for changing the structure of the tobacco trade.

The committee called for the regulation of native tobacco products and negotiation with Canada for a cross-border trade agreement that would allow the Mohawks to legitimately deliver the product to other native communities, Mr. George-Kanentiio said. Under the plan, money would go back to the community, he said.

But infighting started - some people didn't want to see their profits decrease - and the idea was torn apart. Leadership backed off.

"We didn't have the collective will to tackle this in its infancy, when it should have been (done)," he said.

Former Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell remembers police officers telling him there were contracts on his life from Montreal when he called for regulation of the cigarette trade. Mr. Mitchell said he now believes governments and people on both sides have roles to play.

"There's a little education involved here for them to realize it's not the community that's getting rich. They're not benefiting from this. It's a handful of individuals that are benefiting. If the regulation, the control was put in place, those people would have to be accountable to the community and its people," Mr. Mitchell said.

At the same time, he said the federal government needs to loosen its grip on the Canadian side of the territory.

"They don't realize that it's far better to have the nation step up and say, 'We'll take control of it,' than the denial at every level, so long as this issue's been an issue ... of any recognition of authority in governance, in aboriginal rights.

"A lot of these things will resolve themselves when the authority does come from the people."

Some people have said more policing is the answer, but Mr. George-Kanentiio said that could lead to further problems, especially if more police move to the Akwesasne territory.

"It's going to lead to a standoff and some people are going to get seriously hurt. I think (the solution) has to come internally," he said. "How do you remove the criminal element from this kind of activity? You legitimize things. Canadian authorities work with the Mohawk leadership and try to find a way to control this."

In Cornwall, Mr. Kilger said it would be interesting if federal government officials had discussions with U.S. counterparts about the operation of cigarette manufacturing plants on the U.S. side of the territory, "and at that level maybe we could find some common ground."

He said he has worked on the file, on and off, for the better part of two decades.

During that time, guns have been fired, vehicles have been searched and Mr. and Mrs. Kassian, a husband and wife from 51 Windsor Rd. in Massena, have died in a fiery collision at an island intersection at 8 p.m. on a Friday.

"If we'd ever thought of an easy solution - a long-lasting solution, a stable, permanent solution - I'd like to think that we could have nailed her down by now," Mr. Kilger said this week.



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