Father Jacques Labelle spies them at night from his rectory window, and later often has to fix the damage they leave behind. Perched on the edge of the St. Lawrence River, his Precious Blood Catholic Church boasts a picturesque setting — and ideal conditions for the army of cigarette runners who work the unique neighbourhood.
Smugglers routinely unload their contraband on the church’s concrete dock, nicely hidden from the nearby highway, then pack the goods into vans that speed across the sloping church yard, leaving deep ruts.
Once, they failed to make it off the grass, their vehicle becoming mired in mud and the smugglers — both teenagers — arrested.
“The vehicles are coming and going and it’s done in a matter of minutes,” said Father Jacques. “They’re very aggressive and some have no respect for other people’s property.”
The church is just one of many spots that are regularly commandeered by smugglers who cross the St. Lawrence from the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, the latest chapter in a turbulent, 20-year history of illict trade through the region, egged on originally by a brazen Big Tobacco smuggling scheme.
Police say some cottages have been taken over by the tobacco traffickers in the off-season; there are reports of Russian and other non-native, organized crime figures renting or even buying summer homes to turn them into smuggling terminals. Authorities believe tens of millions of cigarettes a year — mainly churned out by 10 factories on the American side of the reserve — pass through the area.
Straddling the U.S.-Canada border, Akwesasne is Canada’s contraband capital, and the heart of the aboriginal tobacco industry that has flourished lately on a handful of reserves, producing a flood of cheap cigarettes so vast it might have stalled the decades-long slide in smoking rates.
Police allege the cross-border conduit is being used, as well, by organized crime to smuggle marijuana back into the United States and harder drugs and firearms to Canada. Security experts have long fretted, too, about its potential for facilitating more ominous threats, like terrorism.
Authorities have mounted a growing law-enforcement campaign, complete with high-speed boats, electronic surveillance and nightly contraband search and destroy missions.
For the Mohawks of Akwesasne, though, the aura of lawlessness around them and the intense police presence are bitter pills to swallow.
Some note that only a small percentage of the community — which feels more like a tranquil country town than a pirate haven — is involved in the problem. Others lament that the appeal of easy money has slowly corrupted parts of the reserve, darkening the dream some leaders had of turning Akwesasne into a First Nations free-trade zone.
Mike Mitchell, Akwesasne’s grand chief, says it all could have been avoided, had the federal government heeded the alarms local politicians raised 12 years ago, and helped foster more positive business development.
“You’ve got a market that was created in Canada because of the whole tax issue, availability of supply in the United States, and an area where there is no economic development,” noted Chief Brian David, another member of the Akwesasne band council. “What did they think would happen?”
Grand Chief Mitchell points to a surprisingly prescient letter that he wrote Jean Chrétien, then prime minister, in 1998, just as governments were again raising tobacco taxes.
It warned that the tax hike would trigger smuggling of cheaper cigarettes from the United States, as well as other products, like drugs and firearms. “We all know that [organized crime] will use the Akwesasne territory as a corridor for the movement of illicit goods, and that the Canadian government will use the Mohawks of Akwesasne as the scapegoats,” Grand Chief Mitchell wrote Mr. Chrétien.
He accurately predicted that jobless Mohawks would be lured into cigarette running but said no one really wanted such employment. The letter requested unspecified federal help to develop alternative business initiatives and some kind of international trade zone in the Mohawk territory, and requested authority to draft local laws to combat smuggling and other problems.
Mr. Chrétien and his government never responded, says Grand Chief Mitchell.
Akwesasne’s troubles, though, would seem to date back even further, and might have as much to do with the actions of major tobacco companies and, charges one former resident, inaction by aboriginal governments.
The notion of starting a cigarette industry first arose in the late 1980s, said Doug George-Kanentiio, a journalist and native-rights advocate now living near Buffalo, N.Y. He and others advised leaders to put strict limits on the trade, so trucks could carry tax-free tobacco only to other reserves, in limited quantities.
If controlled, he and other advisors suggested, the “morally reprehensible” trade in a cancer-causing product could morph into other, healthier enterprises.
Rules were developed, Mr. George-Kanentiio said, but largely ignored by the businesses, and not enforced by the Akwesasne government. Meanwhile, the major, legitimate tobacco companies had seized on the territory’s quirky geography and begun pumping cigarettes across the border to the United States, where they were smuggled back into Canada, tax free.
“Our ambitions ran head first into the granite wall of individual greed: there was too much money to be made,” said Mr. George-Kanentiio. “The consequences have been really serious. A lot of our people have died…. People have drowned, there have been home invasions, people have been murdered.”
The trade has also led to what he called massive corruption in Mohawk communities. “My own nieces and nephews have been caught and gone to jail because of this.”
Smuggling propelled by the tobacco industry finally ended in the mid-1990s as governments slashed tax rates, and the multinational firms faced unprecedented fraud charges.
The latest contraband tobacco era was born nine or 10 years ago and has since produced far greater volumes of cigarettes, now made by factories in Akwesasne, as well as three other reserves in Ontario and Quebec.
Police have been given the unenviable task of trying to stem the tide of tobacco flowing over the border and across the river. The RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and their allies seized close to 300,000 cartons around Cornwall in 2009, but believe that is only a fraction of the output from the factories, which, they say, now include two plants on Akwesasne’s Canadian side.
The officers’ tools include two $300,000 Zodiak boats each equipped with a pair of huge, 300-horsepower outboard motors. They can reach 110 kilometres an hour but ‘‘sometimes we’re lost in the dust” of the smugglers’ even faster vessels, said Staff-Sergeant Jean-Guy Gagnon.
On a recent summer night, three RCMP officers and a handful of Ontario Revenue Ministry officials headed out to patrol the roads in and around Cornwall, a sprawling beat that includes countless coves, sideroads and dimly lit cottage developments. One of the Mounties is an Ojibway from Six Nations reserve in southwestern Ontario, who sometimes does undercover work.
Staff-Sgt. Gagnon tags along, first pointing out the “spotters” — strategically located SUVs whose drivers scan for unmarked police vehicles. The smugglers know the cars well: officers have arrested runners who carried with them lists of all the vehicles, including model, colour and licence-plate numbers.
Still, the police make almost daily seizures of cigarettes, usually filling up a cavernous, tobacco-reeking storage vault in the basement of the RCMP detachment here by end of week, before the contraband is discreetly destroyed. Drugs, guns and booze are also seized, but cigarettes make up 85-90% of the booty, Staff-Sgt. Gagnon said.
On this night, one suspected cigarette runner on foot is arrested after his colleagues, spotting a marked police cruiser, took off without him. Their van was full of tobacco, he told officers. Staff-Sgt. Gagnon guns his vehicle into high speed down the darkened highway to try to find the van. It proves elusive, though.
Later, local police stop one of two suspected smuggling vehicles that exit a cottage enclave by the river; the driver has a lengthy criminal record, but there are no cigarettes on board. Officers figure they have stashed the contraband in a nearby house.
As the night wears on, the RCMP also keep an eye on a house in Cornwall suspected of being a cache for cigarettes. The suburban home is a two-minute drive down the street from the Mounties’ own detachment.
Meanwhile, the heightened law-enforcement action has only raised tensions in Akwesasne itself, long divided by what it considers an illegitimate international frontier, which many residents must nevertheless traverse daily.
“You’ve got 95% of the people who are living quietly, who’ve got jobs and every time we cross the border, they treat us like criminals,” complained one Mohawk woman, who asked not to be named. “In the press, it’s every family that is involved in [smuggling], but it’s not true. Let’s be fair about this.”
Governments finally got the 1990s smuggling spree sponsored by Big Tobacco under control when it became increasingly violent, with gunfights breaking out between rival gangs and local politicians being threatened. This time, violence is not a problem, perhaps because there is so much profit to go around, suggests Sergeant Mike Harvey of the Cornwall RCMP. Even so, some local residents are getting fed up.
Father Jacques has held two public meetings in recent months to raise awareness about the problem, and encourage homeowners to call the police when they see smugglers or evidence of their activities.
“People ask me if I’m afraid,” says the gregarious priest. “Not really…. We have to put a voice to the problem.”
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