Convenience store operators fear more cigarette smuggling if Cornwall border station moved

From: Ottawa Citizen

By Ian MacLeod

OTTAWA — A plan to relocate the Canadian border station at Cornwall on to  nearby American soil will leave Canada more vulnerable to Akwesanse cigarette  smugglers and organized mobsters, says the association representing the  country’s convenience store operators.

“There’s no opposition to wanting to make the Cornwall border crossing more  effective and efficient because it certainly is not right now. What there is  opposition to is how the proposed move will increase contraband tobacco,” and  further penalize legitimate cigarette sellers, said Alex Scholten, president of  the Canadian Convenience Stores Association.

Scholten and association executives staged a two-day blitz of Ottawa this  week, calling on about 15 MPs of all parties to push the government to stop the  border station relocation and do more to stem the illegal, untaxed tobacco trade  with increased policing and more committed political leadership.

The infamous Smugglers’ Alley is estimated to cost the federal, Quebec and  Ontario governments at least $1.6 billion a year in unpaid tobacco taxes.

When tobacco smuggling peaked in 2009, almost nine per cent of the  association’s 23,000 members went out of business, chiefly because they could  not compete with cheap, contraband cigarettes selling for a fraction of the  price of legal smokes, which represent about half of a typical store’s  sales.

“It doesn’t take a lot to reach a tipping point,” said Scholten.

Hundreds of millions of additional dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine,  Esctasy and guns ship through the same pipeline, used by upwards of 175 large  and small organized crime groups, according to the RCMP.

“The recognition is there,” Scholten said Tuesday of the reception his group  received from MPs. “It’s an issue that frustrates them. But it’s also an issue  that they feel is (so) complex that, ‘How do we approach this?’

“What we’d like is them to show some leadership coming up with some of these  thing themselves.”

The jurisdictional complexities of the problem are unmatched in North  America. The border zone spans seven governments — two federal, two provincial,  one state and two aboriginal — plus their respective policing, customs,  immigration, taxation and other agencies.

For criminals, especially organized and high-financed outlaws such as the  Hells Angels and Russian mafia, the fractured frontier isn’t much of hurdle.

The anticipated move of the border station, announced in last year’s  Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border agreement, will only do more harm to border  integrity, say the convenience store operators, an opinion shared by Imperial  Tobacco Canada.

The move, according to the agreement, will see a Canada Border Services  Agency (CBSA) pre-clearance station for goods and travellers opened just across  the St. Lawrence River at Massena, New York, likely as part of the new U.S.  Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) station there. One source says final details  about the move may be announced within two months.

Part of the intent is intercept the truckloads of raw and fine-cut tobacco  from the Carolinas before they reach clandestine cigarette manufacturing plants  on the U.S. portion of Cornwall Island, home to Canada’s Akwesasne Mohawk  community and the U.S. St. Regis Mohawk reserve.

As it stands now, the shipments can reach the island relatively unimpeded.  The finished cigarettes are then smuggled by road through the temporary Canada  customs station at Cornwall or bypass customs altogether by travelling by boat  to trans-shipment points along the St. Lawrence shoreline, where they’re moved  inland by truck and car.

Others are sold at smoke shacks that line the highway through Akwesasne, St.  Regis and at the not too distant Kahnawake Mohawk reserve on Montreal’s south  shore.

But as Scholten and others argue, moving the CBSA post to Massena will leave  the door to the Canadian mainland wide open for those who can find a way to  skirt Massena or ship Canadian-grown raw tobacco to the island for processing  and then back on across the undefended bridge to Cornwall and rest of Eastern  Canada.

“If they have freer access to transporting the product from the island onto  the mainland, it’s going to mean more activity for those criminal organizations  in our local communities,” he said.

As well, the 2011 Conservative election platform promised new commitments to  fight contraband, including mandatory jail time for repeat offenders and a new  RCMP anti-contraband force of 50 officers.

But, “it’s never happened,” said Scholten. “We’re asking for that police  force to be finally put in place … and a level of co-operation between federal,  provincial, First Nations and U.S. governments to talk about the issue, perhaps  in within the framework of existing parliamentary standing committees.

“We’ve been trying to keep this issue front line and centre as far as  awareness, we don’t want this issue to become normalized. When we go into  meetings with government, the common (refrain) is, ‘not us, go talk to them  (another department) over there’.’

“It’s so complex that I think everyone has just assumed it can never be  solved and we’ll just put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not there.

But, “there must be some receptive ears to sitting down and having a very  fulsome, co-operative discussion on how we can resolve this for everyone’s  benefit.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please Answer: *