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.”