Cheap smokes flood Canadian cities
You can buy a pack of illegal cigarettes with just a modest allowance.
A pack of 20 costs as little as $3. Even cheaper, a bag of 200 singles called "rollies" costs $10. That's less than half the price of regular cigarettes. It's a deal many young smokers can't refuse.
No wonder public health officials are alarmed at the rise in contraband. Studies commissioned by the Canadian Convenience Stores Association say 30 per cent of Ontario's teen smokers choose native cigarettes. And more than half of teen smokers have tried them, says another study, this one by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
"My grandmother is a native," says one teen smoker revealing his source of supply.
"Actually, they don't taste bad," says another.
Cheap smokes make it hard to quit the habit and there's a financial cost to governments as well. The federal and provincial governments lose $2 billion a year in tax revenue when people buy tax-free native cigarettes.
There's nothing illegal about natives selling tax-free cigarettes to other natives on the reserve. It's when they end up off-reserve that's causing the problem. And native cigarettes are ending up off the reserves. Available on-line, under the counter from some convenience stores, or even as W5 discovered from the back of vans.
Some enterprising re-sellers buy native smokes from so-called smoke shacks -- variety stores that specialize in tobacco products -- and a staple on many reserves in Ontario and Quebec.
It's not uncommon for non-natives to go onto the reserves and load up on cheap native smokes and then sell them illegally off-reserve. But what worries politicians, health officials and law enforcement the most is organized smuggling.
The RCMP say Cornwall, Ont. is the epicentre of contraband smuggling. Cornwall is minutes from the U.S. border and close to the Akwesasne reserve, which straddles the international boundary. Native cigarettes made on the American side of Akwesasne are smuggled into Canada by boat or by road often crossing Cornwall Island, the Canadian part of the reserve which sits smack dab in the middle between the two countries.
Mike Mitchell is the Grand Chief of Akwesasne, Ont. There are no smoke shacks on his land. No cigarette factories either. Mitchell admits there are a few families on the reserve who smuggle boatloads of contraband across the St. Lawrence but says it's unfair to paint the entire community as criminals.
"They call it a no man's land, Fort Apache," he says. " I've heard all these different names. Lawlessness society, criminal community. It's unfair, it's very unfair that they would label a Mohawk community like that."
Chief Mitchell says he warned then-prime minister Jean Chretien of the growing problem of smuggling on Akwesasne back in 2000 and offered assistance in rooting out the smugglers, if Ottawa would consult with Akwesasne's indigenous police force. Mitchell said he never received a reply.
"The solution is to work with the native leadership, native governments," he says. "One of them is simply to control and regulate what comes across."
"But they don't want to involve native governments," Mitchell says. "The Great White Father in Ottawa says, ‘you don't have that authority.'"
Instead, in January 2010, a special Task Force was created comprised of the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, Canada Border Agency and Ontario's Ministry of Revenue.
The Task Force patrols the roads and waterways connecting Akwesasne to the mainland but stays off Akwesasne itself. It's repetitive work, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their job is to intercept contraband before it hits the streets of Toronto, Montreal and the rest of Canada.
Inspector Mike McDonell heads up the task force. While arrests and seizures continue to rise. McDonell admits he catches a fraction of what's sent through.
"It's hard for me to nail down a figure," he says, "but I don't believe that we're catching 10 per cent. It frustrates me, but we're working quite hard on it."
Senator Hugh Segal, an outspoken critic of contraband tobacco, maintains the police are afraid to enter native reserves and arrest the ringleaders because they fear a repeat of the Oka crisis from 20 years ago. Back then, violence erupted when the Quebec police and later the Army went onto the Kanestake reserve to enforce a municipal bylaw. Subsequent confrontations across Canada have led to blockades and violence. He believes that it's a situation Ottawa and the provinces want to avoid.
"I think it's fair to say that our police organizations because of the threat of violence do not wish to actually prosecute the law as intensely as they can. And they're not sure the law gives them the support," says Segal.
He says he's talked to police officers across the country and says the police tell him quite frankly, "when the going gets rough the politicians don't stand behind us."
Insp. McDonell says police are doing the best they can.
"The laws are what we work with. They're given to us by our government and we've always worked within the law and we will continue to work within the law," he says.
Realizing the problem requires an integrated approach, McDonell is quick to add, "I think where we have to go is a whole government approach, just not an enforcement issue."
An integrated approach would likely mean co-operation with Canada's natives and stronger penalties for those who break the law.
Until that idea comes to fruition, it's business as usual as the Task Force patrols the streets of Cornwall looking for contraband tobacco.