Tobacco smuggling has brought both money and fear to Mohawk communities
Call them Curly and Moe. The names are not their real ones, at their insistence, and they are not entirely appropriate, given the pair’s involvement in the murky, sometimes murderous, business that the Mohawks of Akwesasne call simply “the trade.” But they do fit. For Curly is a husky 27-year-old native with a mop of wavy brown hair. Moe, 20 years his senior, bears the straight black hair and even blacker eyes of his ancestors. And the two are a team—or at least they were until the federal government launched its campaign last week to smash the contraband traffic in cigarettes that has helped to make Curly and Moe, if not exactly rich, at least prosperous enough to dream the kind of dreams that most Canadians take for granted—but few of the country’s original inhabitants ever dare to contemplate.
They are smugglers, Curly and Moe, a pair of cogs in the illicit machine that last year funnelled close to $5 billion worth of tax-free cigarettes into Canada. Neither of the two men is a major player in the
trade that, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has been earning tobacco traffickers net profits approaching $300 million a year. “We’re just a couple of little fish in a very big pond,” says Moe as he sits in an idling automobile on the Akwesasne reserve adjacent to Cornwall, Ont., one ear glued to a cellular telephone, the other to a scanner monitoring the radio calls of a mobile detachment of Mounties on the other side of the frozen St. Lawrence River. But Moe and his young partner have flourished over the course of the past three years. And their operation, while small, is an intricate affair, typical of the clandestine conduits that the Mohawks, among others, have fashioned to channel illegal smokes into the country.
Akwesasne is the hub of the trade and the reason for the success of entrepreneurs like Curly and Moe. If the RCMP’s estimates are accurate, fully 70 per cent of all the tobacco that eventually finds its way back into Canada flows through the Mohawk reserve that straddles the American, Quebec and Ontario borders near Cornwall. The contraband reaches Akwesasne quite legitimately. It is manufactured in
Canada, mostly in Montreal, and shipped via Buffalo and several small upper New York state communities to American distributors, who in turn sell it to Mohawk wholesalers on the American side of the Akwesasne reserve.
Ten thousand Mohawks live on the reserve, scattered across a tiny archipelago in the middle of the St. Lawrence, shared by Ontario and Quebec and with a swath of territory on the river’s southern shore lying in the state of New York. Moe is one of those Mohawks. The 47year-old father of three grown sons operates a legitimate business on Ontario’s Cornwall Island, opposite the town of the same name. For the past three years, however, he has been supplementing his income by dabbling in the illicit cigarette trade.
“I buy and I sell, just like in any other business,” Moe explains. “I get orders from customers, people I trust. Then, I go shopping for them at the warehouses in New York. Then, I ship the product back across the river, by boat in summer, by snowmobile or truck when the St. Lawrence freezes over.” Moe’s tone is matter-of-fact, businesslike. But what it conceals is the fact that he enjoys an advantage, shared only by other Akwesasne Mohawks. For the New York-based, mainly native wholesalers, whose huge warehouses dot the shoreline a few hundred
yards from where Moe sits listening to the Mounties’ radio traffic, will rarely sell their product to anybody but a native inhabitant of the reserve. And even when they do, they charge a fat fee. “It’s usually around $150 a case,” Moe admits, when prodded. “I’m paying right now $750 a case, that’s 50 cartons. It would cost a white guy $900; maybe a little more for a total stranger.”
The discriminatory surcharge helps to explain how the Akwesasne Mohawks have managed to maintain a stranglehold on the contraband that passes through the reserve, despite the eager advances of other would-be black marketeers from beyond the Mohawk community. Much the same kind of favors are bestowed upon other natives, especially fellow Mohawks from the reserve at Kahnawake, in Montreal’s southern suburbs, and the Mohawk community at Kanesatake, near Oka, Que., just west of Montreal. “It’s a question of honor,” says Moe, without a trace of irony.
Curly is one of those who has benefited from both his Mohawk blood and his long-standing business relation-
ship with Moe. The 27-year-old is what is known in the trade as a “runner.” For the past couple of years, he has been ferrying carloads of illicit cigarettes from Akwesasne to the cut-rate smoke shops on the Kahnawake reserve, where he was bom and still lives. Moe charges Curly $40 a case on top of the $750 he pays to the wholesalers in New York. Others, particularly the Asian gangs and white bikers who control many of the distribution networks outside the native reserves, pay more—depending largely on the whim of the Mohawk middlemen. “Some people you like, some you don’t,” shmgs Moe.
He clearly likes Curly. Moe’s younger partner has been earning on average a profit of $75 for every case he delivers to the vendors of Kahnawake’s notorious Tobacco Alley, the reserve’s widespread network of brightly painted stands peddling cut-rate cigarettes. And there have been times in the past two years when the pair have moved as many as 80 cases a week between the two reserves, allowing Curly to turn a tidy $6,000 profit for his efforts. But it is not a particularly soothing way to make a living. “My nerves are shot,” Curly complains as he pilots a car along Tobacco Alley. “The money’s good, but I’m tired of looking over my shoulder. It gets to the point where every time you see a patrol car you have to change your underwear.”
The stress is so great, in fact, that Curly is leaving the business—in part, because of last week’s announced crackdown on smuggling, but also because of simple burnout. “I’m out,” he flatly declares. “I’ve made my last hair-raising ran along that damn [Highway] 401.” He claims to be leaving the business with few regrets, pointing out that while he might not have “made a million” he has earned enough to open a healthy bank account for the first time in his life as well as refurbish the house he shares in Kahnawake with a live-in girlfriend. He counts himself fortunate to have escaped arrest. “I was busted once but, luckily, it was early on when I was not carrying much.” He plans to take the rest of the winter off to “wind down,” after g which he vows to search for legiti-
0 mate work.
1 But therein lies the catch. For
0 Curly, like many other Mohawks in a
1 similar position, was drawn into the contraband tobacco trade for the
simple but stark reason that few other opportunities beckoned for natives. Before embarking on a black-market career, Curly was locked into a low-paying dead-end job landscaping gardens in the wealthier non-native communities that surround the Kahnawake reserve in Montreal’s southern dormitory suburbs. “You can’t mow lawns in the winter,” Curly notes, adding that if there had been “any other way to make a decent living I might not have got into it in the first place.”
The traditional leadership on all the Mohawk reserves is well aware of the problem, which is the main reason why the chiefs and band councils may have deplored the trade in public—and privately dragged their heels on any effective measures to bring it to a halt. There are no accurate figures available, but most knowledgeable Mohawk sources—even those opposed to the trade—agree that smuggling brought a measure of affluence to the reserves. At Kahnawake, for instance, it has been estimated that anywhere from 15 to 20 per cent of the reserve’s 7,000 resi-
dents are employed either directly or indirectly by the smugglers. The telltale signs are everywhere. “Just look around this place,” says Moe. “The houses are in better shape and most of them have a new car in the driveway.”
Both Kahnawake Chief Joe Norton and Kanesatake Chief Jerry Peltier expressed similar concerns last week after Ottawa unveiled its new antismuggling program. Peltier warned federal authorities to find something to quickly replace the cigarette trade or Mohawks will soon find other ways to use their tax-free status to make money. “There are other ways to generate revenue,” he said. “We can sell clothing. We can sell all kinds of other merchandise.” Norton, acknowledging that the new measures would virtually eliminate the cigarette trade in Kahnawake, echoed that view: “If Ottawa moves quickly to deal with the Mohawks’ economic problems, that will prevent those who want to go into other ventures such as alcohol, drugs and that kind of stuff.”
Thanks to the cigarette trade, the networks are already in place to move other contraband commodities, whether it be alcohol, firearms, electronic products—even illegal immigrants. And what is most worrying to those concerned with the problem is the fact that those channels outside the reserves are controlled by much more sinister elements than the likes of Curly and Moe, including organized crime.
Those networks were described in detail in a report released late last month by the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute, a nonprofit research organization. The institute reported on the contraband tobacco market based on more than 700 interviews with smokers, smugglers and law-enforcement authorities. According to institute director John Thompson, a former Canadian Forces officer, the native communities are responsible for initially smuggling cigarettes into Canada, but groups of organized criminals control the distribution network to other parts of the country.
Thompson and his researchers said the black market in Ontario is dominated by Vietnamese and Chinese gangs, as well as bikers. In Quebec, it is in the hands of a mixed and shifting bag of criminal organizations, including the Mafia, Irish-dominated groups and French-speaking Québécois gangs.
The institute’s research indicated that the natives have little involvement in the smuggling business beyond the Mohawks at
Akwesasne and, to a lesser extent, the Six Nations Iroquois reserve near Brantford, Ont.
The result has been to send a multicultural mix of criminal elements scurrying to Cornwall—where violence has often flared. For some time, Coast Guard rescue crews near there have resisted answering calls on the St. Lawrence River at night, fearing getting caught in the smugglers’ crossfire. Mayor Ron Martelle, an outspoken foe of the contraband tobacco trade, has been threatened several times.
Akwesasne’s Mohawks, particularly those involved in the tobacco trade, are fond of blaming non-natives for the gunplay and the threats. But violence is endemic on the reserve itself. In early February, 400 concerned Akwesasne residents staged a march
and silent vigil, protesting the mysterious deaths of 75 people on the reserve in the past eight years. Bob Tarbell, an Akwesasne Mohawk who helped to organize the protest, claims that some of those deaths are likely tied, at least indirectly, to the cigarette trade. “It’s introduced a lot of tensions that might not otherwise exist,” he says. “There’s a lot of loose money floating around, particularly in the hands of young people. And that’s brought problems with alcohol and drugs.”
Nowhere is the tension more marked than around the looming cigarette warehouses that rise from the New York shoreline. The grounds of most are patrolled by gun-toting Mohawks in camouflage gear. At one of the largest on Frogtown Road, close by Route 37 leading to Massena, N.Y., there are two prominent posted warnings, one barring “all television, press and radio reporters” from entering. When a reporter and photographer from Maclean’s attempted to enter the grounds, they were chased off by a burly Mohawk in a pickup truck. “Get moving,” he commanded, refusing all requests for a dialogue. To ensure they had left, he tailed the Maclean’s team all the way back onto Route 37.
In an effort to ease the tensions on his reserve, Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell met for 90 minutes in Ottawa last week with Solicitor General Herb Gray. Mitchell urged Gray to create a task force to deal with the problems the Mohawks will soon face if the federal government succeeds in squeezing dry what in the past three years has developed into the reserve’s economic mainstay. “As far as I’m concerned, what Canada has done in slashing taxes will kill smuggling,” Mitchell declared after his meeting with Gray. “It will end shortly. I’m looking ahead and asking—“What else is coming?’ ” It’s a good question.
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