Everyone plays a role

by Bill Jackson - The Regional

July 29, 2009

The Caledonia Peacekeepers' plan to conduct surveillance and clamp down on customers who purchase contraband from illegal smoke shacks along Highway 6 isn't a cry for help so much as it is a call for action, directly and indirectly.

Needless it is to say that all levels of government as well as law enforcement officials have passed the buck during the last few years, allowing criminal elements to ignore zoning bylaws and building code violations at the local level and tobacco and tax laws at the provincial and federal levels.

The reality is that everyone plays a role, including the people who buy illegal tobacco and perpetuate a problem that continues to fester and multiply here in Haldimand County.

But given that the contraband tobacco is multi-billion dollar industry, it's also fair to say that the RCMP and other agencies have bigger fish to fry, or so it seems, leaving it up to others to tackle what are big problems in their communities, but considered relatively small on a national scale.

That's no excuse for allowing people to openly flout laws on an ongoing basis. And the problems that smoke shacks in Haldimand pose to outside communities are arguably underestimated.

The RCMP's 2008 Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Strategy, which can be viewed online, states that "Realistically, elimination of the contraband tobacco market is not foreseeable in the near future. That being said, current levels are unacceptable to the RCMP. Success in minimizing the current market is heavily dependent on the effective partnerships and common priorities across impacted partners and stakeholders. To this end, the RCMP is committed to working internally as well as with its partners and stakeholders to ensure that every effort is made to enhance public safety and economic integrity across Canada."

To some people it may come as a revelation that purchasing illegal smokes here in Haldimand is just as illegal as selling them.

According to the Red Coats' enforcement strategy, a status Indian must present a Certificate of Indian Status card or a band card to a vendor on a Indian Reserve in order to acquire tobacco products without paying the GST, HST or PST.

The purchase of tobacco products on a reserve by other persons is subject to the normal rules.

Special allowances for native individuals does not give non-Natives the carte blanche to visit reserves, stock up on smokes, and take them home to friends in communities outside the area.

"The sale of contraband tobacco products," according to the so-called enforcement strategy report, "does not represent any medium or long-term benefit for anyone except the individuals making profits. There are negative health consequences (disease and death), economic consequences (loss of revenue and jobs for legitimate businesses) and public safety consequences (a variety of criminal activities linked to organized crime) for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities."

The report notes that some First Nations believe that it is the sovereign right of their members to produce tobacco products without the int3erference of the Canadian government. There are also those who believe these individuals are taking advantage of the current politically charged situation to benefit from criminal activities.

And, "There are Canadians who believe that illicit tobacco production, distribution, sale or end-use is a victimless crime, meaning that no one is directly impacted by the government, and 'sticking it to the tax man' is a viable rationale for participating in contraband tobacco activities."

The Caledonia Peacekeepers are attempting to change this thinking, even if it means mitigating the effects of the six or seven smoke shacks operating here in Haldimand. They may play a bigger role in the grand scheme of things than most people think.

According to the enforcement strategy, the "media play a significant role in informing Canadians about issues that affect their lives. A year in review analysis of national, regional and newswire print publications revealed a high frequency of coverage of RCMP efforts to combat contraband tobacco activities, compared to other enforcement issues... Given the high level of trafficking in certain Aboriginal communities, a review of articles directly linking contraband tobacco to Aboriginal communities or individuals from those communities indicated that one of three articles published on contraband tobacco linked the illegal activity to  certain Aboriginal communities, mostly in Ontario and Quebec.

"Unfortunately," it says, "national coverage only made up 2% of the articles published."

One can only conclude that even though the contraband tobacco issue is a national issue, the root of the problem is in the back woods, near places like Haldimand and Canada's largest Native Reserve, where few mainstream reporters venture when there are no tire fires or police lines.