BONOKOSKI: Canada’s growing contraband tobacco problem

BONOKOSKI: Canada’s growing contraband tobacco problem

Once acquitted, James Douglas Shanks was bound and determined to sue Revenu Quebec for compensation for the $185,000 in the 88 bales of tobacco they scooped at a traffic stop near Montreal.

But he was found guilty, fined $2 million which is the usual high fine in Quebec for tobacco smuggling, and sentenced to prison for one year.

This got him in the headlines.

Shanks had convinced me, however, that there’d be no more smuggling in his upcoming days, and that he was going to be living the boring straight and impoverished narrow.

In the three years that I’ve known him, this was true. He was couch-surfing in Montreal for overnight accommodation before, in the late spring of 2001, taking up residence in a rooming house in Cornwall, Ont., that had a view of the Canada-U.S. bridge.

He was as unlikely to have $2 million as he was to not be broke.

I met him because of a grainy YouTube video in which he was casting knowledge of the late Kenny Hill, a man who lived it very large as a partner in a massive, federally-licenced cigarette manufacturer on Six Nation’s Mohawk land known as Grand River Enterprises (GRE).

So off to Port Colborne I went, where Shanks then lived with a female who had learned about the contraband tobacco trade from none other than Shanks himself. 

(The woman would be dead in Calgary within months, with the obituary saying she died of natural causes.)

Both had packed up the house they were renting in order to move to Dauphin, Man., and now they needed to rent a truck.

Why Dauphin and to what end? Shanks wouldn’t say.

When he was in Dauphin, I talked to Shanks on the telephone to learn more about the tobacco industry and how there were at least 15 illegal manufacturers on the Six Nations reserve, many doing knock-offs of GRE products.

Shanks had made an arrangement with Sprucepoint Farm’s Brent Manary, a licenced tobacco grower in the great swath of Tobacco Country near Brantford, Ont., to purchase 88 bales of tobacco, each bale weighing 700 lbs., and with each ounce producing 40 cigarettes.

Here’s how the news story read:

“Fines totalling nearly $5 million have been imposed on four people and three transport companies from Quebec and Ontario for their involvement in a tobacco smuggling ring, Revenu Québec announced Thursday.”

“The leader of this network, James Douglas Shanks, of Cornwall, Ontario, was fined $2 million, in addition to a 12-month prison sentence.”

So now we had a “ring” and a “network” supposedly headed up by Shanks, all of which suggested this wasn’t his first rodeo.

If so, he had me totally conned.

Although not fined or even named in Shank’s sentence, Brent Manary is no longer growing tobacco. He’s now into vegetable crops.

Suffice, contraband cigarettes are a multi-million dollar scheme in Ontario, a vocation made easy by the back-to-back traffic in crossovers to and from the U.S., and by the fact, that the Ontario Provincial Police will not enter a reserve unless invited.

Think Oka, Ipperwash, and Caledonia for the reasons.

Because of this, Ontario and Quebec lose hundreds of thousands in tax revenues, with Ontario’s budget no longer employing the word “contraband” but “unregulated” tobacco instead.

Each budget in Ontario makes projections lower than the previous year, not because many thousands have quit smoking but because of the illicit tobacco trade.

On an individual basis, why pay $20 for a legal pack, 70% of it being taxes, when a pack of tax-free cigarettes can be purchased at a smoke shack on any Ontario reserve, or from a friendly neighbour, for as little as $4.

It’s all price point.

As for Shank’s case, the investigation also led to the arrest of other suspects, including two Quebecers,  Derek Denis, 57, of Kanesatake and Willard  Richardson, 65, of Saint-Alphonse-de-Granby, Que., who were fined $76,317 and $44,571 respectively.

Meanwhile, Crazy Horse Transport, based in Kanesatake, will have to pay a fine of nearly $800,000, while the company  Flatliner Transport of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., gets a fine of $32,000.

And so it goes. hundreds of convictions every year, but also hundreds of tobacco smugglers slipping across the border undetected.

It’s like looking for Waldo.

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Mark Bonokoski is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame and has been published by a number of outlets – including the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s and Readers’ Digest.

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