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The Sinister Side

When one sits and looks out at a beautiful sunset in the Thousand Islands, the concepts of joy and tranquility come to mind. The multicolored skies are often part of the evening ritual.

 However, once the sun has set, the St. Lawrence River has, amidst all its beauty, a very dark underbelly that continues to this day. What to some people is merely a river - a body of water for recreation and international commercial traffic; to others the concept of international commercial traffic takes on a whole other meaning. 

On October 6th, 2009, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies in New York and Ontario, was successful in breaking up a contraband smuggling operation on the St. Lawrence River near Cape Vincent. A total of 6,500 cartons of untaxed contraband cigarettes, two boats, two boat trailers, four vehicles and approximately $27,000.00 in Canadian currency were seized. 

Illegal activity in the region is not new. In the early years it was known as bootlegging. During the period where the United States had banned alcohol production, many in the United States went to great lengths to get access to “the drink”. Those who are old enough to remember the years of Prohibition will remember the stories of the “rumrunners” who risked their lives crossing the St. Lawrence River in the midst of the night. Some unfortunate participants met their fate on the river from gunshots, some of whom were never found. However, for many families in the North Country and Canada, great riches were had through this enterprise.

As Prohibition has passed into the annals of our memory, the modern age of the Seaway has become a water freeway for other illegal enterprises. While liquor was the main focus many years ago, immigration, cigarettes, marijuana, and other contraband have made a whole new definition of international commerce between Canada and the United States. Some of our region’s residents have seen the television news this year revealing that this activity is quite alive and well.

In the last three years, many of those in the region’s law enforcement agencies have been involved with marijuana smuggling that has become prevalent in the area.

Eight people were arrested in a 2007 raid on a former mushroom factory just north of Moose Creek, Ontario.  Police seized 3,100 plants with an estimated street value of $3.1 million.  According to the RCMP, police in the Central St.  Lawrence Valley region seized about 1,570 kg of marijuana on both sides of the United States-Canada border between 2004 and 2006.  In 2007, that figure soared to 720 kg, - almost half the amount seized in the previous three years.

The proximity to major metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston, Toronto, Montreal is often cited as the reason that this area is highly strategic for those involved in this illegal activity. After the marijuana is grown, it's smuggled across the border and sold for up to $4,000 a pound "depending on how far south it goes," says an RCMP officer, adding that those profits are often laundered through cigarette factories on the U.S. side of the Akwesasne Reserve near Massena.  The officer further comments: "You know how the boatloads of cigarettes go north? With marijuana, the boatloads of (drugs) go south".

It is not only substances that are trafficked across the St. Lawrence River. Many illegal immigrants have been picked up in recent years in several towns in the Thousand Islands. Boaters are often paid large sums to transport the immigrants. While the numbers are unknown, the relative proximity to boat across the St. Lawrence from the United States to Canada is known, which makes this region a ripe area for this kind of enterprise.

The age of heightened border security is now upon us in both Canada and the United States. One only needs to look along some of the main roads in the Thousand Islands to see the Bordor Patrol vehicles alongside the roads and rest areas. With a little research, many will now understand why.

by James Rappaport

James is a regular contributor to TI Life.  He loves to explore the region and travels to many places over the summer.  He is a strategic management consultant for publishing, radio, and cable television ventures as well as contributing writer for several media outlets.   He began his writing at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, where he was a feature writer as well as a managing editor for the Hill News. His work has also been featured in various news outlets, including the Stamford (CT) Advocate and The New York Observer. Jim is a resident of Indian Point in the Town of Hammond and northwest Connecticut.

Additional material:

Center for Integrity: Tobacco Underground web site, written by William Marsden, March 2009 and additional information about this global issue.

RCMP:  “1000 Islands Integrated Border Enforcement Team butts out cigarette operation on St. Lawrence River”.  At the conclusion of this article is the notice: The public is reminded that they can provide information relating to any criminal activity by contacting the Provincial Crime Stoppers agency confidential tip line at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

CBC Radio: “Smugglers, RCMP face off on St. Lawrence”, August 2009. 

Ian picture
Photo by Ian Coristine ©
The on-going collaboration between Canadian and United States law enforcement agencies patrol the Thousand Islands.  These same waters were frequented during prohibition days.


Posted in: News Article
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Cindy Schlagter
Comment by: Cindy Schlagter ( )
Left at: 7:42 AM Sunday, November 15, 2009
I recently saw the movie "Frozen River" which shed some light on the smuggling of immigrants across the river near Massena. Very good movie.
Rosanne Withington
Comment by: Rosanne Withington ( )
Left at: 8:50 PM Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Mr. Rappaport's article gives well-deserved credit to the men and women who secure our rather porous border with Canada. They overcome bureaucratic inertia and manage to cooperate in providing a high level of security along the border. There are many events that do not rise to the level of media attention, but it is good to see that some big "busts" have been accomplished. "Good fences make good neighbors".
Dick Withington
Mike Cox
Comment by: Mike Cox
Left at: 2:22 PM Friday, November 27, 2009