TORONTO – The OPP have launched a Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Team to deal with investigating smuggling and trafficking of contraband tobacco in the province.
The announcement was made Monday that this new task force will be part of the OPP’s Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau. According to a press release, the team will also work with local, provincial, national and international enforcement agencies to “combat and eliminate sophisticated contraband tobacco networks across Ontario.”
Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi said in a written statement, “Combating and eliminating contraband tobacco is a priority for our government and what the new Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Team is all about. By strengthening the enforcement partnership between the OPP and the Ministry of Finance, we are taking a major step forward in breaking the link between organized crime and contraband tobacco and making our communities safer.”
This is the first concrete step the province of Ontario has taken to enforce legal action against ‘contraband tobacco’ manufacturers. Provincial taxes are currently set at about 14 cents per cigarette. Indigenous manufactured cigarettes have, to date, been exempt from this tax and have thus been lumped in as contraband.
In 2015 the Canadian federal government implemented changes to the Criminal Code of Canada making the manufacture, distribution and sale of unstamped tobacco a federal crime punishable with a six month minimum mandatory jail time. This in turn, implicated indigenous manufacturers, growers, and others in the indigenous tobacco industry guilty of federal crimes if they are not paying the 14 cents per cigarette.
Criticism of the changes came from indigenous tobacco manufacturers located in Kahnawake, Akwesasne and Six Nations who are still exempt from paying excise taxes on their territories. They have argued that the tobacco trade is a historic practise and indigenous right between territories.
Collective efforts were made by the communities of Kahnawake, Akwesasne and Six Nations to request that the federal government make legal consideration for indigenous tobacco manufacturers. However those concerns were not heeded by Ottawa and the changes to the Criminal Code received royal assent in the spring.
Members of the indigenous tobacco trade at Six Nations have been busy implementing an on-reserve tobacco law to protect local tobacco trade workers. However, those regulations are still at their planning stages by the Haudenosaunee Tobacco Trade Commission (HTTC), potentially leaving Six Nations tobacco workers vulnerable to legal enforcement by the OPP’s new team.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council has taken an official stance on locally manufactured native tobacco declaring it non-contraband and legal under Haudenosaunee law.
Since changes to Canada’s Criminal Code have been put in place, an independent agency called the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco (NCACT) have been pushing police enforcement officials to take action against unstamped tobacco, saying there is a direct link between contraband tobacco and organized crime.
As recently as last week, Coalition spokesperson Gary Grant of the NCACT, a Toronto Police veteran, toured the municipalities surrounding Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, advocating to news agencies and municipal government officials saying there was a known link between “contraband and child trafficking.”
To date there have been no studies or facts officially released to support that claim.
NCACT is a collective of nine other associations, including the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is the agency who nominated Gary McHale for a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for what they called “advocacy work” surrounding the land reclamation at Kanohnstaton.
The Ontario Convenience Store Association (OCSA), also a member of the NCACT, released a statement applauding the creation of the provincial task force.
“The Ontario Convenience Store Association (OCSA) is pleased that Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi and Finance Minister Charles Sousa are taking steps to address contraband tobacco with the creation of this task force,” said OCSA CEO Dave Bryans. “Illegal tobacco continues to thrive in Ontario, which hurts the bottom lines of our small businesses and government revenues. This is a significant step forward in addressing this ongoing problem.”