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Federal government urged to rethink Cornwall border crossing’s relocation

In July, 2009, Canada Border Service Agency guards set up a makeshift border post in Cornwall, Ont., after the Harper government decided to arm border guards, provoking anger among Cornwall Island First Nations who took issue with gun-carrying federal staff on their territory.

DAVDI GONCZOL/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is pressing Ottawa to reconsider plans to move a crucial Canadian border crossing to the United States amid concerns it would open Canada's doors to smuggled guns, illegal immigrants and contraband tobacco.

If the crossing is moved from Cornwall, Ont., to Massena, N.Y., critics point out there would no longer be a checkpoint on Canadian territory to prevent smugglers from moving goods off an already permeable Cornwall Island into mainland Ontario.

"In the opinion of the officers working there, [Cornwall Island] is a better place [for the crossing]," Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Madeleine Meilleur said after the release of Thursday's provincial budget, which briefly mentioned the border issue in its section on tobacco tax.

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Contraband cigarettes sell for as little as $10 for a bag of 200, evading the province's per-carton tobacco tax of $24.70 and undermining its revenue stream. Another concern is health-care costs: the cheap smokes are more appealing than full-price ones, and because they are not subject to provincial health and marketing standards, ever-more damaging – just as the government reiterates its commitment to a smoke-free Ontario.

The Cornwall crossing has long been a thorn in Ottawa's side. In 2009, the Harper government decided to arm border guards, and Cornwall Island aboriginals took issue with gun-carrying federal staff on their territory. The crossing was temporarily moved to mainland Ontario, but the Harper government said in 2011 it would relocate its port of entry to Massena, where the United States does its own preclearance.

In an interview at Queen's Park, OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis said that while he believes a Cornwall Island crossing is ideal, the area is a security headache – a tangle of provincial, state and national jurisdictions punctuated by a narrow river and a smattering of islands.

"The reality is that no matter where that crossing goes, its going to be a hotbed of smuggling," Commissioner Lewis said, adding that the Akwesasne-St. Regis Mohawk reserve, where contraband cigarettes are produced, straddles the Canada-U.S. border.

Ms. Meilleur said illegal immigration is a concern but that gun-smuggling and contraband tobacco are "especially" worrisome.

In a Jan. 17, 2013, letter to federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Ms. Meilleur warned that the proposed move could threaten community safety in general and efforts to prevent tobacco smuggling specifically. Ms. Meilleur said Mr. Toews' April 18 response stated that Ottawa is "looking at it" and that a final decision has not been reached.

"It was a vague answer, but at least the door is open," Ms. Meilleur said, adding that she has asked for a meeting with her federal counterpart.

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A spokesperson for Mr. Toews said the long-term relocation plan depends on a comprehensive preclearance agreement with the United States, and that negotiations are "ongoing."

The exact size of the illegal market is unknown but "acknowledged to be substantial," Thursday's budget said, adding that ministry investigators and inspectors have seized 223 million illegal cigarettes since 2008.

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