Maritime Drug Smuggling and Rum-Running

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 13, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

A slight chop rocks the P.V. Ferguson as the RCMP patrol boat motors out of Pugwash Harbour. Ahead, some lobster trap buoys, the occasional gull and a few navigational markers are all that bob in the aluminum-hue sea.

Maritime Drug Smuggling and Rum-Running

A slight chop rocks the P.V. Ferguson as the RCMP patrol boat motors out of Pugwash Harbour. Ahead, some lobster trap buoys, the occasional gull and a few navigational markers are all that bob in the aluminum-hue sea. But John Trickett, the 43-year-old captain, nevertheless vigilantly scans the horizon. He knows odd things have a habit of appearing along the nooks and crannies of Nova Scotia's 4,000-km coastline. Last August, for example, a pair of RCMP officers pulled into an isolated cove in the remote seaside community of Tangier and found six men transferring $25 million worth of hashish from their sailboat to waiting vehicles. Today, Trickett and his two-man crew are back roaming the coast searching for their own big bust. "God," Trickett says, "if my father-in-law could see me now."

No doubt, John Bernard MacIsaac, whose home was once a safe haven for bootleggers, would appreciate the irony if he were still alive. His son-in-law, after all, spends his working hours trying to stop international drug cartels from turning isolated stretches of Nova Scotia coastline into a pipeline for moving narcotics into North America. The job has its frustrations: despite 17 major busts during the past 11 years, narcotics enforcement officials are under no illusion that they're beating the drug lords. "It's like a balloon," concedes Fred Gallop, Nova Scotia coordinator for the RCMP's Coastal and Airport Watch Program. "You choke it off in one place and it just pops up somewhere else."

Which is pretty much how it was 80 years ago when rum-runners unloaded booze - not narcotics or today's other popular illicit commodity, illegal aliens - onto isolated Atlantic shores under cover of night. Back then, the law enforcement challenge was even greater: instead of tracking down a South American captain who didn't know Saint John from St. John's, as was the case in one drug arrest last year, authorities chased savvy locals who knew every inch of the ragged coastline. And good folk like the MacIsaacs - whose house on Prince Edward Island's north shore was known as a place to hide liquor - viewed rum-runners as people trying to provide an essential service. "Today, nobody wants to help a drug dealer," says Ralph Getson, the curator of education at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg, N.S., "but back then people's sympathies were definitely with the rum-runners."

For one thing, large segments of public opinion were opposed to the prohibition of the day. And enforcing the ban was nearly impossible with the islands of St-Pierre and Miquelon, lying just south of Newfoundland, awash with booze. Some of the liquor from these French-owned isles ended up in Canada's speakeasies. But most of the West Indian rum, British gin, French champagne and Canadian whiskey stacked high in warehouses was bound for "Rum Row" off the U.S. eastern seaboard, where emissaries of gangsters like Al Capone waited for delivery.

The rum trade arrived at the perfect time for the small villages of Atlantic Canada, which were suffering through a cyclical downturn in the fishery. Clement Hiltz, like so many other young, adventurous men from Lunenburg, found it easy to choose between an act that was illegal, but very lucrative, and another season of harvesting cod off the frigid banks of Newfoundland. Recalls the 90-year-old, who still lives in Lunenburg: "I could make more money running one load of booze than I could in a year on the fishing boats."

So, at 15, Hiltz joined seven others aboard the Silver Arrow and headed for St-Pierre. There he would have had plenty of company: some 40 ships crowded the island's docks each month to fill their hulls with liquor. Before long, some of the region's ablest skippers were running booze. They had their pick of the best crews, including, in one case, a Lunenburg teenager named Hugh Corkum who went on to become the town's long-time chief of police before dying in 1989. "These weren't reprobates," says curator Getson. "They were just doing what everyone else was doing."

At first, everyday fishing schooners ran the perilous route south from St-Pierre and Miquelon. Later, smuggling vessels adapted for the job at hand: they were painted in drab tones, sat low in the water and provided extra storage space. It paid to be cautious. The U.S. and Canada separately declared war on the Atlantic rum-runners during the Twenties, and the rum-runners couldn't match the swift, heavily armed cutters' firepower. But they had plenty of guile. Bribes convinced inspectors to turn a blind eye. When the cutters gave chase, the elusive vessels laid smoke screens and disappeared into the coves and bays dotting the coastlines. It didn't hurt that the rum-runners had countless allies on shore like the MacIsaacs willing to stow the contraband in barns, cellars, fields and other "hides."

The smugglers risked not only arrest but their very lives. On March 21, 1929, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter sparked a cross-border dispute by firing upon and sinking the Lunenburg-registered I'm Alone, which was carrying 2,800 cases of liquor while in international waters. One of the smugglers drowned. Two years later, American authorities shot a Lunenburg skipper, William Cluett, who later died, while capturing the Nova Scotia rum-runner Josephine K. at the entrance to New York harbour. And, in 1933, a Canadian agent named John "Machine Gun" Kelly killed a Lunenburg man when he opened fire on a small boat unloading booze outside that town's harbour. "It was scary out there," says Hiltz, who took part in six different rum-running voyages before quitting to return to the fishing boats. "I don't know who we were more worried about: the coast guard cutters or the gangsters on Rum Row who wanted to hijack our load."

Those wild days seem like ancient history as the Ferguson cuts through the Northumberland Strait toward P.E.I. The last Atlantic rum-runner, the notorious Nellie J. Banks - immortalized in a 1980s song by the same name - was finally seized in 1938. But, in some respects, little has changed. Nowadays, the RCMP and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency still struggle to shut down the flow of bootleg St-Pierre liquor into Newfoundland. And the lawbreakers still work the Atlantic coast with their drugs and illegal immigrants.

Nova Scotia remains the destination of choice. But in the past decade there has been a major cocaine bust in New Brunswick and five major drug seizures in Newfoundland. And authorities believe drug cartels are spreading their distribution net to far-off Labrador now that the Trans-Labrador Highway runs right through to Quebec. "Smuggling is kind of a tradition on the East Coast," says Trickett, himself a Newfoundlander. "Maybe that's never going to change." Not as long as there are those thousands of kilometres of jagged coastline and somebody happy to try to earn a dishonest buck.


Maclean's May 13, 2002