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Down Memory Lane: The early days of rum running

An unidentified RCMP officer loads boxes of liquor aboard a pickup truck for transportation to the detachment at Grand Bank.  The contraband liquor, described by the police at the time, as one of the biggest seizures on the south coast in recent years, was confiscated in December 1974, when the fishing vessel “Term 29” was seized at Grole, a deserted community near the entrance to Hermitage Bay. Two men were arrested in the incident. Police estimated the contraband was valued at $3,200 at St. Pierre, but locally would be worth in excess of $10,000; that is equal to approximately $47,000 in today’s dollars.
An unidentified RCMP officer loads boxes of liquor aboard a pickup truck for transportation to the detachment at Grand Bank. The contraband liquor, described by the police at the time, as one of the biggest seizures on the south coast in recent years, was confiscated in December 1974, when the fishing vessel “Term 29” was seized at Grole, a deserted community near the entrance to Hermitage Bay. Two men were arrested in the incident. Police estimated the contraband was valued at $3,200 at St. Pierre, but locally would be worth in excess of $10,000; that is equal to approximately $47,000 in today’s dollars. - Allan Stoodley

The smuggling of liquor to this province from the nearby French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon is viewed much differently today than it was decades ago.

From the earliest of times our people would cross the 12 mile stretch of water, often in small open boats, to purchase cheap liquor and tobacco, especially during the months of October, November and December — leading up to Christmas. Even as far back as the mid 1800s Customs Officials estimated that Newfoundland, then an independent country, was being robbed every year of about $50,000 due to the smuggling from the French islands.

In recent years, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, the huge amounts of liquor and cigarettes coming illegally from St. Pierre et Miquelon increased and became such a big commercial operation that it resulted in it being treated as a major crime with the courts dramatically increasing fines, confiscation of property and often prison time for many of those caught and convicted. 

During the winter of 1975 the local smugglers received quite a break when a severe cold winter coupled with the fishing trawlers being tied up, and thus not leaving port, resulted in the harbour at Fortune freezing up.  This meant that the RCMP Patrol Boat, which was using Fortune as a home port, was unable to leave.  In this photo the five-man crew had to take saws and axes to cut a channel to allow the vessel to leave. At the time the ice was up to 20 inches thick. This happened several times that winter and no doubt would-be smugglers were quite aware of the RCMP dilemma. - Allan Stoodley
During the winter of 1975 the local smugglers received quite a break when a severe cold winter coupled with the fishing trawlers being tied up, and thus not leaving port, resulted in the harbour at Fortune freezing up. This meant that the RCMP Patrol Boat, which was using Fortune as a home port, was unable to leave. In this photo the five-man crew had to take saws and axes to cut a channel to allow the vessel to leave. At the time the ice was up to 20 inches thick. This happened several times that winter and no doubt would-be smugglers were quite aware of the RCMP dilemma. - Allan Stoodley

For example, a police raid labelled “Operation Blowtorch” in December, 1989, which involved some 100 RCMP officers converging on the Burin Peninsula, searching homes and making arrests, resulted in 74 Newfoundlanders and seven residents of St. Pierre being charged. Then a 1994 RCMP raid at Terrenceville, code-named “Operation Bacon”, resulted in contraband and assets being seized with a total value of over $300,000.

With an increased permanent police presence on the Burin Peninsula coupled with faster boats at their disposal, the lot of the serious would-be smugglers was made so difficult that the movement of illegal liquor and tobacco today is only a shadow of what it once was.

Flashing back to a very different era in the 1950s to the 1970s...... when the spirit of Christmas began to stir, there were always a few brave souls who would dare the elements and flirt with the local RCMP patrol vessels to bring home some of that St. Pierre et Miquelon “booze”.

Back then, many tales were told of the Burin Peninsula smugglers in their little open fishing dories or skiffs dumping their illegal cargoes overboard as the police cutter speedily approached.

One of the most humorous liquor seizures occurred during the summer of 1972 when the RCMP boat “Standoff” spotted a dory going around in circles and went to investigate.

It appears that the lone occupant had visited St. Pierre and couldn’t wait to get back to Newfoundland with his French liquor before trying it. Anyway, he began tipping some of the bottles en route and was promptly intoxicated. The next thing he knew the “Standoff” was almost upon him. Having most of his liquor in burlap bags he threw it overboard and it promptly sank. However, his luck ran out when he threw over a wooden crate which floated and was quickly plucked out of the ocean by a crewmember of the RCMP boat. The crate was found to contain a five gallon can of rum.

Two days later our hero appeared in magistrate’s court and was fined $100 for operating a motor vehicle (in this case his boat) while impaired by alcohol; $75 for possession of contraband goods and was also sentenced to 12 months in jail plus a $500 fine for carrying an offensive weapon while in possession of contraband. The weapon was a double barrel, 12 gauge shotgun.

Back then, many tales were told of the Burin Peninsula smugglers in their little open fishing dories or skiffs dumping their illegal cargoes overboard as the police cutter speedily approached.

Another time our same smuggler was reported missing when he did not return home from cod-fishing. The RCMP was notified and a search was organized. Gale force winds blew in the area during the night. The next morning the wreckage of a dory was found on the beach of the Burin Peninsula, directly across from St. Pierre. Two cans of alky were found floating among the debris from the dory.

Our hero managed to swim ashore and was none the worst for his ordeal. However, the RCMP was unable to say if there was any connection between him and the St. Pierre alcohol.

An estimated $20,000 worth of contraband liquor and cigarettes were seized by Burin Peninsula RCMP officers in 1971, while in 1972 that figure was reduced by 75 per cent. In 1973 smuggling on Newfoundland’s south coast, as far as the police were concerned, was a dead issue with not a single liquor seizure of any consequence occurring.

Then in the mid 1980s the slow moving dories of the past were being replaced by fibreglass speedboats with powerful outboard motors These boats enabled the potential smugglers to cross the body of water separating the Burin Peninsula from the French islands in a matter of minutes rather than the two or three hours it took in earlier days. A new era had dawned for the serious smugglers and for the next decade or so they took full advantage of it.

Today, we seldom hear of liquor seizures making the news. A special RCMP Customs Unit, which for some years was operational from Burin, initially placed most of its emphasis on combating the flow of contraband goods coming from St. Pierre et Miquelon but then broadened its mandate to include drugs. It’s efforts to combat the smuggling coupled with the much heavier penalties for those caught proved to be so successful that recently the Burin Unit has seen its personnel redeployed elsewhere.

No doubt there will always be the occasional small boat from this area that will still take the chance to dart across the water for a quick visit to the land of our French neighbours, but without a doubt the magnitude of smuggling as we once knew it is a thing of the past.

Allan Stoodley is a longtime resident of Grand Bank. He welcomes comments on this or any other article he has written.

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