Boats, cars, couriers: Drugs arrive on Cape Breton in multiple ways, police say

This story is part of a series by CBC Cape Breton examining the use of street drugs on the island. Click here to read more stories in this series.

Cocaine mailed by courier or stuffed into luggage. Packages surreptitiously dumped into the ocean and hauled ashore by fishing boats using a set of co-ordinates.

Cape Breton Regional Police say cocaine is arriving on the island via several routes.

“Like the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, you know, there’s multiple ways for it to get here because we’re an island,” said Const. John Campbell, who has spent four years working with the department’s street crime unit. 

“We’re seeing pure cocaine as it enters, as it’s imported onto the island, and then as it’s handed down to the different levels of trafficking, then it’s cut accordingly.”

A glimpse into Cape Breton’s drug trafficking history shows smugglers are active on the island best known for its rugged beauty, sprawling coastline and mountain vistas. 

In Campbell’s opinion, the most common way of moving drugs is having them driven to Sydney from Halifax.

Cape Breton Regional Police nabbed $200,000 worth of drugs, including pure cocaine and prescription pills, from two residences in Sydney last June. (Submitted by Cape Breton Regional Police)

On top of that, there’s Marine Atlantic’s ferries shuttling roughly 300,000 passengers back and forth between North Sydney, N.S., and Newfoundland each year. 

“You look at Marine Atlantic and all those RVs in the summertime and tractor-trailers and containers and everything, you’d be naive to think that there’s not contraband of some quantity in those, whether it’s tobacco, cocaine, marijuana, firearms,” said Campbell.

Island’s history of seizures

Large cocaine seizures have been reported in Cape Breton over the past 20 years, including in the summer of 2004 when police found $10 million worth of the stimulant hidden on a ship in Sydney harbour. 

Police found another $1.4 million worth of cocaine inside a Winnipeg man’s backpack in 2010 as he attempted to board a Marine Atlantic ferry in North Sydney.  

At that time, local police reported the bust as being the largest in their department’s history. That same year, the first-ever organized crime charges were laid in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality with 16 people charged with being part of an elaborate drug ring. 

A car goes whizzing by a sign showing motorists how to get to the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal in North Sydney. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Another case related to the ferry service dates back to 2016, when security officers uncovered two kilograms of cocaine allegedly inside a passenger’s suitcase at the North Sydney ferry terminal after he was selected for a random screening. 

A Nova Scotia judge later ruled the search violated the Ontario man’s charter rights, as he was likely not aware he could have refused the search. A drug charge against the man was later dismissed.

A year later in 2017, Nova Scotia RCMP announced the results of an international investigation that began in Cape Breton known as Operation Halfpenny.

The nearly two-year probe uncovered a conspiracy to import over one tonne of cocaine into Canada from Colombia. Three men from Cape Breton were charged with trafficking, with RCMP saying the cocaine was destined for streets in Nova Scotia and provinces across Canada.

Small ports an appealing choice

When it comes to importing cocaine, small ports such as North Sydney could be considered an appealing choice.

“Atlantic Canada is not necessarily a big market for drugs, but it is an important entry point or conduit for cocaine that’s coming from Colombia or Mexico,” said Stephen Schneider, a criminologist at St. Mary’s University in Halifax.

Schneider, who has researched organized crime since the late 1980s, said large quantities of cocaine arrive in Canada in two ways, either through land entry points along the U.S.-Canada border or marine ports and marine container shipments.

In particular, Schneider said Maritime ferries are viewed as an easier place to avoid law enforcement and screening.

Stephen Schneider is an associate professor of criminology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. (Submitted photo)

“Definitely, the bad guys are always looking for ways to get around enforcement, and avoiding large marine container ports or using Maritime ferries as one way to get around that,” he said.

“There’s much less security aboard Marine Atlantic ferries, or any ferries, for that matter.”

CBC News sent interview requests to Marine Atlantic and Transport Canada, which oversees its safety regulations, and both requests were denied. 

Marine Atlantic spokesperson Darrell Mercer issued a statement saying the Crown corporation undertakes random screening at its terminals.

Mercer said any issues related to illegal activity are “directed to the appropriate authorities for followup and investigation.” 

Enforcement a losing battle

Schneider describes a David versus Goliath situation when asked about stopping the flow of drugs into Canada. 

“Enforcement is really a losing battle because we simply don’t have the resources to be able to effectively screen every single marine container coming through a port, let alone detect drugs on [them],” he said.

“It’s really just a whack-a-mole. You can spend years and hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars, trying to dismantle one major drug trafficking organization and then basically 10 others will pop up in the void.”

Instead of focusing their attention on stopping drug trafficking, Schneider suggests governments spend more money on helping people.

“The best investment we can make to address street drugs is to reduce demand by increasing our health-care resources and our mental health care and substance abuse resources,” he said.  

“There’s a few battles won, but generally we’ve lost the war on drug trafficking and organized crime. And the real hope is just trying to control it and trying to minimize the harm. But even that is an extremely difficult thing to do.”


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