Smuggling in the Far North

My first full-time job was with the Northwest Territories Department of Public Works and Highways. (There were only two so-called highways in the early 80s, neither paved. You were more likely to encounter a bear than another car.) As a junior project engineer, I supervised various construction projects in many of the Inuit and Dene communities.

Most communities are only accessible by air. In late summer or fall the few located along the Mackenzie River or the Arctic coast receive their annual resupply of freight, food, construction materials, and even vehicles by barge or freighter. In winter some are accessible from a larger community via a temporary ice road across the frozen tundra. However, for most, the only way in or out is by chartered flights or the regularly-scheduled “skeds” which fly in once or twice a week, weather permitting, loaded up with horrendously expensive fresh food, freight, and, occasionally… smuggled goods.

What would one smuggle into a remote community of 300 souls, you might ask? Young and naive, I had no idea of the “criminal” activity occurring under my very nose in some of the most breathtakingly beautiful, seemingly peaceful tiny communities sprinkled across the Land of the Midnight Sun.

One lovely summer day a very cute young Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer greeted the chartered two-seater plane that landed with me and my survey equipment on the gravel landing strip at Deline (then named Fort Franklin) on the shore of Great Bear Lake. He proceeded to inspect the items that the pilot off-loaded and then I trotted off to do whatever it was that had brought me there.

Later, Cute Officer and I must have had tea, because everyone up north visits and has tea. My memory is a little foggy as to the exact sequence of events, but I never forgot Cute Officer’s stories. You see, alcohol was and still is the scourge of the north. Deline was a dry community. The Dene elders had instituted a “no alcohol” ban, strictly enforced by the RCMP who met and searched every wheeled or float plane landing by the pretty collection of log houses. In winter they searched the sleds pulled behind snow machines returning from hunting trips. Apparently one night Cute Officer found a bottle stuffed inside a dead rabbit.

The piece de resistance to that point in his anti-smuggling campaign was the day he opened a crate of oranges, stuck his hand down amongst the individually-wrapped fruit, and squeezed. Sure enough, someone had replaced the oranges with round plastic bladders filled with alcohol.

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