The trial of five people behind a controversial Manitoba First Nations smoke shop, accused of selling cheap, untaxed cigarettes, began in a Brandon courtroom this afternoon.
The Dakota Chundee shop, located on off-reserve land near Pipestone, Man., had been offering the cigarettes without a licence.
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The shop, which is operated by eight First Nations, opened in November 2011 and has been raided several times by police and ordered closed by government authorities.
Customers could buy a carton of 200 cigarettes for $40 at the Dakota Chundee shop, according to one provincial finance investigator..
Five people are on trial for charges under the Tobacco Tax Act of selling the unlicensed tobacco, including former Canupawakpa chief Franklin Brown.
Supporters of the accused took part in a horseback procession to the courthouse before the trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday morning.
The trial was supposed to start at 10 a.m. but did not get underway until early in the afternoon.
There was some confusion in the courtroom over exactly how many people were on trial. Furthermore, the accused don't have lawyers and are representing themselves in court.
Over the next four days, the Crown is expected to call upon 15 witnesses to testify that the Dakota Chundee Smoke Shop was an illegal operation.
Not beholden to provincial law?
Craig Blacksmith, one of the other people charged, said he isn't beholden to provincial law and has a right to sell Mohawk tobacco from Quebec for half the price of a legal carton in Manitoba.
The First Nation doesn't have official treaty status with Canada so the government has no jurisdiction, he said.
"The onus is on the province to prove its jurisdiction first," he said. "We've been waiting for that for two years, and we haven't been able to produce any kind of documentation that they have jurisdiction over us."
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) said aboriginal people have been trading tobacco with each other for thousands of years.
"We've been trading tobacco long long before there was any notion or any idea of provincial regulation in place, so it's a national dialogue," he told reporters.
"Alberta is watching what we are doing, Saskatchewan is watching what we are doing and we think the fight starts here."
The federal government is under-funding First Nations and they have a right to support themselves through free trade, he added.
If Dakota Chundee wins its case, it will be a huge victory for First Nations, who want to operate under their own laws, Blacksmith said.
"It's gonna be huge for our people," he said. "I mean this is probably the biggest event, as far as political-wise, dealing with native people, for the Canadian government."
Nepinak, as well as several members of the Dakota community, rode horses in the street outside the Brandon court house to show support, while drummers and singers played along.
"Dakota people are a sovereign nation and are in a court battle with the provincial and federal governments to protect their indigenous sovereign rights to trade tobacco," states a press release from the AMC.
"This is about economic apartheid built into provincial and federal policy and law against sovereign indigenous peoples."