Indigenous tobacco trade not 'contraband' industry

The recent arrests of four indigenous men on tobacco-related charges clearly demonstrates how the federal government and police callously demonize what they call the “contraband tobacco industry.”

'Government, police callously demonize what they call the contraband tobacco industry,' says Steve Bonspiel

Investigators unload boxes of cigarettes seized from a Quonset hut at Hobbema, Alta. in 2011. Faces are intentionally blurred. (ALCB)

The recent arrests of four indigenous men in Quebec on tobacco-related charges clearly demonstrates how the federal government and police callously demonize what they call the "contraband tobacco industry," hoping the average Canadian will aid them in their fight and, at the same time, keep them utterly ignorant to who we really are.

The mainstream media too often falls for it, hook, line and sinker. Phrases like "aboriginal organized crime" create a bigger backlash against our people.

The Sûreté du Québec stated that a total of 56 individuals were arrested. What about the 52 others? Little mention was made of them, yet they faced far more serious charges relating to drugs.

I'm not saying organized crime – or undesirable elements, or whatever you want to call them – don't, at times, have a hand in various trades in our communities. But whatever hand is in the till, and it is certainly on a small scale here, it happens everywhere, especially in non-indigenous communities across the board – and not just involving tobacco.

The biggest scandals are perpetuated by rich white men, politicians, people in places of power (see Quebec's Charbonneau Commission on corruption in public contracts and the construction industry for good examples). Yet, the ones trying to make a living on-reserve are treated like bigger criminals, with trumped up accusations that the cigarettes they are selling fund much larger and more dangerous things like biker gangs and terrorist groups.

Tobacco a necessary 'economic engine'

Sure, there are people involved with undesirables here, but when Joe Native is selling cartons of native-brand cigarettes for $20, it's going to take the movement of a whole lot of product before his wife can quit her job as a bead worker.

Our people found a way to use tobacco to our advantage as an economic engine out of necessity, when so many other industries were called illegal and simply shut down by the feds.

The First Nations Winery, for example, is a case before the courts right now. The Kahnawake, Que., business was forced to shut down essentially because of the involvement of a non-indigenous businessperson – and the rightful refusal of owner Floyd Lahache to let the outside government stick its nose in on-reserve business.

Then there was Bingo Magic in Kanesatake, Que. It was shut down in the late 1980s and 1990s after two separate raids on a sovereign Mohawk reserve, mostly because the feds wanted more control.

'Anti-native tobacco'

This tobacco bust – one in a long line of so many and aided by "anti-native tobacco" legislation in the form of Bill C-10 – is another attempt by Canada to make us submit; to remind us they "have control"; to target whatever economic engine sustains our community.

No raids were carried out in Kahnawake two weeks ago despite police propaganda, and the local police (Peacekeepers) would not serve the warrant because the community stands behind the tobacco industry.

I think the main reason outside governments target local tobacco is because they don't get tax dollars from it – dollars they are not, and never will be, entitled to.

The local tobacco industry is not perfect of course, and workers need better job security, benefits and protection – proper regulations still don't exist here in Kahnawake – but tobacco has also made us one of the most prosperous indigenous communities in Canada.

Playing the game

Some factories here went as far as to secure federal permits to manufacture tobacco, agreeing to pay tax to the government so they can sell to a wider market.

Rainbow Tobacco, for example, was busted back in 2011 for exercising its rights.

Rainbow had a federal manufacturing permit but when a nation-to-nation deal was made with the Crees from the Montana First Nation in Alberta, the province stopped them, seized their product and millions of dollars in tobacco was lost.

Rainbow Tobacco owner Robbie Dickson was found not guilty of illegally importing the product last summer, and the company is going further with a constitutional challenge, currently before the courts.

Imagine when a mere province (the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission) is able to control a sovereign nation simply because they are ignorant of that nation's rights.

In order to get ahead in the indigenous world, you have to keep fighting and using a foreign system to affirm your supposedly protected inherent rights.

In the Rainbow case, Ottawa stood by and watched as a legal permit holder was thrown under the bus.

Right to trade

That's why we stand strongly and collectively behind our inherent right to trade tobacco – because there is nothing wrong with prospering, legally, in a world that has set so many boundaries for us to get ahead financially.

All bets are off, of course, if organized crime is involved and directly profits from our collective rights. We, as a community, won't stand behind that and refuse to protect the ones who sell out our rights.

Make no mistake: tobacco causes cancer and kills people, but when our communities have been pushed so far to the edge, not "allowed" to use other commerce to our benefit, we have to adapt until there is a level playing field and our businesses are not targeted with reckless abandon out of abject ignorance.


Steve Bonspiel

Editor, The Eastern Door

Steve Bonspiel is the editor/publisher of Kahnawake Mohawk Territory’s award-winning weekly newspaper The Eastern Door. He has won numerous provincial and national awards for his articles and editorials. Bonspiel is Mohawk, from Kanesatake, currently based in Kahnawake, Que.