Visit the Mohawk community of Kahnawake and the number of smoke shops within the community is staggering. Along the major routes cutting through the reserve, smoke shops line the roadsides. Every second property seems to have a small shed on it selling cigarettes. It seems like everyone is involved in the cigarette trade. And according to a new documentary, Smoke Traders, it’s not far from the truth.
Directed by Objiway filmmaker Jeff Dorn for Rezolution Pictures, this 51-minute documentary sheds light on the Native involvement in the cigarette business in Quebec and Ontario – more specifically, the Mohawk involvement.
Focussing on several individuals, this engaging film points out that most Mohawk communities have lifted themselves out of poverty thanks to the tobacco trade. Brian White, a former smoke runner from Akwesasne, is now turning his attention to setting up a solar panel business. However, as he discovers creating a legitimate business is tougher than expected. Instead of enjoying the quick cash fix transporting cigarettes brings, White now spends his time filling out grant applications and waiting for distant government bureaucrats to make decisions on his future.
The charismatic Robbie Dickson is a successful Kahnawake entrepreneur, who owns and runs Rainbow Tobacco, a multi-million dollar company. A trained civil engineer, he realized early on that the tobacco business was a profitable venture and subsidized his university education running cigarettes.
While the cigarette trade might be a lucrative source of revenue for these communities, it is an “illegal” undertaking in the eyes of the federal and provincial governments. The reason is simple: no taxes are being paid. As cigarette factory manager Bob Hill from Six Nations, Ontario, points out the federal government is a business, and they’re “not getting a piece of the pie”.
If you look around the various Mohawk reserves, you quickly realize how important the tobacco trade has been for the local economy. The communities no longer look like impoverished neighbourhoods, but boast new houses, new businesses and new pride. As stated in Smoke Traders, the industry helps fund sports and recreation activities for both young and old as well as community and school events. In many ways it has supplanted government grants and hand-outs, and boosted the standard of living of every community.
As Queenie, a cigarette runner and proud home-owner, states, “It gets us off welfare.”
Traditionally, tobacco has played an important role in Native culture. The film points out that tobacco is one of four sacred plants along with sweet grass, sage and cedar. As Dickson proclaims, “We have a right to the tobacco plant given to us by the Creator to help our people.”
For Dickson, who pays federal taxes and has acquired federal licenses to move his products legally, the tobacco trade raises the issue of sovereignty. With the RCMP busting his legitimate dealings with First Nation communities in Alberta and Manitoba, he is willing to fight the authorities in the courts and judging by his resolve, he would take all the way to the Supreme Court. As he states, “It’s our birthright to do it.”
The Canadian tobacco industry is implicated in the illegal trade by supporting the cross-border flow of cigarettes coming into the country from the States. In 1980s and 1990s, as public opinion turned against smoking, huge tax increases and its effects on the markets, these multinationals needed new ways to maintain their massive profits and had no problem supplying Native cigarette traders with product manufactured in the US and smuggled across the border to be sold to non-Natives tax free.
Sure there is an ethical question surrounding selling cheap cigarettes since everyone knows that smoking kills, but at the same time it offers a bountiful source of revenue for people who need it. “It’s the Indian way to use what the Creator gives us,” says White.
Smoke Traders is an insightful, defiant, and at times humorous portrayal of the existing cigarette trade. The result of three years of research, this informative documentary sheds light on an economic grey zone that is indicative of the way the Canadian government deals with all things Native.