“The only reason people are making a big deal out of it is because the government ‘aint gettin’ their cut,” the Mohawk teenager says bluntly, referring to the shelves of cheap, aboriginally-produced cigarettes for sale in his Kahnawake smoke-shack.
The teenager – who won’t give his name, nor allow pictures in his store – says he has been selling the cigarettes for at least a year. There are about a dozen other smoke shacks on the territory; the trade is nothing new, he says. But he admits business, especially from suburban Montrealers, has been more brisk lately.
Cheap smokes in Kahnawake: The words are the map to Nirvana for the huge pool of Montreal-area nicotine addicts now paying almost $8 a pack, above even the bad old days of the early 90s. They’re like a red flag to the big bulls of Canadian politics and law enforcement who, largely ignorant of the finer points of aboriginal treaty rights, see the trade as illegal, no different from organized crime smuggling in kilos of other highly addictive substances. To many, but not all, Mohawks, they are a plan for if not community than personal economic development in a territory with few natural resources or tourist draws.
And, like many parts of the relationship between Mohawk and Montreal, the spectre of 1990 is never far away.
So what’ll happen if the SQ tries to bust this place? “They know better. I’ve got my gun right here,” says the kid, nodding down to a rifle propped up against the back of the counter. “I make one call and this place is full of guys in under 10 minutes. Guns and everything.” Akwasasne tobacco plants The cigarettes are produced in two plants in Akwesasne, the Mohawk community just outside Cornwall, Ontario. Akwesasne straddles the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York State and has for years been a thriving entrepot for free-traders who want their wares to pass unnoticed by Canadian and American customs and law-enforcement eyes. Rowena General, a representative of the Akwesasne Band Council, says the trade is perfectly legitimate, as goods produced and sold by aboriginal people on aboriginal territory are, by law and treaty, exempt from federal and provincial taxes.
The area has seen smuggling before. In the late 80s and early 90s, high government taxes on cigarettes – and tobacco executives who were worried about losing market share – combined to create a huge contraband supply of smokes. In 1994, the federal government slashed taxes, an admission that RCMP attempts to beat the lucrative trade had failed. But the new trade in cheap smokes, coming as new federal and provincial taxes push the cost of cigarettes up to pre-1994 levels, has Canadian authorities worried. “We’re concerned with the contraband goods that are being smuggled across the border,” said Constable Marie-Claude Arsenault with the RCMP’s Cornwall detachment. Montreal-area Mounties, SQ and local police have promised to crack down on the smokes, charging anyone who buys them.
Timmy Norton, the public-relations officer for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, says everything is legit.
“Any product that is delivered here to the community – cars, furniture, whatever – is tax-free,” he said. Any goods sold to nonaboriginals? “People selling it feel it is their right to sell it tax-free.” While selling taxable products to non-aboriginals is not specifically defined under law and treaty, numerous court decisions have upheld the right of aboriginal people to economic activity exempt from taxation.
One of Canada’s top scholars of aboriginal rights agrees. “In their narrow-minded view of the law, [the RCMP] probably thinks they are right. The fact that we have a different status on reserves is an established fact of Canadian law,” said Gerald Alfred, a professor at the University of Victoria. A Mohawk, he saw the early-90s trade from the inside, working for a top smuggler.
Policing protocol But as anyone who watched the recent embarassing implosion of the biker gang mega-trial knows, guilt or innocence is one thing; enforcement is quite another. As the kid in the smoke shack roughly pointed out, it is unlikely Canadian police agencies would raid Kahnawake given the sorry history of 1990. And a policing deal signed since the crisis requires Canadian authorities to enforce any laws through Kahnawake’s police force, the Peacekeepers. “There is a protocol signed between the SQ, RCMP and Peacekeepers,” said Norton. “Any actions will be taken by the Peacekeepers. There will be no raids on the community.” Norton says the problem might be solved at the negotiating table. Although he wouldn’t release any specifics, he disclosed officials from Kahnawake, Ottawa and Quebec City are working on a protocol to address how Mohawks can recoup the cost of highly-taxed goods, like gasoline, alcohol and tobacco.
Norton is convinced the RCMP, knowing their anti-tobacco case is legally shaky and virtually unenforceable, are just tring to scare customers off. “They’re trying to scare non-natives into not coming here and buying cigarettes. It’s scare tactics as public relations.” Whatever the bluster, it’s unlikely the new trade in cheap smokes will come anywhere near the levels of the 1990s, if for the simple reason the two cigarette plants in Akwesasne employing 200 people do not have anywhere near the productive capacity to keep Montreal, a city of inveterate smokers, satisfied.
Still, Alfred worries either ignorance or stupidity could cause Canada and Quebec to pick a fight with the Mohawk nation over the smokes, with disastrous consequences. “I don’t know if they’ve learned from their past mistakes. Everytime they try to provoke the Mohawks into disarray, they just provoke us into unity. If that’s the plan – bring it on.”