Almost exactly twenty years ago, in February 1994, the RCMP threatened to invade the Six Nations territory in a crackdown on cigarette smuggling. And now once again, the federal government is threatening Haudenosaunee people to send in their “goon squad” in an attempt to seize any and all ‘illegal’ tobacco.
The only difference is, if Bill C-10 passes into law, it would give the shared task of seizing tobacco and laying charges, to provincial as well as First Nations police agencies. Some 300 concerned community members packed the hall at Six Nations Polytech last Saturday to listen to a line up of speakers discuss the ramifications of Bill C-10 and what it means for First Nations people who are involved in the tobacco trade.
Jonathan Garlow, founder of Two Row Times, explained to the crowd what this new proposed piece of legislation means to him. “Despite attempts of extinguishment, we are still here,” stated Garlow. “Since time immemorial, we have benefited from the relationships of tobacco trade and it has strengthened our economy and has improved the quality of life for those on First Nations communities.”
Bill C-10 was brought before Parliament back in November 2013 and is an act to amend the Criminal Code of Canada (trafficking in contraband tobacco). Known as Tackling Contraband Tobacco Act, the following will be added to Section 121.1(1) of the Criminal Code if the Bill becomes law: “No person shall sell, offer for sale, transport, deliver, distribute or have in their possession for the purpose of sale a tobacco product, or raw leaf tobacco that is not packaged, unless it is stamped.”
Garlow explained that tobacco is a sacred plant and is indigenous to the America’s. Tribes in North, Central and South America have been trading tobacco for thousands of years. He said Bill C-10 is an attempt to criminalize Native people and may result in a possible confrontation like that at Kanohstaton, if the Bill becomes law. What’s important now, he stated, is how we respond to the actions of Canada.
Local businesswoman, Audrey Hill is a member of the Turtle Island Trade and Commerce Association whose mandate is to do business and support local businesses according to, “our inherent right and according to the Two Row Wampum,” said Hill. In regards to the Guswhenta, Hill explained, “Our boat may rock but it has never tipped over. We need to understand what vessel we go into and what to put in that boat. So be mindful of what vessel you are in.”
Hill said, “We’re always wondering what are they (the government) going to do to us next? When do we resume our nation?” She also said Bill C-10 is an act of terrorism because it is terrorizing us, as Onkwehon:we people.
Audrey Huntley the author of a variety of short films on the First Nations tobacco industry explained that there is a lot of propaganda circulating about the Native tobacco trade. An example she gave was of a convenience store owner, who she had interviewed and stated that Native tobacco shops sell cigarettes to kids. After Huntley investigated the claim further, she found out that ‘legal’ tobacco companies are the ones who have developed flavored cigarettes with the goal of appealing to the younger generations.
Toronto criminal lawyer Mike Leitold informed the crowd that the new Bill C-10 is really just an attack on economic self-determination of Haudenosaunee people. Before First Nations people try and decide what steps to take next, he explained, “We need to look at the facts before you organize a response.”
According to Leitold, Bill C-10 is an attempt to criminalize possession of any tobacco that hasn’t been stamped. Called Tackling Contraband Tobacco, it will allow for mandatory minimum sentencing if a person is found with 10,000 cigarettes or more (approximately 50 cartons). It also includes raw leaf tobacco in the amount of 10 kg or more.” Those found guilty of possessing, distributing or transporting tobacco, will be sentenced to mandatory minimums of 90 days in jail for a second offence; six months for a third offence and two years less for a fourth offence.
Mandatory minimum sentencing means your lawyer has no power because the punishment has already been pre-determined and the judge must hand out jail time.
But the biggest deal here, according to Leitold is this, “The RCMP enforce the Excise Tax Act but if Bill C-10 gets legislated, it will then involve provincial and municipal police forces, including First Nations police, who will all be tasked to enforce the contraband tobacco law.”
According to the Legislative Summary on Bill C-10, “the biggest challenge for enforcement has been the differing interpretations of First Nations and the Canadian government about the content of Aboriginal rights and who has jurisdiction on reserves. These issues have clearly affected how governments and law enforcement agencies address contraband tobacco on and around reserves. Nonetheless, relationships have developed between law enforcement agencies on and off reserve. For example, in the Cornwall area, there are various efforts such as joint investigative units and a task force to encourage collaboration between various enforcement organizations such as the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Cornwall Community Police Service and the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service.”
Leitold also said that the Chief Superintendent of the Ontario Provincial Police told a committee on December 5, 2013 that the 401 corridor is the biggest thorough-fare for contraband tobacco and also the Quebec side of Akwesasne and suggested that police need to be ‘ramped up’ in those areas.
Enforcement of the Excise Tax Act currently includes search warrants but if this Bill becomes law, this will mean the government will up it’s man power especially in the ‘investigative front’. More warrants will be sought with certain permissions granted, explained Leitold. With this new Bill, search warrants will be easier to obtain, he said. Also, the scope of the search warrant will be broadened. If a search warrant is issued under this new Bill, police officers will be allowed to issue it at anytime, and not just within ‘reasonable hours.’ Dubbed a ‘No Knock Warrant’ or ‘No Notice Warrant’, Leitold said officers will be permitted to kick down doors and confiscate whatever they feel will help them with their investigations including: houses, trucks and boats.
The goal of the RCMP Anti Tobacco Force is to target organized crime groups and Leitold said that there are continuous references being made by police and politicians that organized crime is linked to First Nations tobacco but there has never been any factual evidence to back up this claim. In 2008, the RCMP estimated that 105 organized crime groups were involved in the trade. Leitold referred to a study conducted by the McDonald-Laurier Institute and said that out of a thousand cases examined, only 5 were from the Quebec-Akwesasne border and out of that, none were linked to organized crime.
Leitold stated that Bill C-10 is an interference of Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protects ‘Aboriginal’ self-determination and treaty rights and also suggested that it can be deemed as cruel and unusual punishment. He also referred to R. v. Gladue and how Natives have been disproportionately put in jail unnecessarily. In this historic court decision, the Supreme Court of Canada told the government to stop jailing Native people, which it blatantly ignored and continues to do so at disproportionate rates to this day.
According to the Legislative Summary on Bill C-10, “Chiefs from Akwesasne have been quoted in the media voicing concerns about the impact that mandatory minimum sentences may have on their communities, particularly their youth. In particular, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne District Chief Brian David is concerned that large fines and incarceration will turn some youth, who are only involved in contraband tobacco due to lack of legal employment opportunities, into ‘hardened criminals’ and force them further into illegal activity. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne also recently issued a press release announcing the receipt of a grant from the Government of Ontario to assist in developing an Akwesasne Tobacco Law and … calling on the federal government to work with them to address tobacco concerns rather than increasing sentences and the enforcement presence around their community.”
Stephen John Ford is a Kanienkehaka lawyer from Tyendinaga. Ford described a few things that First Nations people can do to prepare for this proposed legislation of Bill C-10. In regards to the Bill, Ford stated, “It’s about denying First Nations people their own sources of income. It’s about federal control of First Nations people and continued colonial oppression. They don’t want us to make money.”
Ford said that good business practices are about making alliances and that a possible option for First Nations administrations is to tax their own tobacco. In doing so, Ford explained, “As a First Nation, you are expressing your own jurisdiction and advancing your own sovereignty and that is what it’s all about.” Ford said that if First Nations band councils pass their own legislation in regards to taxing tobacco on reserves, then the provincial government would likely say, “You can’t do that! But, that’s the fight we want to have because now the onus is on them to prove they have sovereignty over us.”
Joe Deom who is Kanienkehaka from Kahnawake spoke about the First Nations Education Act and stated that it is important for all First Nations to create their own laws. Regarding Ford’s suggestion that band councils make their own laws to tax tobacco, Deom stated that from a traditional point of view, band councils are an arm of the federal government so, “how can they make laws against their own government?”
Deom asked, “Whose law should prevail? Traditional law because it’s the only way to assert our sovereignty.” However, Deom went on to suggest that both Six Nations governments need to work together in establishing laws which will see revenue going back into the community and that funds need to be shared with the traditional council as well to ensure they maintain a viable government.
The last speaker of the evening was Shawn Brant, who is Kanienkehaka from Tyendinaga.
Brant, who is involved in the tobacco industry, described his feelings of support and economic security and being able to, “enjoy the same benefits as our non-Native brothers and sisters.” He explained how he has put a portion of his financial income from the tobacco trade back into his community with a food program which feeds up to 140 families twice a week. He also funds a nutritional program, which educates people on healthy living.
Brant, who focuses his time and energy on raising awareness on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, drew parallels to that of Bill C-10. He stated the overall issue is lack of compassion and sense of decency within this (the federal) government, “A government that seeks to prosecute our men within our communities. Inconsistency is what is happening. Are we going to stand up on that battlefield and engage them and fight them and defeat them?”
Brant feels that all the current issues relating to Indigenous people: the FNEA, Bill C-10, fracking, and missing and murdered women, all need to be dealt with in a righteous and just way. But instead, he said, “The government is taking us to war and battle on their terms.” Instead, Brant said, “We need to dictate and identify what we want and what we intend to do, on that battlefield.”
A strong message was sent by Brant that if the Canadian federal government has plans to target our economy then, “we better be prepared to target theirs as well!” Brant concluded by explaining that he wants people to truly understand the situations and circumstances we face, and to make a link and make a commitment that, “we won’t stand for this.”
The general consensus among the spectators seemed unanimous; people are strongly opposed to Bill C-10, the FNEA and any other piece of government legislation that tries to dictate to ogwehoweh people who they are and how they should live their lives. The general consensus also suggested that members in this community will not tolerate any more government attempts to control First Nations people and infrastructure.
Bill C-10 was referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for a 3rd reading in March.