TORONTO – The Chiefs of Ontario, meeting today at the Eaton Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, have denounced the Conservative government’s Bill C-10 as a direct attack on the livelihood of First Nations people. The Chiefs of Ontario is a political forum and secretariat for collective decision-making, action and advocacy for the 133 First Nation band councils in Ontario.
The Chiefs of Ontario noted that Bill C-10, which amends the Criminal Code section dealing with trafficking in contraband tobacco, was introduced without due consideration of the inherent and constitutional rights of First Nations.
Bill C-10 specifically targets the First Nation tobacco trade, defining First Nation tobacco as “contraband tobacco,” and linking its trade to organized crime. The government has provided no evidence of any such link.
At the same time as Prime Minister Harper announced Bill C-10, he also announced the provision of $90 million for the RCMP to specifically target contraband tobacco.
During third reading of Bill C-10 on May 30, 2014, members of Parliament acknowledged that the bill impacted Aboriginal and Treaty rights and that there had not been proper consultation. The Bill is currently awaiting second reading in the Senate, which is proposed for June 10, 2014.
“Traditional tobacco is of central importance to the identity, ceremony and traditions of First Nations,” said Regional Chief Stan Beardy. “The proposed amendments to the Criminal Code are in conflict with First Nations’ inherent and constitutional rights, as recognized by section 35 of the Constitution Act.” The Chiefs of Ontario reject Bill C-10, Chief Beardy said, “because it criminalizes us, and because it is a direct attack on our constitutionally protected aboriginal treaty rights.”
The traditional practice and trade of tobacco and tobacco-related products has evolved into a commerce that supports many First Nations families, especially in Six Nations, Kahnawake and Akwesasne communities.
Chief Ava Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River elected council announced the signing of a declaration, along with other Iroquois communities denouncing Bill C-10.
“The Six Nations elected council has repeatedly informed the government of Canada that the economy and trade in our territory is our right to govern and regulate,” said Chief Hill. “In 1994, the elected council passed a resolution stating that any product made on Six Nations is tax free.”
Chief Hill added that “As identified by Article 19 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, government is required to ‘consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior, and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that affect them.’”
Chief Hill declared that “We can control and regulate and police the tobacco trade on our own, without any outside interference. We’re going to do that anyway, regardless of the government’s actions.” She also denounced the bad faith shown by the Harper government not just in this bill, but in other respects as well: the government’s failure to live up to its fiduciary requirement to provide services to First Nations communities, its refusal to settle land claims, and its failure to consult with First Nations as required by Canadian law. “Why is the government shirking its responsibilities?” Chief Hill asked. “Why are they not following their own laws?”
Kris Green of the Haudenosaunee Trade Collective, who also spoke at the press conference, said she was “very troubled by irresponsible and offensive comments” on the part of the Canadian government. “We don’t have gangs, drugs, human trafficking, and guns in our community,” she said, “and we want our economy to continue to support a safe community.”
Chief Hill observed that tobacco employs over 2,000 people in the Grand River Six Nations community. Kris Green stated that this amounted to 20 percent of working adults in the community. Bill C-10 is thus attacking an economic mainstay of the community, and will harm not just families directly employed in tobacco production and trade, and those benefiting from the $2 million that is annually put back into the community to support families in need, but also many other businesses that will be indirectly affected.
Gordon Peter, of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, insisted that Bill C-10 must be seen as just one of a series of actions aimed at eliminating the rights of First Nations. “This government has denied its constitutional, legal, and moral obligations,” he said. “This government must be made to uphold its obligations under our treaties and under Canadian law.”