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Feds enforce new tobacco strategy which targets Aboriginal communities.

OTTAWA

The federal government will enforce a new strategy to deal with contraband tobacco--the 2008 RCMP Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Strategy--with a focus on what government officials claim to be tobacco illegally manufactured and sold on First Nations land.

"There are three components to this strategy," said Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, at a press conference in Ottawa. "Number 1, the dismantling of the manufacturing--the illegal manufacturing--that is going with these particular cigarettes, the disruption of the supply lines themselves and of course, the arrest and the seizure of the products (and) proceeds from the crime."

The strategy also includes assigning more RCMP officers to handle anti-contraband units, a public awareness campaign to plea with Canadians to stop buying illegal cigarettes, and ads warning smokers their money is being used to fund organized crime groups.

A report released with the strategy suggests First Nations in Ontario and Quebec near the US border handle the greatest amount of contraband tobacco--mainly because much of the tobacco is manufactured in the US.

The report points to three First Nations as having the largest number of smoke shacks in Canada: Kahnawake has 125, Six Nations has 100, and Tyendinaga has 40. These smoke shacks clearly provide a deal to their customers, they sell 200 cigarettes in clear, resealable bags for as little as $6 in place of the $75-$90 for legal cartons.

"In the U.S., (there) may be some facilities which in fact have a license to manufacture," Day said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that they have a license to move that product across the line in a way that is legal. Any type, any activity that is illegal will be targeted."

Also at the press conference was RCMP assistant commissioner, Raf Stouccer, who claimed the trade is a threat to the public safety of Canada because proceeds are often used to support criminal organizations.

"I would like to make it clear that the operational priority of the strategy is not to target communities but rather to target organized crime," Stouccer stated. "Focusing on crime groups involved in the trade will provide us with the greatest chance of disrupting all levels of illicit operations, including manufacturing, smuggling, distribution and sales."

However, in the opinion of Tynedinaga Chief R. Donald Maracle, the government's goal is really to cut off the supply of Native cigarettes to the retail outlets that are operating on First Nations communities.

"It's primarily tax lost to the government, and the convenience stores are saying it's unfair trading practices, the corporations that manufacture tobacco," he said. "Their view is that their sales are slumping as a result of the availability of the cheaper Native cigarettes. There's a number of parties who are losing revenue, losing the taxes, some of the other cigarette manufacturers are having declining sales."

According to the Winnipeg Free Press, illegal cigarettes cost the government approximately $1.6 billion in lost taxes each year. There take the form of contraband tobacco, smuggled foreign cigarettes on which taxes have not been paid, and cigarettes sold tax-free on reserves that are in turn, sold cheaply to non-Aboriginal people, who sometimes sell the cigarettes themselves.

In Saskatchewan, the province's Finance Ministry figures indicate First Nations stores have gone from less than 30 to more than 100 in the past decade and that rebates have jumped from $3 million in 2000 to around $50 million last year. As a result, the province's Canadian Cancer Society points to this as a health concern and demands tougher quotas and closer monitoring on how many cigarettes can be bought by First Nations people at these stores.

As for the contraband cigarettes in the Ontario region, Chief Maracle said he realizes the concerns of health organizations that contraband tobacco does nothing to help their efforts of alleviating smoking and its effects.

"People in the health profession are saying that having the abundance of cheap cigarettes is not helping them realize their goal to lessen cigarette disease and deaths," he said. "But on the other hand, a lot of First Nations people see that there is an economic benefit. In the community, people have successful stores and they employ other people, those people are no longer on welfare, they're now being self-supporting." Maracle said. "First Nation economic development in the reserves, our people need to have employment to get out of poverty, there's no future for anyone on a welfare cheque, it just perpetuates the subsistence and existence in poverty."

He said a better solution could be found with government and Aboriginal community leaders working together to come up with an adequate strategy, one that respects the issues of First Nations jurisdiction and their rights.

"I'm very much opposed to guns, or drug-running or any kind of trafficking of drugs, I'm very adamantly opposed to it. "Maracle said. "But I think there needs to be some accommodation for Native people in the tobacco industry so that those who want to work in the industry can have the opportunity to create some economic activity because it isn't illegal to make cigarettes. It's only illegal to make them without paying the excise tax."

He also commented on the health concern of contraband cigarettes being sold to underage smokers both on and off reserve. "We don't support any stores selling to youth. That's not good and should not be occurring," he said. "There was a concern about that here some time ago and we did canvass the businesses and there were a few who were perhaps doing that, most of them were not."

Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, Mike Delisle Jr. sees the enforcement measures of the strategy as inappropriate to the First Nations it proposes to target.

"I think that the enforcement factor is a bit much and ridiculous, considering that the problems we faced with RCMP and SQ (Surete du Quebec) from Kahnawake's perspective in the past is not good," he said.

"Other than excise and taxation issues I don't think that this type of strategy will work, I think the answers are here within the First Nation communities," he said.

Kahnawake grand chief won't stand by and allow enforcement agencies to dismantle tobacco industries

He adds that RCMP raids on the contraband tobacco industry would probably be met with resistance.

"It is ridiculous for them to think we'll sit idly by and allow any enforcement agencies externally to come into the community and run roughshod to try and disassemble as they say, manufacturing and tobacco industries. It's possible that there are some of those elements, but I don't believe it's fair for RCMP or anyone else to paint all the First Nations communities with the same brush as illicit and illegal."

When asked if the grand council supports the tobacco industry in First Nation communities, Delisle affirms that they do.

"It's been here for several years. And I mean, the tobacco industry itself - not only manufacturing--which is more of late. For twenty-five years or so it has been an accepted practice. Here in Kahnawake, it's led to a large piece of the economy internally and it has been supported by the Grand Council of Kahnawake."

He said he is trying to meet with the other leaders in the region such as Chief Maracle and Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Tim Thompson to approach the government and discuss what they believe are some of the solutions.

"We'd like to talk to both sides of the border since we're the four First Nations territories that are targeted within this as kind of the hot bed. To look at a coordinator approach, see if our plans are in line with each other, and take a step forward in solidarity to what our action plan would be."

By Christine Fiddler

Windspeaker Staff Writer
COPYRIGHT 2008 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:Fiddler, Christine
Publication:Windspeaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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