Bill C-10 will hurt First Nations communities

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Photo: Flickr/Superfantastic

Apart from the occasional whiz of a vehicle hurtling down Chiefswood Road, the main thoroughfare that leads into the heart of the Six Nations of the Grand River, the most populous First Nation in Canada, is still.

Wind gently rustles treetops, birds happily chirp and a blank-eyed rabbit silently inspects my car before darting into a green field; the scene is downright bucolic.

A little further into the reserve, however, a gravel parking lot outside a characterless strip mall buzzes with activity.

It's a hazy Sunday morning in August, and the non-natives of southern Ontario have descended upon Jay's Smoke Shop to stock up on tobacco.

Lots of tobacco.

Customers stream into the store, stopping only to hold the door for men on their way out with boxes of cigarettes tucked under their arms. Business is brisk.

"People come like this on weekends. They usually stock up for a few months. We have a lot of regulars," says Tara Martin.

Martin has worked at Jay's for eight years, and has lived on the Six Nations reserve her entire life. During an ebb in business, she discusses the importance of the tobacco trade to her community. 

"A lot of people around here depend on tobacco for their livelihood. That's why we're so opposed to C-10."

Bill C-10, the Tackling Contraband Tobacco Act, is legislation that, if passed, will create a new offence: trafficking in contraband tobacco. It will also introduce minimum penalties for imprisonment of repeat offenders.

C-10 has passed through Parliament and is in line to be heard before a Senate Committee.

To say the bill is unpopular among First Nations would be like saying that smoking may not be good for children; it just doesn't begin to describe the aboriginal community's antipathy toward it.

When asked what would happen if Bill C-10 were to become law of the land, Martin shakes her head solemnly. 

"It would be a disaster."

Big Business

As the law concerning tobacco sales in Ontario and other provinces now stands, products like cigarettes and cigars sold on First Nations are exempt from provincial and federal taxes, so long as they are purchased by ‘Status Indians' and used (smoked) on First Nation territory.

In Ontario, the tax rate for cigarettes is 13.975 cents per cigarette, and 56.6% of taxable price for cigars, so tobacco products from First Nations are considerably cheaper than those sold off-reserve. This draws hordes of consumers – regardless of Status – to reservations in search of cheap smokes.

The federal government says that organized crime groups are taking advantage of the situation by buying bulk supplies of First Nation tobacco, and selling them on the open market.

Currently, there is nothing in the Criminal Code that specifically addresses tobacco trafficking, though prosecutors have an assortment of offences at their disposal to assist in the prosecution of tobacco smugglers, such as fraud, laundering and possession with intent to commit a crime.

Still, the government sees contraband tobacco as important enough to create a brand new offence that exclusively targets the illicit tobacco trade.

Bill-C 10 was introduced by Justice Minister Peter MacKay in November 2013. It would make "selling, offering for sale, transportation, delivery, distribution or possession for the purposes of sale of the [non-regulation] tobacco product or raw leaf tobacco" a criminal offence, and introduces mandatory minimum prison sentences for second, third, and fourth offences. 

When the legislation was tabled, Minister MacKay said tobacco trafficking "is a serious crime that threatens our communities and our economy-it fuels the growth of organized crime, contributing to the increased availability of illegal drugs and guns in our communities," and that Bill C-10 would help keep Canadian families safe. 

Not all stakeholders see the bill in the same light, however.

Many First Nations groups view the legislation not as a crackdown on organized crime groups using First Nation tobacco regulations to their advantage, but as a thinly-veiled attempt to criminalize the entire aboriginal tobacco industry (which is, of course, thriving). 

And no community has opposed the legislation more spiritedly than the Six Nations of the Grand River.

Six Nations

The Six Nations reservation is located about 25km from Brantford, Ontario. It is very different than the scores of isolated -- and blatantly impoverished -- First Nation reserves that dot the Canadian north.

With a variety of shops, restaurants and a modern sports stadium, Six Nations looks and feels like any other small southern Ontario town; its Chief Ava Hill jokes that whenever visitors are driven into the community they say ‘are we on the reserve yet?'

Much of Six Nations' economy is wrapped up in the tobacco trade. Chief Hill suggests that more than 2,000 people in the community rely on tobacco for employment.

That's roughly 20 per cent of the on-reserve population.

Against that backdrop, it is expected that the Six Nations would be wary of anything that could potentially affect the community's primary economic engine.

"The money customers spend here on the reserve and in the surrounding communities is important. If this bill goes through and people start to get criminalized for transporting tobacco or selling tobacco, they're going to lose their jobs. And it's not only affecting them, it's affecting their families," explained Chief Hill.

"If these people don't have jobs, what are they going to do? They're going to go on welfare. When people are on welfare, that creates more social problems."

Chief Hill noted that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People requires the government to seek out the free and informed consent of indigenous communities on any issue or legislation that might affect aboriginal communities.

"There was no consultation at all with this bill, just like [the Conservatives] have done with a lot of their legislation."

"I'll go ahead and say it," Chief Hill continued, "the whole great white father attitude they have up there [in Ottawa]…'we'll develop it and then you'll follow it, and we're not even going to ask you what you think of it.' That's what's been happening with this government all along."

Chief Hill is concerned that Bill-C10 doesn't go after established organized crime gangs; instead it potentially penalizes First Nations for exercising their "right to have free trade" with Mohawk nation partners, such as Akwesasne and Kahnawake.

"They want to nab people as soon as they leave the territory and get on the highway. We're the First Peoples here! We have the right to trade with each other. To me, it's not even contraband tobacco. I've told that to ministers both provincially and federally. There is contraband tobacco, but it's in downtown Toronto and it's coming from foreign countries. That's where the authorities should be focusing," she said. 

"There is organized crime in this country, but it's not in our communities. What about the organized crime in Montreal and Toronto? I think with this bill, they're just zeroing in on First Nations.

'This isn't us versus them'

Certain industry groups have voiced strong support for Bill C-10.

One of the bill's most vigorous proponents is the Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCAS).

According to its president Alex Scholten, the CCSA is concerned that the proposed legislation is helping organized crime, contributing to youth smoking and robbing government of tax revenue.

"This isn't an 'us versus them' situation. We don't have any issue with native rights or the aboriginal right to self-govern."

Insistence that the bill isn't in any way meant to punish First Nation industries is a refrain repeated often by supporters of the bill.

One of those supporters is Vernon White.

White is a Harper Senate appointee, who has, from the Senate floor strongly promoted Bill C-10.

"The unlawful production, distribution and sale of cigarettes in Canada have reached significant levels in recent years, creating challenges for public health officials, law enforcement, tax authorities, policy-makers and the public," Senator White told his colleagues earlier this summer.

In a telephone interview, Senator White, a 20-year veteran of the RCMP and former Ottawa police chief, said that the bill attacks only the illegal tobacco industry, and is no way meant to harm aboriginal people involved in the legitimate tobacco trade.

"I want to make this clear. Bill C-10 is not at all about targeting aboriginal groups. It's about diminishing criminal organizations."

White also said that his decades in law enforcement taught him that organized crime is rarely involved in just one illicit trade.

"Criminal organizations are involved in the drug trade, the gun trade. Their operations are revenue-based, and they don't care who they hurt."

"I think this bill is an effective measure to address those problems," he added.

Supporters often claim that tobacco trafficking is a significant issue, but the numbers tell a more complicated story.  

Data provided by the RCMP shows that the amount of raw leaf tobacco­– the plant used in cigarettes– seized by the RCMP ballooned from 5,300kg in 2010 to 14,700kg in 2013.

But the same data also shows that the number of cigarettes and cigars seized by the RCMP between 2008 and 2013 has dropped by nearly 90 per cent.

Activists look at those numbers and question why the federal government would construct a law that very clearly alienates First Nations when, in the view of those activists, there doesn't seem to be an overwhelming need for new legislation.  

And considering the tension between the Harper government and First Nations over a range of issues from the Prime Minister's refusal to call a national inquiry into missing Aboriginal women and girls to aboriginal protests over Northern Gateway, it's hard to see how passage of this bill would be met without considerable resistance from Indigenous groups. 

Cooperation or conflict? 

There is a long history of vigorous, peaceful protest by indigenous people across Canada, but the frustration and disenfranchisement that Bill C-10 has has underscored might push some members of the Six Nations community to more extreme measures, according to Six Nations Chief Ava Hill.

In June 2013, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank, published a report that caught many in our nation's capital off-guard.

The report, entitled "Canada and the First Nations: Cooperation or Conflict?", suggested that it was a realistic possibility that indigenous communities across the country could rise up and engage in an insurgency against the state. 

Even if Bill C-10 is well-intentioned, the unintended consequence might be the type of feelings of frustration and disenfranchisement Mr. Bland warned about in his report she said.

"If this bill passes, I can't guarantee there won't be violence. We're hearing rumours in the community. It's up to [Ottawa] to make that decision."

When asked if blockades like the anti-fracking protests last year in New Brunswick could be expected, Chief Hill noted that rumours about protests exist, but because they’re only speculation, it’s impossible to have any insight what could potentially emerge.

But she is firmly opposed to violence.

“There’s that veiled threat of violence if people think they’re going to be raided…but we don’t want to see anything like that happen.”


Matt Moir is a writer in Hamilton. His reporting and feature stories have been published in a variety of different magazines, websites and newspapers, including the CBC, The Hill Times, Xtra and Herizons.

Photo: Flickr/Superfantastic

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