Remember how just a couple of years ago, these same folks, supported by groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, were up in arms about a tiny shipment of Russian-made MOX fuel which might have been (but eventually wasn't) shipped up the St. Lawrence River ?
Of course today none of them cares one tiny bit about the booming business in "cancer sticks" :
"native manufacturers, including two plants in Akwesasne - straddling the Canada-U.S. border - that employ 200 people and provide cigarettes for sale in both Kanesatake and Kahnawake"
Indians defend smoke sales
But police, revenue agency say issue has become cloudy
Montreal Gazette Thursday, August 08, 2002
To smokers they're like beacons on an otherwise bleak horizon.
Over the past two weeks, trucks selling cigarettes for $20 a carton have set up shop on the side of the road around Kanesatake near Oka, while about 15 "smokeshacks" in Kahnawake are doing brisk business with native and non-native smokers alike.
"On a good day I can sell 50 cartons an hour," said one entrepreneur, his truck parked outside the Pines campground in Kanesatake, as old men, young women and everyone in between stopped by for cheap smokes.
"It's not like we're selling drugs. We make our own cigarettes and we sell them to make a living on our own land. We're not doing anything wrong. In fact we're making everyone happy."
Well, almost everyone.
The cut-rate Indian cigarettes - brands like Putter's, Native or Mohawk Blend - are also drawing the attention of Montreal and provincial police, not to mention the Quebec Revenue Department.
"We're watching what is happening on the reserves and we'll have to see the extent of it," said Carole Lafond, the department's communications director. "(Indians) have to follow the same rules, while respecting the special laws that apply to them."
Lafond was confident we wouldn't see a return to the thriving contraband trade of the 1990s, despite the tax hikes in June that pushed a pack of cigarettes up to $8, or about $54 a carton.
Unlike in the early 1990s, prices in the United States and other parts of Canada are comparable, if not higher, leaving little incentive to smuggle them into the province, Lafond said.
And taxes are now levied at the source, from the manufacturer, and are therefore harder to avoid, she added.
But native manufacturers, including two plants in Akwesasne - straddling the Canada-U.S. border - that employ 200 people and provide cigarettes for sale in both Kanesatake and Kahnawake, don't pay the excise tax that mainstream manufacturers pay.
Needless to say, Imperial Tobacco, which pays up to 70-per-cent tax on its products, is not impressed with the competition.
"We operate within the law, and we feel our competitors should be operating within the law," said spokesman Christina Dona.
Smoke vendors say what they are doing is legal. Indian-brand cigarettes come with health warnings on the packages and they are not advertising or selling to young people. The government is not happy simply because it doesn't get a cut, they say.
"Why is it only the government and the big corporations get to make money?" said one vendor down the road from the Pines. "We showed them tobacco. Now they get rich on it and we don't? This business supports five families. Otherwise, we'd probably be on welfare."
The vendors have the support of the entire community, they say, band council included, as a legitimate form of nation-to-nation trade in traditional products.
They have not been visited by police - Mohawk, the Sûreté du Québec or the RCMP - other than by off-duty officers buying cigarettes themselves, one woman said.
The customers, who can choose among brands - one is "kind of like Player's Light," another is "our version of du Maurier" - support them, too.
"At $8 a pack we're being robbed by the government, so more power to them," said Richard Brassard from Mirabel, adding that Indian brands tend to be additive-free. "It's their right to sell cigarettes if they want to."
But Brassard and other non-Indians making the trip could be in for a surprise when they get home.
Inspector Serge Frenette, of the Montreal police organized-crime squad, said there have been more arrests, especially of dépanneur owners and people providing "home delivery" of Indian brands in Montreal. People caught with Indian-made cigarettes can be fined $2,000.
"Over the last month Indian cigarettes have reappeared in and around Montreal," said Frenette, who works with the Access program - a joint SQ, RCMP and Montreal police initiative to crack down on the underground economy.
"It's impossible to put a percentage to the increase because it's clandestine. But as soon as there's an increase in taxes on cigarettes, it motivates buyers and sellers to look elsewhere."
The vendors warned police not to start arresting people in Kanesatake, however, or Kahnawake, where a few more "smokeshacks" are opening up to meet the post-tax-hike demand.
"Eventually I'm sure they'll do something," one said. "But if they try to stop us from selling cigarettes, they'll have to stop it on all reserves. And then they'll really be asking for trouble."
- Catherine Solyom's E-mail address is email@example.com.