Canada’s Little War Against Contraband Tobacco

Contraband Tobacco

If you were a collector of jurisdictional nightmare, then your holy grail possession would surely be the small Kanien’keha:ka — or Mohawk, as it’s called in English —  community of Akwesasne. Transected by two provincial, one state and two federal boundaries (Ontario, Quebec, New York, Canada and the United States of America), Akwesasne is something of a “hotspot,” and not by coincidence.

The present effort to reduce the importation and sale within Canada of untaxed tobacco product, by imposing federal mandatory sentences on the importers, is only the latest manifestation of the long-standing jurisdictional mess noted above. Only a few weeks ago I listened to the fine speaker and Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell rehearse the situation (and I use situation literally) of his community and the dysfunctions to which the present order tends. For decades border disputes have obtained, as has the foundational differing of opinion on the matter of Mohawk and Haudenosaunee sovereignty.

As it happens, there isn’t even supposed to be an international border as concerns the coming and going of the Six Nations. We Mohawks for example fall under the Jay Treaty — an agreement which affirms the right of Haudenosaunee (the Six Nations) to cross the Canada-US border, which just happens to pass across our territory. The failure of the jurisdictions already mentioned to cooperate has yielded the perfect conditions for the work of organized crime. Here I refer not to tobacco, but to the importation and sale of arms and drugs. Whatever one’s philosophical view on Mohawk sovereignty, it is the case that the drug and gun trade has corruptly taken up Mohawk independence and thereby filthied the cause. In short, it took a lot of political cynicism and failure to get where we are — but if you’re a reader of this little website of mine, you must be used to this by now.

I find myself of two minds on the topic of contraband tobacco. As many argue, the trade does promote youth consumption, and it does enrich organized crime. For easily explained reasons, the coverage of contraband tobacco in Canadian media tends toward what might be designated ethnocentrism, which is to say a concern with its effects on federal government revenues and the health of children in Canadian cities and suburbs (including, inevitably, some native children.) But what will contraband tobacco do for native children?

This is a question invoking a more nuanced reality, in my opinion, and the one that I wish would get an audience sooner and not later. Not very long ago I was driving across Six Nations on the Grand River, wondering to myself what it means and will mean in the years ahead to have leapt into the monoeconomy of smoke shacks. Twenty years ago places like Tyendinaga and Six Nations were peppered with craft stores, selling moccasins and jewelry and so forth. Today there are dozens and dozens of gaudy street-side neon signs all holding forth the one, universal product. Is the trajectory of this move toward economic prosperity, or is it a mere exploitation of the jurisdictional arrangement Canada now hopes to upset. Maybe the tobacco trade in retrospect will be seen to have laid the foundation of a nascent native entrepreneurship. And even if that turns out to be the case, one must enter against this the human costs of cancer and of crime.

I suspect that neither Stephen Harper nor Vic Toews have given matters of this nature any thought. They have crimes to stop and a consolidated revenue fund to replenish. And what about the decisions to make all of one’s eggs of tobacco, knowing the feds would surely one day come for the basket?

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