Mohawk Tobacco Trade – Standing up for Our Sovereignty

The days of only looking at issues that impact our local communities (bands) are long over if we expect to protect our cultures, identities and Nations for future generations. The issue of our sovereignty as Indigenous Nations (Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, etc) must be looked at in the bigger context. I am the first to admit that we have significant issues to address in our home communities and many of them are absolutely life and death issues related to poverty, addictions, housing, violence, and child welfare. It is critical that we ensure we have citizens dedicated to addressing these issues for the well-being of our families, communities and Nations. At the same time, we also have to dedicate some of our citizens to fighting the larger battle which is being waged against our identities, cultures, and sovereignty. In the days of my great grandfather and his grandfathers, Mi’kmaq people made sure they protected their women and children by having warriors posted at our our local settlements. However, knowing that our territory (known as Mi’kma’ki) was rich in resources and our traditional territory was vast (7 districts covering many provinces), we also ensured that all directions were protected from intrusion by other Nations. The idea being that you had to have all directions covered, even if one direction required more attention at any particular time. The same can be said about our current state of affairs. Our social issues have taken such priority, that in some ways we may have left ourselves vulnerable to attack from other directions. I don’t just mean within our own Nations either. If the sovereignty of the Mohawk is being challenged, that has a direct impact on the future of Mi’kmaq sovereignty and vice-versa. Similarly, every Indigenous Nation in this country has its own special resources that is uses to support its communities and whether it is tobacco, lobster, moose, seal or oil, we owe it to each other to not allow government or corporations to jeopardize what little we have left. We can’t think for a minute that the loss of lobster fishing for the Mi’kmaq will not have a significant impact for the Maliseet and their logging rights. We owe it to our Nations and our future generations to make sure that our political strategies have all the bases covered. It is for this reason that I write about the Mohawk Tobacco trade. The Aboriginal right of the Mohawk to engage in their centuries-old trading activities is being threatened by big business and provincial governments all of whom are desperate to get their hands on money which rightfully belongs to the Mohawk. Similarly, the self-determining rights of the Mohawk to exercise jurisdiction over their own political and business activities threatens their very sovereignty. As many of you know, many of the traditional Mohawk territories in what is now Ontario, Quebec and the USA have lands which are particularly suited to the growing of tobacco, which is why they have engaged in growing tobacco for many years. Their traditional use and trade of tobacco has evolved into a larger scale tobacco growing, manufacturing, sales and trade industry. Today, First Nations like Six Nations and Kahnawake are engaged in various elements of the tobacco trade. One of those companies, Rainbow Tobacco, is based on Mohawk territory in Kahnawake. They have had their shipments of tobacco to other First Nations seized by several provinces for failure to have provincial markings on their cigarettes, despite the fact that they did have federal markings. This only appears to be an issue since  non-Indigenous businesses started complaining. However, these groups try to sway public opinion by categorizing the Mohawk Tobacco Trade as “illegal” and “contraband”. By using this kind of language, it relegates Indigenous peoples to criminal status and detracts from any arguments they might make in their own defense. The following arguments have been made against the Mohawk tobacco trade: (1) It is illegal because there are no provincial stamps. In fact, there is no requirement that First Nation products have provincial approvals. The cigarettes had the proper federal stamps, and since jurisdiction (as between feds-provs) with regards to First Nations, their lands and property, vests in the FEDERAL government, the province would be ultra vires (outside the scope of their legislative authority) should they attempt to legislate in this regard. In case anyone needs a reminder, here is what the Indian Act, 1985 has to say about the matter: Section 87 – the interests of Indians and bands in reserve lands AND the personal property of Indians and band on a reserve are NOT subject to taxation; Section 89 – the real (land) or personal (movable) property of Indians and bands on a reserve (or deemed to be on a reserve) are NOT subject to: charge, pledge, mortgage, attachment, levy, SEIZURE, distress or executive in favour of ANY PERSON, other than an Indian or band; Section 91 – certain property can’t be traded by Indians like: grave poles, totem poles, rocks with paintings, but tobacco is NOT one of them; Section 93 – can’t remove certain materials from reserves like minerals, stone, timber etc without a permit, but tobacco is NOT one of them. The Mohawk tobacco is not illegal, not subject to provincial tax or jurisdiction and the province had no right to seize anything on any reserve. (2) Smoking is bad for you and causes too many health problems. There is no doubt that smoking is bad for you and does cause way too many health problems that can even result in one’s death. I don’t smoke and I don’t ever want my children to smoke either. My father smoked and he died of lung cancer. I would never want that for any family or community. However, the issue of whether or not to engage in smoking is not the matter in question. The issue is whether or not First Nations can grow, manufacture, sell and trade tobacco products on their traditional territories and/or between First Nation reserves. First Nations have no less of a right to make a living off the resources on their territories than all the settlers who made good use of our lands. In fact, First Nations have a constitutionally protected right to do so – this is something that non-Indigenous businesses can’t say. The double-standard inherent in this ideology is obvious. It is legal and publically acceptable for non-Indigenous businesses to manufacture and trade tobacco, but it is a moral sin when First Nations do it. This has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with the bottom-line: the provinces see it as a cash grab and corporations see it as losing “their” profits. (3) Tobacco can only be used by First Nations as it was used traditionally. This line of reasoning is not only racist, it is legally inaccurate. The Supreme Court of Canada has clarified on many occasions that Aboriginal peoples and their rights are NOT to be frozen in pre-contact times. The SCC has further clarified that Aboriginal rights are able to evolve over time into modern methods of exercising those rights. Telling First Nations they can only use tobacco as they did in pre-contact times would be like us telling lawyers they still have to wear white wigs in court or that you have to take the Mayflower boat on your next holiday to Cuba. (4) Most of the First Nation tobacco companies are owned by band members and not the band. Regardless of my own personal feelings about individual vs. band owned businesses, again this is not the issue at hand. Those are debates to be had between band members and their bands or citizens within Indigenous Nations. I am stunned however, by the hypocrisy of statements like this when they come from the same right-wing people who are advocating the privatization of reserve lands. You simply can’t have it both ways. (5) Indigenous peoples should compete in the market place on the same level as everyone else. People who advocate this line of reasoning are usually the non-Indigenous tobacco companies or retailers who blame their poor sales on Indigenous tobacco trade as opposed to the decline in tobacco usage in Canada. What they forget is that the “market place” is fueled by the lands and resources, and the spin off taxes and businesses, which rightfully belong to First Nations. How is it that settlers could steal our lands and resources, use them to make a profit, and then when First Nations get into the market place with what little resources they have left, all hell breaks loose? They also forget that the provisions of the Indian Act noted above are legal rights afforded to First Nations. Their Aboriginal and treaty rights are also constitutionally protected. The issue is not whether the settler society likes that Aboriginal and treaty rights are protected, the fact of the matter is that they are the supreme law of the land. (6) Indigenous peoples use the money from the tobacco trade to fund all sorts of illegal activities like drugs. This ludicrous, stereotype is advanced by people like conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. If you view the following video, you’ll hear him make this racist stereotype against First Nations: There are always individuals who break the law in Canada. That does not mean Canadians are all crooks. Robert Pickton was a serial killer, does that mean all Caucasian people in Canada are serial killers? Of course not. Then why is it acceptable for Senators and others to advance such disgusting racist stereotypes against our people? We have to call them on it, and then get back to the real issue: we are sovereign nations and our sovereignty has been challenged here. While you may not personally like tobacco, that is not the issue. Mohawks engaged in their traditional tobacco trade are no more criminals than Mi’kmaq people fishing lobster. Yet, when the Mi’kmaq proved their treaty right to fish and sell lobster, the non-Indigenous fishers could not accept having to share what was never theirs to begin with. It resulted in government officials riding their boats over our people (literally) and calling us criminals and in the media said we were engaged in illegal fishing. If we do not stand up for our sovereignty at EVERY instance that it is challenged, including those times when we don’t like the issue, then we’ll have no defense when we want to exercise it for issues we do like, i.e., land and hunting. We  owe it to each other to get each other’s backs and to ensure that all our directions are covered. There is no negotiation when it comes to sovereignty. Our heroes were not well-paid lawyers or consultants – they had nothing and risked their lives for us. We have to prove to our future generations that we were worth the fight.