(Rainbow Tobacco president Robbie Dickson watches as the Assembly of First Nations debates resolutions. APTN/Photo)
APTN National News
MONCTON, NB–The Assembly of First Nations has joined the battle over First Nations cigarettes after chiefs passed a resolution directing national Chief Shawn Atleo to press Ottawa and the provinces to back off attempts to regulate the tobacco trade between communities.
The resolution, which passed easily with no opposition Thursday, aimed to reaffirm the position that tobacco use is an Aboriginal right protected by the Constitution and First Nations have a right to move tobacco across provincial boundaries without paying provincial taxes.
“Provincial governments have chosen to disregard and disrespect our inherent and Treaty rights by enacting legislation which attempts to regulate and limit our access to tobacco…negatively impacting our ability to maintain our cultures and practices,” said the resolution.
The resolution also called on Atleo to extract federal recognition of First Nations jurisdiction over tobacco.
“First Nations (have an) inherent right to trade within and between nations as pursued since time immemorial, including the right to acquire, possess, store, transport, handle, trade or retain First Nation-manufactured products, in particular tobacco products, without restriction as to quantity or proposed or actual use or disposition,” the resolution said.
Atleo told APTN he believed in the right of First Nations to trade amongst themselves without provincial interference.
The president of a tobacco company based out of the Mohawk community of Kahnawake in Quebec urged the chiefs to turn the issue into a political one about sovereignty and rights.
“It is an issue we cannot ignore anymore, it has to be brought to the forefront of Aboriginal issues,” said Robbie Dickson, president of Rainbow Tobacco, a federally licensed cigarette manufacturer.
Dickson is facing provincial charges for importing and selling Rainbow Tobacco cigarettes in Alberta without paying the province’s tobacco taxes.
Dickson said his company believes it has the Aboriginal right to transport cigarettes between communities across the country.
The RCMP and Alberta’s Gaming and Liquor Commission raided the Montana First Nation last winter and seized millions of Rainbow cigarettes destined for distribution throughout Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Montana First Nation Chief Carolyn Buffalo was also charged. Buffalo was present when the resolution hit the floor, but said she couldn’t comment because of her charges.
Buffalo has said she had decided to get her community involved with Rainbow Tobacco to spur economic growth.
The tobacco industry in communities like Kahnawake and Akwesasne has largely allowed those communities to escape the grinding poverty faced by many reserves.
Little Black Bear First Nation Chief Perry Bellegarde said First Nations needed to pass their own tobacco laws and use them as a shield whenever authorities attempt to stop tobacco sales on reserves.
“Each and every one of our First Nations should develop their own laws and occupy the field so when you do get charged and go to court you have something in place,” said Bellegarde, whose community is in Saskatchewan. “It’s First Nations legislation that is going to save us and take us down the road to economic prosperity.”
One Wednesday morning, RCMP and Alberta authorities raided a gas bar on Sturgeon Lake First Nation. The owner of the gas bar was charged for selling Rainbow Tobacco cigarettes.
Gas bar owner Duane Kiyawasew, 54, said an undercover agent bought a pack of Rainbow-made cigarettes from his 15 year-old granddaughter who was minding the till.
Kiyawasew said he makes a point of only selling to First Nations people, but his granddaughter made a mistake.
“They charged me because I have Deerfield and Wolfpack cigarettes,” he said. “They were after the Rainbow Tobacco cigarettes.”
Kyawasew said he pays provincial taxes up front to Alberta before selling
Big Tobacco smokes and then submits a claim to get reimbursed for the cigarettes sold to First Nations people with the “Alberta Indian tax exemption” card.
“I have to discriminate against all the other Indians in the other nine provinces of Canada,” he said.
Kyawasew said he has no plans to stop selling Rainbow Tobacco cigarettes which he doesn’t have to pay provincial taxes up front to buy. He also believes First Nations have a right to sell their own cigarettes to each other without having to pay provincial tax.
“You don’t need your card to buy Deerfields,” he said.