By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Millions of cigarettes seized by Alberta authorities on the Montana First Nation last week were destined for distribution to reserves throughout the province and British Columbia, APTN National News has learned.
The 75,000 cartons seized from the reserve were the first batch of a strategy at least a year in the making to link a federally licensed cigarette manufacturer based on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, Que., with First Nations communities throughout the two Western provinces, according to an official with the cigarette manufacturer Rainbow Tobacco.
No charges have been laid since the Jan. 5 seizure and both the RCMP and the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission continue to investigate.
The matter is sure to end up in the courts with a final outcome likely to have a major impact on the future of the much maligned First Nations tobacco industry and possibly even on provincial jurisdiction when it comes to economic transactions between bands from different parts of the country.
Chad Rice, chief financial officer with Rainbow Tobacco, said the company believes it is legally permitted to ship its product in nation to nation trading with First Nations communities across the country because they all fall under federal jurisdiction. Rice said the cigarettes were being stored on the Montana First Nation while work was being done to cement distribution networks.
Montana First Nation sits about 90 kilometres south of Edmonton. It is one of four First Nations in Hobbema, Alta.
Rice said Rainbow Tobacco believes the seizure of their product by the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission was “unconstitutional” and the company is ready to go to court and reclaim its 14 million cigarettes.
“We have a right to do nation to nation, and native to native trade among other First Nations besides Kahnawake,” said Rice. “(The cigarettes) were not going to be sold in Alberta because they were to be sold on First Nations territory which is federal jurisdiction and not part of Alberta.”
On January 3, RCMP were called to a Quonset in the Montana First Nation to investigate a break-in and the theft of 25 to 35 cases of Rainbow manufactured cigarettes.
Rice said police were called over fears the cigarettes may have fallen into the hands of non-First Nations people.
The RCMP did not immediately act, but instead returned on Jan. 5 along with agents from the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission to execute a warrant allowing them to seize all the cigarettes.
In a joint press release, the agencies called the cigarettes “contraband” because they were not properly marked for sale in Alberta.
RCMP Sgt. Jim Lank, of the Hobbema detachment, said officers decided it was best to move cautiously after they were called to investigate the break-in.
“We didn’t want to appear as though we were being rash, as though we were reacting prematurely,” said Lank. “We wanted to do background checks on the product, so the decision was made at the time to err on the side of caution prior to simply seizing them right away.”
Lank said he couldn’t comment on whether the shipment bore any markings indicating they were federally stamped. He said the issue is being investigated by RCMP customs and excise investigators in Alberta.
Rice bristles at the suggestion the cigarettes were contraband.
“First of all Alberta does not have jurisdiction there and they picked up our cigarettes, seized them and maliciously said they were contraband,” he said. “We mark our cigarettes ‘Canada duty paid.’”
Rice said the company has paid the Canada Revenue Agency for every cigarette they have manufactured since 2004. He said the company pays out about $600,000 a year.
Rice said everything was done above board, including the transportation which was done in two shipments in early December through a company that handles tobacco products. He said the company would not have transported the cigarettes if the paper work was not in order.
“We saw an untapped market…in Western Canada and we felt we could enter the market legally through the federal guidelines of the Canada Revenue Agency,” he said. “Whenever we try as sovereign people to develop economic alternatives, the powers that be slap us down.”
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commissioned issued an emailed statement Thursday saying the cigarettes broke provincial law.
“The tobacco was not properly marked for legal sale in Alberta and this violates the provincial Tobacco Tax Act. The investigation is ongoing and no charges have been laid,” said the statement.
It’s estimated the cigarettes represent about $3 million worth of tax revenue to the province.
Some Montana First Nation band members were initially outraged in the wake of the seizure and band Chief Carolyn Buffalo along with band Coun. Len Standingontheroad were suspended for accepting the shipment.
It appears that the mood changed after a meeting Wednesday night between representatives from the cigarette company, band members and council along with the RCMP.
Rice said the suspended politicians had been reinstated. Buffalo said Thursday she was still chief and spoke for her people, according to reports. Buffalo also demanded the cigarettes be returned.
“I will not apologize for seeking economic development and prosperity for my people,” Buffalo said, according to CBC News.
APTN National News could not reach any band politicians Thursday evening.
Rice said company officials, including president Robbie Dickson, a company lawyer and an elder, visited the community to explain the situation.
“The people are now backing her, along with Standingontheroad, and we are going forth with this and we are going to fight Alberta with this,” he said. “We are getting the backing and support of many nations (in Alberta).”
Lank said investigators at the moment do not believe Buffalo or Standingontheroad will face charges.
“There appears to be no criminal intent on the part of Montana First Nation to hide anything,” he said.
Lank said investigators have yet to interview company officials, though they met for the first time Wednesday night.
“Discussions were made about them being interviewed. At this point they have not been,” he said.
The RCMP is also still investigating the theft of cigarette cartons which police believe have now been distributed in other central Alberta reserves.
“There are obviously bigger issues at stake here too. When I was at the assembly (Wednesday) night, the two nations talked about sovereignty and Native rights,” said Lank. “These issues are valid ones and deserve to be challenged in courts of law, but that is beyond the scope of any police department. Our job is to properly investigate what happens.”