Cigarette sales on Six Nations tied to issue of sovereignty

I love the smell of a fresh-lit cigarette. The ascending smoke randomly curling through the air was common. One after another marked the hours of my days. Twenty-five years ago, people were allowed to smoke in the hospital. It wasn’t like it is today. Now we identify smokers by their huddling presence at doorways to public buildings. I remember when the cost of an entire pack was below $2. Today, it’s five times that amount. Smoking was a habit I would eventually give up.

Mostly store merchants at Six Nations of the Grand River sold cigarettes in the 1980s. They were given a quota that dictated how many cartons a retail outlet was allowed to purchase for resale. It wasn’t anything like it is today. As many as 200 smoke shops are now estimated to litter the landscape of the reserve. A few years ago, a map of the reserve used as a tool for tourism had smoke shop locations marked on it as if they were a tourist attraction. All that was needed was the replica of a giant cigarette in Veterans Park, smoke rising from it rivalled only by the Camel billboard in Times Square.

The situation begs the question, “How do they all make any money?” I’ve talked to a few people who either run or own smoke shops and the answer is, “They don’t.” That is not unless they sell inventory in large quantity. But not all of them can afford to purchase the inventory to do high volume business.

Some businesses can afford to deal in high volume business. The cigarettes manufactured at Six Nations by Grand River Enterprises do have taxes paid on them by the manufacturer to the Canadian government, as much as $120 million a year, according to one figure. This business is the largest employer at Six Nations and willingly pays taxes to the Canadian government, even though the business is located on Six Nations of the Grand River territory. Today, some of the owners of Grand River Enterprises are indicted in the United States for trafficking in contraband cigarettes.

Last fall, there was some attempt by the elected band council and the confederacy council to organize the smoke shop merchants by introducing regulations but it proved to be a monumental task after having the industry go unchecked and unregulated for so long. Not only has the cigarette industry grown in correlation with government taxation on the product but it is also mired in the issue of sovereignty, which makes it defendable. But for those who don’t agree with the changing landscape of the reserve, how far does the obligation go to defend the cigarette industry in the name of sovereignty?

It’s one of those issues where you may not agree with it in principle but it’s part of a bigger issue that is a vital part of a culture of a people. Sovereignty to Six Nations is like clean air to humanity: it’s not given up willingly and must be defended.

When the RCMP came calling at Six Nations almost two years ago to see what could be done about the selling of “illegal” cigarettes, the elected council told them that there were no such thing as “illegal” cigarettes being sold at Six Nations and it was their job to monitor Canadians to make sure they paid the taxes on products. Two years later, that is exactly what police are doing as they stop people and confiscate the cigarettes they have purchased on the reserve as they leave the tax free zone. That raises other questions: Can they stop everybody and confiscate their cigarettes? And can they monitor every exit leading out of Six Nations continually? The short answer is: no.

So, what’s the solution? The government could lower taxes on cigarettes but that would be taking away their own revenue stream. They could pour more money into education, which could encourage more people to quit smoking and lower the demand part of the supply and demand chain. They could increase the penalties for non-native people not paying taxes on cigarettes purchased on a reserve. However, none of these possible solutions is guaranteed to decrease cigarette customers coming to Six Nations to purchase product.

I don’t agree with the economic development at Six Nations in terms of the cigarette industry. I hoped the economy could be run by some product other than one that causes disease and death to so many people who use it.

Allan M. Brandt in his book, The Cigarette Century, cites projections “that in the course of the twenty-first century, one billion people across the globe will die of tobacco-related diseases.” The other aspect of taking the sacredness of a medicine and selling it in another form for personal financial gain conflicts with the Great Law, the values and principles upon which Haudenosaunee society is based.

There are those people who also believe that the cigarette industry is inextricably linked to the increase in crime in the community.

There are those who say that not all cigarette outlets are 100% native-owned and people are being used for their rights. There is a definite need for research to be done in this area in order to capture a clear picture of what is happening at Six Nations in terms of crime.

I grew up on the reserve. I lived at my grandparents’ home at Sour Springs corner where the door was left unlocked the majority of the time. It wasn’t like it is today. I only need to bring up the topic of crime and my ears are filled with stories about “gun-toting seniors” and “crack orphans.” The social problems that result from an unsafe community are becoming more difficult to ignore. Community meetings where crime and safety are the only topics for discussion are happening now.

Yes, the cigarette industry has given the community a stream of revenue but in a very unbalanced way. To say the entire community has benefited would be an untrue statement. It has made some people multimillionaires. It has changed the reserve in a most drastic way. It has polarized the economic field of a small community. It has raised questions regarding links to crime. It has strained family relationships and it has branded the Reserve with an image that has overshadowed more positive ones.

The cigarette industry is the dark part of the issue of sovereignty. Having said that, I must defend sovereignty because to not defend it invites abolishment. I may not agree with what is sold but I must defend the right to sell it.

L. M. VanEvery is a journalist from Six Nations of the Grand River who wishes everyone would quit smoking.

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