Contraband Stereotypes a Slippery Slope

The contraband tobacco lobby is doing a great job of getting out the message. However, their message is, unfortunately, stereotypical and discriminatory towards the legitimate First Nations tobacco trade.

The term “contraband tobacco” is an example of a contemporary stereotype that discounts legitimate First Nations’ businesses and our legitimate tobacco trade wherein pure tobacco is shipped off directly to companies like 180 Smoke herb vaporizers which refine it and use it for different uses. Further to the stereotype, the revenue generated from the First Nations tobacco trade is somehow always linked to organize crime and now, terrorism, which is downright imprudent.

This week, the RCMP and numerous media outlets are reporting about an extensive underground economy that fuels organized crime and even overseas terrorism.

However, I would strongly argue that this underground economy supports First Nations families, communities and aboriginal business.

The National Coalition against Contraband Tobacco defines the term contraband as “products that do not comply with Canada’s tobacco regulations – specifically those regarding taxation, health warning labels, product testing and reporting, importation, stamping, manufacturing, and distribution.”

The contraband lobby also makes references to such “native brands” as Putters, Sago, DKs – all trademarks of Grand River Enterprises, Canada’s largest First Nation tobacco manufacturer. GRE is First Nations-owned and operated out of Six Nations.

However, what many people don’t know is that GRE do indeed pay their share of the federal excise tax. (Yes, First Nations DO pay taxes.) Millions of dollars each and every year go to the federal government. GRE products are clearly banded as such.

GRE brands are sold on-reserve, side-by-side with brands from Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans and JTI-MacDonald. All brands are available for a discount on-reserve, however, only the GRE brands are unfairly labelled as contraband.

The stereotyping continues by the National Coalition which states “aboriginal reserves, and the organized network of distribution that brings contraband tobacco off reserves, are fuelling the spread of these illegal cigarettes in communities throughout Ontario, Quebec and, increasingly, in other parts of Canada.”

Although true, such a statement unfairly paints all First Nations with the same brush.

Anishinaabe people have traded tobacco for centuries. If it were not for the First peoples of North America, the world would not have tobacco. First Nations’ governments continue to assert their right to trade tobacco.

But that’s where my defence of the tobacco industry ends.

As far as I’m concerned, tobacco should not be sold or traded whatsoever. Tobacco is the most sacred medicine, one of the first gifts given to us by the Creator.

I’m not a tobacco advocate, nor am I a smoker. I use tobacco in a traditional way only. I abhor those that abuse tobacco and choose to mangle their bodies with stench, stains and tumours.

I won’t stand up for the tobacco trade, but I will stand up for First Nations people, our rights, and the rights of business people to earn a living.

However, many of these tobacco traders and legitimate manufacturers must accept responsibility for their product.

Prices need to be adjusted to discourage smokers. Offering cheap smokes is socially irresponsible.

Manufacturers and retailers should be contributing revenue directly towards primary health care and First Nations health programs.

Support and information needs to be provided to consumers so they can know the risks and kick the habit.

Tobacco should not be sold to minors.

Smoking in public places and tobacco advertising should be banned everywhere, including Indian reserves.

Communities shouldn’t be subject to the eye sore, traffic and infrastructure demands caused by single product “smoke shacks”.

Consumers need to know, if they choose to smoke, that their product is safe. Safe is a relative term though, i’nit? Safe, meaning that it’s free from rat pooh and tampering. Everyone is worried about the rat pooh. Strangely, no one seems to be worried about the tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, cyanide, etc.

Lastly, many youth are choosing to earn a quick buck trading tobacco, rather than realizing their potential by staying in school and pursuing a gainful career. The potential of our young people shouldn’t be limited to selling cigarettes.

The solution to the question of contraband lies in the legitimization and regulation of the First Nations tobacco trade. This would prohibiting sales to minors and include restrictions on tobacco marketing including prohibiting on-reserve highway signs and “Cheap Smokes” advertising.

This proposed regime could include an innovative First Nations Health Tax to fund on-reserve health programs, clinics and smoking cessation programs. The tax would bring First Nations tobacco products in line with mainstream tobacco pricing, thereby discouraging tobacco consumption. First Nations would maintain their competitive advantage to benefit their economy, while ensure prices are prohibitive. First Nations would continue to make purchases tax exempt for their personal use.

Certainly, the First Nations tobacco trade is ripe with irresponsibility. Smuggling continues to take place. Organized crime continues to be a problem. There continues to be a major problem with contraband tobacco!!

But we need a way to distinguish the legitimate First Nations tobacco trade, from the black-market economy of contraband tobacco.

For those outside the law, lock em’ up and throw away the key. But don’t lock up Joe and Edna Anishinaabe because they sell Putters at the reserve gas bar. Don’t take away young Jimmy Anishinaabe’s pick-up because he is delivering DKs. They are not criminals. They are just earning a living.

Contemporary stereotypes, are a slippery slope. They may not be overt and they may not always be hurtful towards individuals. But they taint the public perception of a particular segment of society based on misconceptions and misinformation. They take certain assumptions about particular groups of people and turn them into a false reality.

First Nations citizens pay taxes. First Nations citizens don’t get free homes. First Nations do make and sell legitimate tobacco products.

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