Sovereign smoke-up


Somewhere south of Grand Bend is a place forever emblazoned on the aboriginal psyche.[rssbreak]

To many, its name is no different from Oka or Gustafsen Lake or Caledonia. I’m talking about Ipperwash. Once a native community, then an army base, now once again a native community. Since its return to First Nations hands several years ago, it’s been indigenized very quickly.

I could tell this because as I drove by recently, I noticed at least two smoke shacks amid the deserted army barracks – the most obvious and immediate examples of native occupation. And I thought to myself, “Not exactly the proud manifestations of aboriginal culture I was expecting.” This can’t be what Dudley George was fighting for. Discount cigarettes?

Obviously, I have mixed feelings. I don’t smoke, never have, but who am I to pass judgment? Governments certainly do. The issue has become increasingly politicized because authorities believe the selling of tax-?free cigarettes on reserves to white people is highly illegal.

Officials claim the sale of “contraband” cigs at an estimated 315 First Nation smoke shops in Ontario costs as much as $4 million a day in lost provincial and federal tax revenue.

These smokes, of course, are substantially cheaper than those bought at most corner stores and are at the forefront of a limited economic revival. If you sell it cheaply, they will come.

So here’s the irony: few people I know personally in my community still smoke. Clearly, the vast majority of patrons of these places are what we like to call in these politically correct times colour-challenged. By far. I know. I’ve watched them, much as a biologist might study a cat looking for catnip.

I remember standing in line at one store at my First Nation trying to buy a tub of ice cream while a person of pallor in front of me purchased 37 bags of cigarettes. I counted them.

It occurred to me that the person who owned this particular store was wasting his time selling a single tub of ice cream to me.

Then there’s the sovereignty thing. As most students of history can tell you, sovereignty – like tobacco – can be quite addictive. Once you start going down that path, you ain’t never getting that monkey off your back.

T.S. Eliot said something about the world ending not with a bang, but a whimper. Well, the same sort of idea could be applied to native sovereignty – it won’t be achieved with a big gun battle or with elections or first ministers’ conferences. Think smoke shacks.

Of course, most people might disagree. Unfortunately, the end result of this kind of sovereignty is usually cancer, emphysema, heart disease and a host of other maladies. Hospital wards will be awash with unknowing supporters of aboriginal autonomy. Maybe we should have oxygen tank shacks ready for the next wave of self-?determination.

Then there’s the fact that the aboriginal tobacco industry – there are an estimated 30 operations making reserve cigs – is unregulated, meaning nobody really knows what goes into their products. They’re manufactured independently with few or no safeguards.

And as usual, native people are being blamed for white people’s weaknesses. We usually are. We sign treaties and expect to get what’s in them. We don’t get it and complain and then are considered whiners.

Now police forces are treating this complex issue like another complex issue: prostitution. Because of the explosive question of sovereignty, they’re sometimes going after the johns, not the sellers. Just outside Six Nations, where there are approximately 100 smoke shacks, police have been catching and releasing smoke shack patrons after confiscating their booty.

Call them the inadvertent heroes of the Indian future.



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