The largest police crackdown on the Indigenous tobacco industry in Canadian and U.S. history occurred last month. Operation Mygale, referred to in a Sûreté du Québec (SQ) press release as the "most important operation against contraband tobacco and cross border crime between Canada and the US," culminated on March 30, 2016, as 700 police officers from 12 jurisdictions made 56 arrests, seized over $4 million in cash, and confiscated 52,800 kilograms of Indigenous tobacco worth an estimated $13.5 million.
According to SQ Captain Frédérick Gaudreau, police are aware of 158 shipments of Indigenous tobacco across the U.S.-Canadian border between August 2014 and March 2016 that total an estimated 2,294 tons. Gaudreau claims that the untaxed Indigenous tobacco was being moved across the border in 53 foot long transport trucks, and that Canadian governments have lost $530 million in potential revenue as a result. Sergeant Dany Dufour, who headed up the operation on behalf of the SQ’s “Crimes Against the State Department” estimated that in addition to this tax loss, over $20 million was earned in profit by the network importing and selling tax-free Indigenous tobacco.
The police operation was led by the SQ in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the framework of the Quebec government’s “Accès Tabac” program, an initiative designed to combat the Indigenous tobacco industry and recover lost taxes from “crimes against the state.” Citing the operation of unspecified "Aboriginal organized crime" groups, the SQ claimed to have carried out simultaneous raids not only in communities across Quebec, but also in Onkwehon:we communities, Six Nations of the Grand River, Kahnawà:ke and unspecified places in South America and Europe. It should be noted that there were in fact no raids or searches in Six Nations or Kahnawà:ke and that the local police forces merely notified those charged that they were wanted by authorities. As Chief Peacekeeper Dwaye Zacharie of Kahnawà:ke said, “We don’t get involved in tobacco files.”
Four Onkwehon:we people have been charged in connection with Operation Mygale. Three Mohawks from Kahnawà:ke have turned themselves in to face various charges of tax fraud and conspiracy. Derek White is charged with commission of an offence for a criminal organization, three counts of conspiracy to defraud the government (Quebec, Ontario, and Canada), and three counts of fraud against the government (Quebec, Ontario, and Canada). Todd Beauchamp is charged with money laundering. Hunter Montour is charged with participation in activities of a criminal organization.
Also accused is Jason Hill, the owner of the popular Burger Barn restaurant in Six Nations. He has been charged with commission of an offence for a criminal organization, two counts of conspiracy to defraud the government (Ontario and Canada), and two counts of fraud against the government (Ontario and Canada). Hill was out of the country when the raid occurred and has yet to be arrested.
According to an “organizational flow chart” released by the SQ, all four Onkwehon:we men were involved in buying tobacco or transferring the money used to buy and sell the tobacco. Although the SQ claims that 836 kilograms of cocaine, 21 kilograms of methamphetamine, 16 kilograms of marijuana, and some firearms were also seized in the raids, none of the four Onkwehon:we men face any drug or weapons charges.
“All it has to do with is with tobacco,” stated one of the accused, Derek White, in an interview with Eastern Door newspaper in Kahnawà:ke. “It has nothing to do with any of the other stuff they’re making up. I have nothing to do with drugs, or ISIS or terrorism…. I have nothing to do with that shit, absolutely zero. They want their tax money, that’s all.”
Kanenhariyo, a Mohawk man from Tyendinaga who has a long history of involvement in the Indigenous tobacco industry and who is currently involved in a constitutional legal battle with the Canadian courts for moving Indigenous tobacco between Tyendinaga and Six Nations, concurs with White’s sentiments.
“I’ve been intimately involved in the tobacco industry and I have never seen cocaine, and I’ve never seen weapons. Ever. It’s horseshit. People know that it’s not socially acceptable within their communities. Their communities will turn on them. You decide that you’re going to get into that in your home community, and they will evict you.”
Traditional trade vs contraband
Kelly MacNaughton, the owner of Icky’s Tobacconist and Variety in Ohsweken, comes from a family that was instrumental in establishing the Indigenous tobacco industry in Six Nations. She notes the community’s concern about Operation Mygale and the potential risks of supporting Jason Hill and the other arrested men. But the arrests haven’t changed MacNaughton’s staunch support for the Indigenous tobacco industry.
“To me, he's Onkwehon:we and I'm going to close ranks around him, I'm going to help him, and as long as he's not involved with drugs I'll be there,” MacNaughton stated. “You don't have to like it, but I do respect that he’s somebody who's trying to make a difference in having his own businesses. Whether I agree or don't agree with other things, I will put that to the side because the government shouldn’t be marginalizing or targeting anyone who's making a business for himself based on doing something he has the legal right to do: selling tobacco.”
The mainstream media’s portrayal of “contraband” tobacco as a matter of criminality linked to organized crime and international terrorism is a perspective hotly contested by Onkwehon:we people as community members, band council leadership, traditional leadership, and spokespeople of the tobacco industry have all made clear that they consider the Indigenous tobacco industry to be a legitimate economic institution that has greatly improved life on reserve.
A prosperous community
The tobacco industry is by far the largest employer on most reserves, and one of the biggest supporters of various community projects, sports teams, and political struggles. In response to Operation Mygale, the band councils of Six Nations and Kahnawà:ke released a joint statement. “As First Nations, Kahnawà:ke and Six Nations have the legal right to produce, distribute, and trade tobacco. Any attempt to regulate or restrict a First Nation from manufacturing and participating in inter-Nation trade within the tobacco industry is an attack on this inherent Indigenous right.”
Kahnawà:ke Tobacco Portfolio Chief Gina Deer put the matter into historical perspective in an interview with Kahnawake TV. "Look at the fur trade, you go that far back and taxation was an issue back then. They were jailing First Nations people for not paying taxes. Here we are in this day and age still facing the same thing.”
“The hope is that one day the government will take the time to sit down and talk with us about taxation issues. Because it goes beyond tobacco. Tobacco is a product they can vilify, but if we look at maple syrup, which is traditionally our product as well as tobacco, there’s an association. You have to get permission from government in order to sell. Being a First Nations community we don’t have to ask for that right. It’s something that we’ve always done. We’ve taught them, we’ve exposed them to these products, and now we’re vilified for utilizing them for our economic development."
Tobacco’s long history
For thousands of years before the arrival of European colonizers to Turtle Island, free and sovereign Indigenous communities traded the plant through far-flung trade routes crisscrossing the continent.
Tobacco was and still is considered a sacred plant with powerful spiritual qualities. When Europeans first came, Onkwehon:we people introduced them to the plant, and tobacco plantations became crucial to the success of the first English colonial settlements. Unfortunately, the British and other European nations did not practice fair trade nor act in good faith in keeping their side of the bargain with the signed treaties, allowing for First Nations to bounce back from disease and establish their own Nations. Instead, they committed genocide against the Indigenous people who gave them tobacco, and enslaved millions of African people to work their plantations in brutal condition. Their state power institutionalized the subordination of Indigenous people to colonial societies based on tobacco and other cash crops of the plantation economy.
Ultimately, the Canadian government’s real issue with the Indigenous tobacco industry is that planting, transporting, and manufacturing tobacco on a mass scale directs hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to Indigenous families and to the larger Indigenous economy in Canada.
This money is not traceable by the Canadian government, is not controlled by it, and is being recycled into the creation of new, non-tobacco-based businesses and an expansion of the Indigenous tobacco industry to other reserves, particularly those in Northern Ontario and Eastern Canada. The government considers this growth of the Indigenous economy to be a “crime against the state,” labelling it fraud, money laundering, and criminal activity. For their part, the Onkwehon:we consider tobacco to be a key economic lifeline and alternative to the colonial system.
Economic alternatives to INAC
“They are claiming Indigenous freedom of economics as fraud,” said Kanenhariyo. “They’re saying we're frauding the province, frauding the state. But in fact it's the province and the state that are frauding the Indigenous people by stealing.”
“They've taken every single economic opportunity that we've had, and either usurped it and commercialized it so that we don't have anything unique to be able to sell or trade. Corn, beans, squash, potatoes, canoes, sunglasses, half the medicines they use, all of those things (we invented), they've stolen, as well as the natural resources, fish, wood, agriculture, tobacco. Anything that we raise as an economic opportunity for ourselves they make illegal. So we are stuck on the side of the road selling trinkets because it's the only thing they wouldn't be bothered to do.”
Sergeant Dufour, the SQ officer who led Operation MYGALE, made clear that the real issue is that the Indigenous tobacco industry is producing profits outside of the control and knowledge of the state. “It’s not tobacco taxes that we’re after, as some people pretend. We’re combating criminality. The money generated by the network serves to fund other kinds of illegal operations. The product we’ve seized isn’t important. It’s the profitably that interests the networks.”
Dufour’s comments strike to the heart of the matter, raising the question of who should be the real enforcer of the law of this land, the colonizers or the colonized.
“Why is it criminal?” asks Kanenhariyo concerning “contraband” tobacco. “Because it's contrary to Canadian law, but here's the problem. What about when it’s the police and the provinces and the federal government operating contrary to international law? Then isn't it them who are the criminals? They don't deserve the tobacco taxes in the first place. What they're trying to steal is any Indigenous economy. For some reason, the people who came here as invaders think that they have some sort of right to do this.”
Sovereignty and Independence trumps fear
In a context where Canadians are increasingly recognizing the past genocidal actions of their government in operating residential schools and the deliberate starvation of Indigenous peoples forced onto reserves under an openly racist Indian Act, arguments like Kanenhariyo’s may start to gain increased traction. “Crimes” against a state that committed genocide against Onkwehon:we people may increasingly be seen as an underlying political issue of anti-colonial resistance rather than a criminal matter deserving punishment.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples certainly recognizes the right of Onkwehon:we peoples to the Indigenous tobacco industry. According to Article 20 of the declaration, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.”
Canada and the corporate tobacco lobby have responded to the growing threat of Onkwehon:we economic independence by criminalizing the avoidance of tobacco taxes, creating specialized anti-tobacco laws such as Bill C-10, funding aggressive new police surveillance and enforcement units, and waging a public relations campaign designed to convince the public that the Native tobacco industry is in league with organized crime and international terrorism.
But the response from Onkwehon:we communities to Operation Mygale shows that Canada has a real fight on its hands. The Six Nations and Kahnawà:ke band councils issued statements defending the Indigenous tobacco industry. Both elected and traditional governments of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy are continuing to put in place their own tobacco law regulations to show that they can control and regulate the tobacco economy on their own terms without Canadian government interference. And the Indigenous tobacco industry continues to work away, daily churning out both “legal” and non-taxed products and taking increased precautions to maintain itself.
Operation Mygale has certainly had an impact on the Indigenous tobacco industry. But as long as tens of thousands of working-class Canadians make the commute to purchase their tobacco on Onkwehon:we reserves every day, the industry will continue to thrive. The Indigenous tobacco trade has been an important factor in the profound political, economic, cultural, and demographic resurgence of Onkwehon:we people, who have survived far too many crimes at the hands of colonial states to surrender their hard-earned freedom now. Operation Mygale is but the latest battle in an extended struggle over the economic basis of Indigenous freedom.