Saturday, July 26, 2008
Akwesasne (tobacco) trade plan aims to mend Iroquois society Doug George-Kanentiio The Hamilton Spectator (Jul 24, 2008) Twenty years ago, the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne (near Cornwall) realized the threat that unregulated tobacco sales brought to our community and sought to implement a series of rules that would have brought order to an activity which undermined our status as an indigenous state. As a member of the committee that drafted the proposed rules, I knew we would face great opposition not from the federal government but those retailers who marketed this controversial product not only at Akwesasne but across Eastern Canada. They would not agree to abide by any laws that diminished their profits, particularly if the proposed regulations came from a native government. At the same time, we initiated discussions with Ottawa to try to arrive at a solution to the smuggling of tobacco into our territory and from there to other native communities. We had secured a preliminary agreement that would effectively decriminalize the tobacco trade by having the Mohawk Nation control the movement of this product from the manufacturer to the retailer. Our plan was to have the Nation create its own monitoring agency that would place all orders for tobacco to be shipped to a central warehouse owned by the Nation in vehicles licensed by the same. We would then seal and bond all shipments, which would be carried to other native governments and then supplied to retail outlets. At no point would any tobacco product be sold without having the Nation's seal, which meant full accountability and control. The bulk of the profits would be made by the Nation and the other native governing entities. The money was to be used for communal needs and would gradually replace federal and provincial expenditures on native programs, thereby saving the Canadian taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. A percentage of the profits would also be set aside to finance individual businesses with the intent of diversification of our economy and ultimately leading to the elimination of tobacco sales altogether. It was a great plan that intrigued everyone who heard of it -- that is, except the tobacco trade kingpins who were, and are, prepared to battle any agency, native or not, that interferes in this activity. This group created and financed an entity called the "warriors," which used fear, intimidation and violence to undermine our efforts and sabotage the Nation's initiatives. In large part, we failed to regulate tobacco because we lacked the means to enforce our own rules. We assumed everyone would see the logic in this plan and agree to comply. To us, the benefits of a stronger, self-sufficient community were obvious. A secure Nation meant enhanced economic opportunities while diminishing the social ills that have long plagued the Iroquois. We failed in another way in that we were taken by surprise at the readiness of many Iroquois to discard the well-being of the people for immediate, personal gain. Our sense of community, characterized by unique sensitivity toward the needs of the family and clan (a cultural priority above all else) evaporated before the raw compulsion of pure greed. Now, a generation later, we have a few tobacco millionaires, some of whom have made potentially fatal compromises in our status as native nations, while others have turned hundreds of their fellow Iroquois into smugglers and criminals. Iroquois society, if it is to endure, cannot sustain a caste class-based system of any kind given our egalitarian heritage. Ranking a person based on material wealth destroys our ancient tradition of distributing wealth based on need. In our longhouses, the elders, women, infirm and children have first priority but outside of our ceremonial gatherings this is no longer the way it is. No one should be so naive as to believe the tobacco trade is without considerable physical risk. Many people have died at Akwesasne as they attempt to carry boatloads of cigarettes across the swift flowing waters of the St. Lawrence. Others have used the money made from this venture to enter the drug trade, resulting in still more deaths and the corruption of an entire generation. Then there are the organized gangs in and around Akwesasne who demand their share and are willing to apply lethal force to those who don't pay up. Yet the solution to this may yet be realized. It is time for officials in Toronto and Ottawa to meet with our legitimate leaders and form a joint working committee to revive the 1988 trade regulations. It is time to negotiate an effective aboriginal free trade agreement that would have Akwesasne become the central distribution outlet for products coming from the U.S. and transported to native communities across Canada. It is time to make our native nations stronger so they can enforce their own rules regarding tobacco. It is time for the tobacco kingpins to stop wagging the dog and realize they are destroying the very legal and cultural conditions that have enabled them to reap their profits. It is time for Canada to acknowledge its part in this mess when it attempted to replace our traditional governments with weak, ineffective and unpopular "band councils." Canada must agree to abide by the wishes of the Iroquois if our people decide to return to the ancestral governing methods. The present factionalism is of no benefit to anyone except the kingpins: Iroquois unity is what they fear most. Nothing short of the above will stop the corruption of both our peoples. Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a columnist for News From Indian Country and the former editor of Akwesasne Notes.