Profits or Health and Smoking Bans

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary

On January 1, 2005, the Province of Saskatchewan imposed a province-wide ban on public smoking similar to the one in Manitoba. Much to its dismay, the government quickly learned, as had their counterparts in Manitoba, that aboriginal communities will not be following suit. Chief Alphonse Bird of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian nations announced that the four casinos operated by the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority will not honour the ban.

Despite ample evidence that tobacco products are damaging the health of people on First Nations, tribal leaders have learned well from white men with forked tongues. Go ahead and do what is profitable, and forget what you said earlier. Smoking bans will hurt the bottom line in casinos, and mean less money for aboriginal elites.

Saskatchewan natives currently operate four casinos – in Yorkton, Prince Albert, North Battleford and Carlyle, with another slated to be built in Swift Current – and therefore have much more to lose. Manitoba is home to only one casino, located on the Opasquiak Cree Nation near The Pas. In none of them are they enforcing the smoking bans. Although they operate through gambling agreements with the two provincial governments, a legal loophole is allowing them an out.

Section 88 of the Indian Act says that provincial laws do not apply to Indian people unless they are consistent with bylaws made under the Indian Act. Indian bands may pass laws on their own land that differ from provincial law, if the federal government approves. Saskatchewan’s casinos operate in partnership with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations; that organization is expected to develop its own smoking bylaw rather quickly and submit it to Indian Affairs for approval. Manitoba and at least one band in New Brunswick have already received such exemptions.

The defiance has its ironies. In The Pas, they led the way with a smoking ban in most reserve enterprises long before the Province passed its law. All business establishments on the reserve, including the band-owned mall, touted as the largest in northern Manitoba, the band’s motel and its dining room, lounge and banquet rooms, a Tim Horton’s, the hockey arena and other buildings, had to abide by the ban. But guess what? Not in the casino, where patrons encounter wide-open smoking.

Opasquiak went even further to discourage tobacco use by not refunding the portion of tobacco tax usually rebated to treaty purchasers. This portion of the cost, generally about half the price of the tobacco, now goes to the band office. Many treaty-card holders are understandably upset. Who gave band officers the right to keep the people’s rebate? On a reserve with about $40,000 in tobacco sales each week, the rebate represents a lot of money extracted from people who can’t afford it.

The band coffers benefit, of course, but what does the band do with this additional windfall? They aren’t saying. To rub dirt even further into the wound, they have placed advertisements to hire a tobacco manager to educate their people on the harmful effects of tobacco use. Apparently this danger does not apply in the casino, where on any given day a majority of gamblers and smokers are members of the band.

Some regard these events in Saskatchewan as evidence that FSIN is spoiling for a fight with the Province. As in Manitoba, some leaders want the Crown to step out of Indian gaming altogether, so they don’t have to share profits of gaming. Saskatchewan Deputy Premier Clay Serby says his government is not interested in a fight over the smoking ban and that all options are on the table. He met with a number of Chiefs in Saskatoon, and discussed options like ventilated smoking rooms.

The province’s hotel association has continually and unsuccessfully pushed for the same sort of accommodation in beer parlours. In northern Manitoba, hotels and other venues that serve alcohol have seen a great reduction in patronage due to the smoking ban. Non-aboriginals are concluding that natives are again getting special treatment, which creates bitter feelings.

Tobacco and gambling, along with the overuse of alcohol, have long been problems for many First Nations. By allowing gaming to expand, the federal government and the provinces leave little room for turning back an aboriginal leadership hooked on the immense profits it generates. Jobs have already been created on reserves as a direct result of gaming, but more and more people have become addicted to gambling, a source of great hardship not only for the gambler but their families.

First Nations should have stayed away from casinos. The downside far outweighs the upside of these ventures. As for smoking bans, reserve leaders should follow suit and ban smoking in all gaming establishments. They should put the health of their people before profits.