The Indian Smoking Debate

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Like so many problems that affect First Nations, the seemingly endless debate about exemptions from smoking bans is mired in petty, unproductive legalisms, even as the most important aspect of the issue – the health of native people – is never addressed. But the smoke and mirrors, if you’ll forgive the pun, masks yet another rip-off. Grassroots Indians are supposed to be exempt from tobacco taxes, but they’re paying them in full to chiefs and band councils.

First, the smoking bans. Rates of cigarette smoking among natives are much higher than in non-aboriginal populations. The Canadian Medical Association estimates that fully one half of natives overall smoke, and a shocking four out of five adolescents aged 15-19. The CMA notes that, even as associated rates of cardiovascular disease are declining in North America, among aboriginal populations they’re sharply increasing.

That should be enough to get our leaders on board with the Canadian trend of restricting public tobacco consumption. Instead, they are busily passing bylaws that exempt them from provincial smoking bans, and paying lawyers retainers to defend their positions in the courts. That people can smoke in band-owned bars and casinos gives these enterprises a commercial advantage, one that officials eagerly exploit no matter what the effect on the health of natives who patronize and work in such establishments.

The willingness to make fast money is all the more appalling in the wider legal context. First Nations like to claim freedom from such regulations, but that’s a charade. We cannot enjoy the great outdoors without a boat operator’s license, and we can be fined for not wearing a lifejacket. We must possess a driver’s license to operate vehicles and we must buy plates for and insure them. We have to register all firearms, or turn them in. But we are exempt from smoking bans?

For that matter, do the provinces feel guilty when addicted gamblers lose everything they own and commit suicide? In a casino, what is worse, becoming addicted to gambling or dying a slow death from smoking? Our public addiction to gambling revenues has been the ruin of many good people and devastating for their families. If we ban smoking as harmful, shouldn’t we take the moral high road and ban all casinos, both on and off reserves?

We don’t, because governments like the money. And that brings us to another scam, the denial of treaty rights connected to the purchase of tobacco and gasoline products. On reserves, people recognized as treaty Indians may purchase them on a tax-exempt basis. This has been a long-standing right and tradition. Indians do not have to pay the GST or PST on tobacco and gasoline. Nor do they pay the provincial tax on a carton of cigarettes, worth about $35.

But for some years now, band offices have been pocketing half the people’s gasoline tax rebate. “Once we pay off that building, then we will rebate the full amount,” goes the typical response when band officials are asked about it. Now many do the same with tobacco.

When treaty Indians purchase gasoline and tobacco, they are asked for their treaty card numbers, which are entered into the store’s computer and taxes are exempted. They are never told that the band will be keeping half of the gasoline rebate, nor that the business will receive a $35 refund from the government for every carton of cigarettes sold. Instead, they pocket it.

When I asked a band councillor on a large reserve why they keep the rebates, he responded, “We want our people to stop smoking.” If that’s the case, why not just ban the sale of tobacco altogether? In his community, $50,000 a week in tobacco sales clearly forms part of the answer, as does the new custom of pocketing the rebates.

On one northern reserve, the band owns two gasoline stations that used to sell cigarettes. Then a small business, privately owned by the chief’s daughter, was set up nearby. Both stations were told to stop selling tobacco products and direct customers there instead.

When that establishment sells tobacco products, it requests treaty numbers. But the business only deducts GST from the purchase price. Customers are not told that the smoke shop is rebated $35 from the Province of Manitoba for each carton of cigarettes sold nor does it offer the rebate to the treaty card holder, who in theory is entitled to it. Treaty Indians were never asked if the band could keep their rebates.

It makes you wonder where the money goes and what it’s used for. I posed these questions to bureaucrats at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ offices in Winnipeg. I was promised a reply in a month, but many months have passed with no response.

Something smells a little fishy, not only here but on most reserves. Our leaders are always talking about the protection of treaty rights, but the hypocrisy so manifest in the matter of smoking bans is magnified when you consider the disappearing tax rebates. Let’s kill our people off young, and make lots of money doing it.