Photo of the police presence at the Mohawk blockade at Tyendinaga, near Belleville. Via Nicky Young.
The same Conservative government that dismissed a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women as too costly, has allocated $91.7 million over five years in its budget for a high-tech surveillance operation along the Quebec-Ontario border with the US in order to find and shut down Mohawk-run underground tobacco operations. The funds were set aside specifically for a “Geospatial Intelligence and Automatic Dispatch Centre,” which will rely on a number of different and costly surveillance technologies.
“Law enforcement partners need to have a clear understanding of the border environment in order to identify potential threats. This is most effectively and efficiently accomplished through the use of technology, including sensors, radar, cameras and underwater acoustics,” an RCMP media relations officer told VICE.
The RCMP’s costly new policing and surveillance initiative will continue to target the Mohawk border community of Akwesasne, from which black market tobacco is moved up and along routes to Kahnawake near Montreal and Tyendinaga near Belleville, and where a Mohawk blockade was held recently calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. It was at this protest that the OPP deployed camera drones, technically referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as just part of a package of expensive technology and weaponry used to monitor and disperse the Tyendinaga blockade.
The OPP have defended their use of drones--that run the government around $30,000 apiece—explaining that UAVs are an inexpensive way to conduct necessary investigations. The legal status of UAVs remains murky, but it seems their use is not permitted over populated areas. You can’t fly drones over people, according to Transport Canada. At the protest itself, the cadre of police and their seemingly endless supply of manpower, vehicles, and equipment greatly outnumbered the handful of Mohawk protesters and journalists on site. With this new use of drone cameras and the allocation of a large chunk of funding for further RCMP surveillance and crackdowns on contraband tobacco, Harper has shown that his government financially prioritizes policing Indigenous communities, instead of getting them justice.
The government war on contraband tobacco has been in motion for some time now. Between 2007 and 2011, the RCMP seized nearly four million cartons of First Nations contraband cigarettes, with a retail value of about $80 million. In 2013, the Conservative government introduced a series of laws, packaged in the omnibus bill C-10, imposing mandatory minimums for people who get caught smuggling tobacco (with cigarettes, 50 or more cartons). According to police, cigarettes are not only smuggled across the border (since the territory at Akwesasne spans beyond the border on both sides) but the cigarettes are then sold at a cheaper price to largely non-Indigenous clients looking to circumvent costly federal and provincial taxes.
“This initiative will significantly enhance law enforcement coverage of the border environment that is being exploited by organized crime to facilitate cross-border criminal activities, including the smuggling and trafficking of contraband and humans,” the RCMP told VICE. “We will be implementing measures that will support and expand current intelligence-led efforts by enhancing current border technology, focused on the goal of disrupting organized crime groups, that are operating along the border between the Quebec/Maine border and Oakville, Ontario,” said the same media relations officer.
Prior to 2007 when the trade began to go underground, Mohawk properties like the Rainbow Tobacco Company did business nation-to-nation across provincial and national borderlines. But since then, the RCMP crackdown has nearly bankrupted Rainbow, which had its cigarettes seized illegally by a number of provincial governments. While circumventing taxes imposed at borders remains in something of a legal grey area, there is a case for the “sovereignty through cigarette” argument that Rainbow and others have made for independent nation-to-nation trade. Regardless, the interference of the provincial government in a federal matter in illegally seizing cigarettes led to a court battle Rainbow Tobacco has not recovered from, financially. In addition to this, it came out later in court documents that the RCMP pressured the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) into revoking Rainbow’s federal tobacco license in 2012.
But tobacco is central to many Indigenous communities, both culturally and economically.
It’s a huge economic force within the Mohawk community, which has depended on the tobacco trade for jobs. Tobacco is both political and lucrative; the Mohawk community found that like Big Tobacco, they too were reaping financial reward. This has historically allowed the Mohawk community to not only remain relatively independent in terms of institutionalized support from the government, but also politicized enough to take a stand against the government where they see injustice—in calling for a federal inquiry, or at Oka, for example. Shawn Brant, a Mohawk activist from Tyendinaga who trades tobacco for a living, believes the increases in policing and surveillance are a direct attack on Indigenous communities.
“I think this [initiative] isn't about targeting the tobacco trade, I believe [this] is about targeting an aspect of our community that actively speaks out against government's colonial and apartheid policies and that's the tragic reality,” Brant said of economic loss to the Mohawk community.
According the “History of Rainbow Tobacco” found on the company’s website, “the cigarette industry is currently a major employer of Kahnawakeron within the reserve proper and is one of the major reasons the unemployment rate within the community has steadily decreased in the past 5-10 years.” It goes to on to say that “in 2009-2010, the Kahnawake Tobacco Association (KTA) estimated that approximately 1700-2000 community members were employed in the tobacco industry.” Those numbers aren’t insignificant.
While costly, the federal budget estimates that these recent changes and the RCMP’s new border policing and surveillance initiative will bring in some $685 million in revenue in 2014-15 for the government. What is not included in this calculus, apparently, is the cost of dismantling the economic base of the Mohawk and other Indigenous communities. Such an oversight, particularly when taken with a refusal by this government to invest in the safety of those same communities and their missing and murdered women, makes it plain to Brant and others what Stephen Harper’s priorities are.
“I believe the agenda of government to expend resources to target tobacco, on one hand claiming to be a law and order government, a tough on crime government, a government that is committed to safety and the protection of victims within society, is [an] irony that people can observe when they're faced with the same government refusing to take any justice initiatives on the issue of murdered and missing women and girls. And I think that's the hardest pill to swallow, [...] the assertion that they are a government that is tough on crime, yet failing to provide justice to First Nations women and girls. [Instead they] impose mandatory minimum criminal sentences, jail sentences, on those people who use tobacco as a means to support their family and develop economies within impoverished First Nations communities,” Brant said.