(Photo: Workers sorting cigarettes inside Rainbow Tobacco’s factory. APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
An Alberta prosecutor is expected to decide soon on whether to lay charges in connection with the seizure of 14 million cigarettes on the Montana First Nation reserve, according to the RCMP.
Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission agents along with the RCMP seized the cigarettes on Jan. 5 because they were not licensed for sale in the province. The federally stamped cigarettes were manufactured and shipped by Rainbow Tobacco, a company in Kahnawake, a Mohawk community near Montreal.
British Columbia and Saskatchewan authorities, with the help of the RCMP, have also recently seized three separate shipments from Rainbow Tobacco.
Hobbema RCMP Staff Sgt. Robin Alexander said he believes the prosecutor will sign off on charges against the company and possibly the band council politicians involved with the shipment.
“There is no dispute Alberta tax was not paid and I do know it is a violation of the Tobacco Tax Act. Unless there are reasons I can’t imagine, I believe charges will be laid in relation to that,” said Alexander.
Alexander said a provincial prosecutor is currently reviewing the case, including statements from witnesses and documentation obtained from Rainbow Tobacco.
“We expect that (a decision) will be reached in the near future and we will deal with that when it comes,” he said.
Alexander said Rainbow’s cigarettes were properly licensed at the federal level and the RCMP has concluded that aspect of the investigation. He said the Canada Revenue Agency now has the file to review whether all its regulations were properly followed by Rainbow in its shipment.
Calls to Alberta Justice were not returned.
A spokeswoman for the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission said she could not confirm whether charges were imminent.
“All I know is that our investigation is ongoing. I have no idea where (Alexander) is getting his information from, but I can’t confirm that at all,” said Christine Wronko.
Carolyn Buffalo, the chief of Montana First Nation who is currently fighting a suspension, said she was told by another RCMP sergeant that Rainbow was likely to face a charge or charges. She said the officer also told her she could be facing charges along with band Coun. Len Standingontheroad.
“What (the officer) told me is that Rainbow is going to be charged for sure under the Alberta Tax Act,” said Buffalo, in an interview with APTN National News Friday. “And that somebody in Montana has to be held accountable and charges could be laid against me and Coun. Leonard Standingontheroad.”
Rainbow Tobacco president Robbie Dickson called the RCMP’s decision to reveal their belief that charges were imminent an act of “intimidation.” Dickson said the company is also reviewing its legal options.
“It is intimidation. We are fighting for our economic lives and they are intimidating and they are acting like thugs on behalf of the province,” said Dickson. “There is so much poverty in the West…it is disgusting, the government actions being taken.”
Rainbow Tobacco, a federally licensed cigarette manufacturer, states that provincial governments have no jurisdiction over trade between First Nations which are exclusively federal jurisdiction.
Rainbow Tobacco, along with Montana First Nation, recently launched a lawsuit against Alberta over the seizure claiming $1.499 million in damages for lost business and defamation.
Montana First Nation’s continued role in the lawsuit, however, remains unclear.
Buffalo was suspended after the seizure by a group of three councillors. Two of the councillors continue to aggressively oppose her in an increasingly bitter feud.
RCMP officers forced Buffalo to leave the band office Thursday after she showed up for a planned press conference by her opponents.
There is talk of holding a community referendum in March to determine whether a new election should be held.
An Indian Affairs spokeswoman in Ottawa said Montana First Nations is under custom code which means it is up to the community to determine who leads. The department however has received no indication of a change in leadership, the spokeswoman said.
Buffalo said she has obtained legal opinion that her suspension was illegal and broke the band’s own rules. She said her opponents called the Jan. 7 meeting to suspend her knowing she would be in hospital with her nine-year old son, who suffers from cerebral palsy, for a scheduled operation.
“Everyone knew that I was going to be there with my son,” said Buffalo.
She is asking for an apology from the RCMP for threatening to arrest her if she did not leave the band office Thursday. Buffalo said she will launch a formal complaint if no apology comes.
“I am asking all the chiefs across the country, ‘Is this okay for a duly elected chief to be told to leave her own office under threat of arrest and charges by the RCMP?'” said Buffalo. “Is this okay?”
Trouble began on Jan. 3 when Buffalo called the RCMP to investigate a break-in at the Quonset holding the cigarettes.
Noticing the large quantity of cigarettes, the RCMP officers on the ground decided to tip off Alberta authorities, triggering the seizure days later.
Now, the scene is being set for a legal battle that could reach the Supreme Court.
The cigarettes were meant as an initial shipment from Rainbow Tobacco to establish an on-reserve distribution network.
Montana First Nations was to become a distribution hub for Rainbow Tobacco products which would then be shipped throughout the province. Rainbow also had plans to establish distribution links throughout British Columbia and Saskatchewan as part of the same plan.
Buffalo said she decided to back dealings with Rainbow as a means to kick-start the local economy of her severely impoverished community. Tobacco has been an economic boon for communities like Kahnawake and Western chiefs are looking to replicate the success.