(photo on main page: Bradley Thomas, 20, works the cigaratte packing machine while Rainbow Tobacco president Robbie Dickson looks on. APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Robbie Dickson holds a cigarette and points to a gap between the paper and the white filter.
This one is no good, he says, the tobacco smoke escapes before it reaches the mouth, lungs. The full nicotine hit, diminished.
“The filter paper didn’t seal properly, so it won’t give you a very good smoke,” said Dickson, president of Rainbow Tobacco. “The air will be leaking out of the filter and not going to the smoker.”
Dickson, 37, fished the cigarette from a bin of discarded Deerfield smokes, the brand his company produces with the slogan, “Taste without compromise.”
Rainbow is currently the only federally licensed cigarette manufacturer in Kahnawake, a Mohawk community near Montreal that has thrived off the tobacco trade.
The company is in the midst of a potentially precedent setting legal battle with three Western provinces and the outcome could not only have a major impact on inter-provincial trade between First Nations reserves, but change the face of the tobacco industry in Canada.
It could also break Rainbow.
“This could be the Alamo for Rainbow Tobacco,” said Dickson.
Deerfield’s slogan blares from a sign atop the Smoke King Tobacco Emporium, run by Dickson’s relative.
The smoke shop sits next to a mixed-martial arts store owned by a woman who did her master’s thesis on the history of the Indian agent and Kahnawake. Minding the till inside the MMA store today is professional fighter Stephane Vigneault. Behind him, around a corner, is the door that leads to the factory floor of Rainbow Tobacco.
Beneath high ceilings crossed by pipes and ventilation shafts, a machine, called the maker, pumps out a steady rhythm of cigarettes. Two women gather the cigarettes by hand and place them into plastic trays.
Once full, the trays are loaded onto a trolley.
The air is laced with the sweet scent of tobacco rising from several open bins.
About half a dozen workers are minding the machines. They make between $15 to $25 an hour depending on their experience and assigned task.
Cynthia Jacobs dips her hands into the flow of cigarettes and expertly groups the sticks into a bundle to place into the trays. She’s been working here for a little over a year.
“It pays the bills,” says Jacobs, who is from Kahnawake.
Nearby John Rambo, 47, is feeding the maker with fine cut tobacco.
“It’s very enjoyable here,” said Rambo, who lives in neighbouring Chateauguay, Que., and has worked four years for Rainbow.
Nearby, the machine called a packer is inserting cigarettes into packages, which are then mechanically wrapped.
Bradley Thomas, 20, is working at the machine. He says the tobacco trade is part of Mohawk culture.
“We’ve been doing it for thousands of years, before Europeans ever came,” said Thomas.
An American flag hangs from the rafters. A Brazilian flag hangs against a back wall, a reminder of the Brazilians who installed Rainbow’s first machines in 2004.
The current machines, from the 1970s, can pump out a million cigarettes a day.
Dickson said a Mohawk Warrior flag also hung above the workers, but it was given to Montana First Nation in Alberta as a gift.
Montana, which sits about 90 km south of Edmonton, was the first step in an ambitious plan by Rainbow Tobacco to expand its current on-reserve market in Ontario and conquer the on-reserve cigarette market in the West.
On Jan. 5, Rainbow’s plans were stubbed out by the Alberta government. Agents from the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, along with the RCMP, raided a Quonset on the reserve and seized 14 million cigarettes.
Alberta said the cigarettes were not licensed for sale in the province and were illegal.
The RCMP were initially called in by Chief Carolyn Buffalo a few days earlier to investigated a break-in at the site after several cartons of cigarettes were stolen. The federal police then tipped-off provincial authorities.
The seizure stunned Dickson who said he has faced no interference from Ontario. Dickson said he also informed an official with the Canada Revenue Agency about the plans to ship west.
“I had informed my federal agent of the prospects out west a few months before shipping out there,” he said. “According to them it was within our licensing authority to deal federal territory to federal territory so I didn’t expect any backlash whatsoever.”
He believes it is not only illegal, but unconstitutional for provinces to interfere in trade between First Nations, which are exclusively federal jurisdiction, when the product is federally licensed.
Dickson, however, kept pushing.
In late January, he made two separate 50 carton shipments-“gifts”-to British Columbia, one to Squamish First Nation and the other to an individual. Both were seized at a courier depot by provincial authorities, with the help of the RCMP, because they weren’t licensed for sale in the province.
Then, Saskatchewan authorities, with the help of the RCMP, intercepted a 100 carton shipment destined for a staff member with the Federation Saskatchewan Indian Nations. The cigarettes were meant as “gifts” and “samples” for provincial reserves in the province.
Dickson now finds himself waging a legal battle on three fronts.
In Alberta, his company and Montana First Nations recently filed a $1.499 million lawsuit against the provincial government over the seizure. The lawsuit also alleges the province defamed Rainbow by labelling the cigarettes contraband.
“The tobacco was seized without jurisdiction and upon false assertion…that the cigarettes were counterfeit and contraband…despite the cigarettes being marked Canada Duty Paid.”
The case could go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Dickson also finds himself in an unexpected and political role, championing sovereignty through the cigarette.
This is all new territory for Dickson, a former high school basketball power forward who studied engineering in two universities and worked for the band council before joining Rainbow Tobacco in 2004, the same year it was founded.
While he said the Oka crisis in 1990, which engulfed his community, opened his eyes to “how hard First Nations people had it in Canada” and to the country’s “racism,” he never saw himself as overly political.
His father is an electrician and his mother worked in the kitchen at the Kahnawake golf course. Dickson said he was sent to Montreal during the heat of the Oka crisis along with other students so they wouldn’t miss the start of the school year in September.
“I don’t consider myself a revolutionary of any sort,” he said. “Basically I am a businessman, but now it has become more than just a business fight. It has become more of a fight for Native rights and our sovereignty.”
He recently received an endorsement from a group of Alberta chiefs and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has backed the right of bands to trade amongst themselves without provincial interference.
Dickson’s company has also pledged to help First Nations draft their own tobacco laws, to trump those of the provinces.
Chiefs from impoverished First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan see cigarettes as a short-cut to prosperity. They want to replicate the wealth on display in the communities like Kahnawake.
“There’s so much poverty in my community…we have so much despair and hopelessness and part of what I wanted to do was turn that around,” said Montana Cree Nation Chief Carolyn Buffalo, who is now fighting for her political life as a result of the raid.
The battle is also taking its toll on Rainbow Tobacco.
The seizure cut into his company’s finances. Dickson bet heavily on selling Rainbow cigarettes on reserves in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
He was forced to lay off his 15 permanent employees, who now work on call. New machines worth over half a million dollars are still in their wooden crates.
“We are running less than half capacity,” said Dickson. “It is putting a severe financial strain not only on Rainbow, but on all our employees and families as well.”
Dickson said he allowed APTN National News into his factory in an act of “desperation.”
He says Rainbow has nothing to hide. It pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal taxes every year to run a business selling the rolled version of a plant that has been a part of Mohawk culture long before Europeans arrived.
He says the provinces are using legislation that should have no force on First Nations territory. The provinces never consulted with First Nations on their tobacco laws even though they directly impact Aboriginal rights, he says.
Dickson’s decision to open his factory’s doors offered a rare glimpse into a world usually kept in shadows.
The tobacco industry in general carries the stigma of making profit off a highly addictive product that can lead to excruciating death by cancer of the throat, lungs, mouth. Yet, governments at the provincial and federal level reap healthy taxes off its sales.
The First Nations cigarette trade carries added baggage since many of the players, because they refuse to pay taxes to any government as a matter of principle, operate in the black market, moving their product clandestinely while dedicated units in the RCMP and provincial police forces try to disrupt their trade with the tactics of counter-narcotics agents.
Mohawk communities are at the centre of this world.
Akwesasne, which straddles the Canada-US border, is the source of the largest amount of black-market tobacco in Canada, according to the RCMP.
Most of the cigarettes are produced on the U.S. and spirited over the border, the smuggling routes carved out during the 1990s when RJR-Macdonald, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., and Imperial Tobacco used the community to smuggle billions of cigarettes into Canada to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes.
The RCMP says human, drug and weapons smuggling also cling to the black-market tobacco trade like pilot fish and its proceeds grease the gears of a wide array of criminal activities and organizations.
Kahnawake is also home to several cigarette manufacturers, but currently, only one is federally licensed: Rainbow Tobacco.
Six Nations of the Grand River, an Iroquois community near Hamilton, Ont., is home to the largest and most successful federally licensed cigarette manufacturer. Grand River Enterprises sells internationally.
Tobacco has been a part of First Nations spiritual ceremonies since time immemorial. Dickson says its commercial use today is now intricately linked to notions of sovereignty and identity.
Tobacco is political and it’s lucrative.
Over the past 25 years, the tobacco industry has created millionaires and evolved into the economic engine of Kahanwake. It has the protection of the band council and the local police force.
“Tobacco is not an area we enforce, we are not tax collectors for the government,” said Dwayne Zacharie, chief of the Peacekeepers police force. “We have a number of tobacco companies, 150 stores that sell tobacco…(the tobacco industry) employs thousands of people.”
During a recent call-in show on local television in Kahnawake, Dickson was asked how he could justify paying taxes to the federal government.
“Not all people agree with (Dickson) having a federal license. Most of the people don’t because…we don’t believe ourselves to be Canadian citizens,” said Brian Delormier, a board member of the Kahnawake Tobacco Association.
Dickson says he sees his relationship with Canada as more of a partnership, nation to nation, like the treaties signed between the Crown and First Nations.
It is noon, the workers have gone to lunch, and Dickson walks through his small factory, inspecting cigarette packs and the machines. He walks past the boxed equipment.
“This was supposed to be Rainbow Tobacco’s big time coming now,” he said. “We were looking at the West as a really significant expansion for our company.”
With the planned price for Rainbow products set for about $5.50 a pack and $42 a carton, Dickson also knows a potential big payout looms if he beats the Western provinces.
All of Canada then becomes a potential market.
Reserves near urban centres are sure to draw non-First Nations smokers, eroding the dominance of Big Tobacco everywhere.
The stakes are high.
“It’s all in,” said Dickson.
The workers slowly begin the return to the machines. The gears start churning and the cigarettes start falling.