By Clint Buehler
Carolyn Buffalo wants her cigarettes back . . . all 14 million of them. The Chief of the Montana First Nation here says 75 cartons of “contraband” cigarettes were illegally seized from a quonset hut on the reserve by the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission (ALGC) and the RCMP. The ALGC says the cigarettes represent a potential loss of $3 million in tax revenue.
After RCMP officers responded to a break-in at the storage facility, they found the cigarettes packed, 50 cartons to each cardboard box and stacked on pallets. Thieves had stolen a small amount of the contraband cigarettes, according to Staff
Sgt. Robin Alexander of the Hobbema RCMP.
“We have never seen anything like this quantity,” Alexander said. “The cigarettes obviously came from another province.”
Alexander said the Montana First Nation had no financial stake in the cigarettes, and was not involved in the storage of them in their facility.
The cigarettes seized are equivalent to 70,000 200-cigarette cartons which, even at $10 a carton, would have a street value of $700,000.
Chief Buffalo contends that the seizure was illegal because the Alberta government does not have jurisdiction on Indian reserves which she says are under federal jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, the chief and Band Councillor Leonard Standingontheroad were suspended without pay at an emergency Band Council meeting attended by Elders and an estimated 100 concerned Band members, some of them supporting the chief and others demanding her resignation. They will remain suspended pending an investigation.
Buffalo refuses to resign.
The truth is, Buffalo told CTV News, “we were trying to get our economy going because we have no money. In a conflicting statement released by the RCMP, the Montana First Nation had no financial interest or investment into the contraband tobacco and has been fully cooperative throughout the investigation.
According to Global News, Buffalo told the meeting that “the whole thing was a big mistake.” She said she and a band councillor made a deal with two companies—one out of Edmonton and one out of Quebec—and that no money or paperwork was exchanged.
Band member Buddy Currie told Global “there’s a lot of anger. I, along with a lot of band members, asked the chief and councillor that are involved in the deal to resign. I told them I was disappointed in them as leaders of the Montana First Nation.”
“Everything rolled out quickly,” Buffalo said. “It was Christmas. I didn’t have the opportunity to be open” about the deal.
ALGC spokesperson Lynn Hutchings-Mah says the cigarettes were not properly marked for legal sale in Alberta in violation of the provincial Alberta Tax Act. The investigation is still underway.
All wholesalers and importers of tobacco into Alberta must be licensed to sell or import tobacco for resale. In addition, all tobacco products for tax-paid sale must be labelled according to federal and provincial regulations related to taxes, manufacturing and distribution.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding with Alberta Finance and Enterprise, the AGLC conducts various compliance inspections at tobacco retailers related to the Tobacco Tax Act. AGLC investigators also work with local police agencies on investigations of contraband tobacco.
“As far as we know right now, these cigarettes were not stolen,” says Hutching-Mah.
Although cigarettes can be sold tax-free on reserves, both provincial and federal regulations still apply.
Previously, the largest seizure of cigarettes was in Red Deer in November 2010, when 5,300 cartons were found, with a value of $200,000.
In the latest development prior to press time, Chief Carolyn Buffalo has not only emphasized that she “will not go down without a fight,” but has gained the support of the Chiefs of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations (CT6FN).
In a statement, the CT6FN says it supports “the Montana Cree First Nation in its economic development/business initiative to enhance the prosperity of its community and in its position that the provincial government has no jurisdiction to enter sovereign federally titled First Nation reserve lands to seize cigarettes that are federally licensed and distributed within First Nation reserves.”
The statement calls for the return of the cigarettes to the Montana First Nation.
Chief Buffalo told the Edmonton Sun “I am challenging the suspension because it was not done properly, in my view.”
The cigarettes in question were manufactured by Rainbow Tobacco, owned and operated by the Mohawks of Kahnawake, Quebec.
“It is being portrayed so negative. We were trying to do something good to bring our people out of poverty.”
Although Chief Buffalo is a non-smoker, she says tobacco is a sacred plant among First Nations people and trading the plant is not a new concept.
“First Nations People have been trading tobacco among each other for a long time,” she told the Sun. “ It was part of how we sustained ourselves.”
She said she was proud to begin a working relationship with Rainbow Tobacco to help preserve a tradition along with encouraging economic growth for her people.
“We have no money to work with, we have our land and we have our people and that is all we really have,” Buffalo told the Sun.
She said when she became chief in 2008, the Montana First Nation had a large debt. “We have been trying really hard to turn that around, but working in the system has not gotten us very far.”
She says that during her time as chief she has cut her staff by 80% to help pull her band out of debt
She says she was hoping to create about 100 new jobs with the cigarettes, with the 85% unemployment rate on her reserve.
“For us, it was about being self-reliant. We are always being told we are a burden on the taxpayer.”
Edmonton lawyer Chady Moustarah told the Sun that the AGLC didn’t have the jurisdiction to seize the tobacco products from the Montana Firsty Nation because it falls under federal jurisdiction.