A coalition of nine health and anti-smoking organizations - including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation - is calling on Ottawa to overcome its "unexplained reluctance" to crack down on illicit cigarettes on native reserves.
In a letter sent this month to Revenue Minister Gordon O'Connor, the nine organizations say the tax agency's latest proposals to address the situation fall short.
The Globe and Mail reported yesterday that police seizures of contraband cigarettes have now exceeded the peak levels of 1994, when tobacco smuggling last became a major political issue.
Federal cabinet ministers have been informed that 90 per cent of the illegal, unregulated cigarettes originate from factories on the U.S. side of the Akwesasne reserve, which straddles parts of Quebec, Ontario and New York state. Organized crime then distributes the cigarettes across the country, often using native couriers.
The letter from health groups raises concerns about Akwesasne, but also about practices on three other Mohawk reserves: Kahnawake, near Montreal; Tyendinaga, near Brantford, Ont.; and Six Nations, near Caledonia, Ont.
"Even though Canadian courts are quite clear that fiscal laws do apply to First Nations, there is still an unexplained reluctance on the part of authorities to crack down on the illicit supply of cigarettes originating from the reserves in question," states the Oct. 10 letter.
"The failure to shut down these illicit producers is unacceptable. Lack of enforcement is causing irreparable harm to both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations."
Mr. O'Connor's spokeswoman, Frances Ryan, said the agency does inspect all licensed tobacco manufacturers on reserves but will consider the group's recommendations for further action.
Federal documents also show concern regarding on-reserve tobacco manufacturing in Kahnawake and Six Nations, focusing on whether tax and health rules are being followed.
A memo to Health Minister Tony Clement outlines the department's difficulty in scheduling a routine inspection of Grand River Enterprises Six Nations. Known as GRE, the native-run manufacturer has grown into a multimillion-dollar company with a contract to supply the German army with cigarettes. Company officials have insisted they operate legally. The ministerial memo informs Mr. Clement that the company was refusing any Tobacco Act inspections unless the minister attends personally.
A Health Canada spokeswoman said yesterday that GRE inspections "within the current climate" have been suspended out of concern for safety of inspectors. Mr. Clement declined to comment for this story.
Spokesmen for the nine health organizations say there are options available for government and police that don't involve confrontation.
They note that Ottawa could make it illegal for suppliers of raw material - such as tobacco leaves or cigarette filters - to sell their goods to manufacturers operating without a licence. Police could then set up outside reserve land to intercept any illegal shipments.
François Damphousse, Quebec director for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, said the reluctance is political.
"It all boils down to what happened with the Oka crisis," he said. "I think there is a willingness from police authorities to do something about what's going on, but I think it's the politicians that are shying away because they think it's a powder keg."