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CBC News: Sunday Night
Sunday, April 23, 2006
CBC Introduction: In the past few days the issue of native land rights has once again exploded onto the front pages, with native protesters in Ontario occupying a construction site and shutting down a CN rail line. CBC News: Sunday goes behind the bonfires to look at a radical movement - one that rejects the deals past native leaders have made, and seeks to completely redefine the relationship between native nations and the government of Canada.
Shawn Brant is a citizen of the Mohawk Nation, and a resident in Tyendinaga, located between Kingston and Belleville. A cabinet maker by trade, Brant does carpentry work and house building, and is also a stone mason.
When did you get involved in the tobacco trade?
Brant: We were involved in a government intervention into the sister community of Kanesatake. When we were done in kanestake, what we decided was we would utilize that same opportunity that was given to the other communities and capitalize on the tobacco resource, in order to bring about a change in Tyendinaga and facilitate the development of some infrastructure here.
That was at the end of April 2004, the government had planned to intervene and we had taken a number of men down to intervene. May 3rd was the actual day of conflict in Kanesatake.
We bought our first cigarettes in September of 2004 from a community south of Montreal, Kahnawake, and we got into the business after that. We borrowed a few dollars to start up and took it from there.
We purchased 20 boxes of cigarettes, which we brought up to the community and actually sold them for the same amount that we bought them for. We spoke to a number of people that we felt could benefit by utilizing the resource and so we started from there; we created a label, a design, the market based upon that label, and then we just proceeded to expand from there.
The label says Tyendinaga Mohawk Tobacco products. It's been shortened to that – which is how we wanted our customers to refer to it as – the actual name is Tyendinaga Mohawk Tobacco products, and it allowed us the versatility to market, just not specific products that was part of our scheme, but as well other products that were made by other First Nations communities. So we generally picked that name to reflect a broader warehousing distribution type company. It was shortened to TMT.
The industry has always had a bit of a foothold in most Mohawk communities, for sure, and we've always had the opportunity to become involved, and we simply chose not to, and worked at other projects during that time.
When the opportunity came forward in 2004 from Kanesatake, then we decided that it was the time and we wanted to be participants in the trade, I guess you'd call it. But we wanted to be participants so that we could at some point in the future be able to deal with it on a political level – I guess we wanted to bring it to a level of recognition – one of its existence and second, that it can be used as a base for an economy that we were seeking to establish.
What do you think about government initiatives towards self-government for First Nations?
Brant: We've sat in the community and we've listened to a great number of people, politicians and other people, speak to the conditions and the lifestyle of First Nations people. What've we heard is a push by government to recognize the inherent right of self-government of self-determination of First Nations people. But the means by which it was being proposed was within their framework, and by their allotment of capital to service that. We didn't feel that their interpretation of the way we should govern ourselves was appropriate. So, in order to facilitate and bring that type of institutional self-government forward, we needed a market base and an economy that was separate and distinct from those monies allocated through the Department of Indian Affairs. We felt by generating our own capital we would have the opportunity to also have the discretion as to how we would develop programs and service our people.
What about Canadian law?
Brant: I know that the government of Canada takes a very particular position - and a very specific position - on the legality of the creation of tobacco products and their distribution certainly within the Canadian state. There is a framework of applications, processes and approvals that govern when and how a manufacturing company can exist, so I don't disagree that the government assessment of what we do as being not legal. But that is not the same position that we've taken.
I think that when we look at the creation of, or the base of financial independence, there needs to be a look at what resources are available within particular communities, within particular First Nations. Some have timber, some have diamonds or ore that can be taken from the ground. [Because of] where we are located geographically – in southern Ontario – we have a limit to the availability of that type of resource.
So after some thought, it derived from that notion that we would create an economic base from what was available to us. So [because] tobacco is fundamentally, intrinsically, historically, something which has belonged to Mohawk people, we felt that it would be something that we could utilize as a respected proper resource and that we could function within our communities with.
This particular climate, though changing, doesn't really produce the type of tobacco that's necessary for the commercialization – we have tobacco that's grown in other confederacy communities, for example, up in Oneida, London, those areas. So there's other communities located in traditional belts where tobacco is best harvested, and we employ those people to grow, harvest the leaves for us, and then from there they're used in the process.
Can you talk a little bit about your sister communities and your governance structure?
Brant: The confederacy is the binding of five different nations. It's a governing coalition that goes back about 1700 years, and there are five nations that make up the five nations confederacy. Most people refer to it as the six nations confederacy, however, hardliners believe that the Tuscarora never took the belt of membership within the house, largely because of conflict in the United States, but that they couldn't be recognized as the sixth nation belonging in the Confederacy. But really it is the creation of a means of co-existence with authority under one guise, and one constitution, that these different nations came together to form one league, which allowed for other people to become members under and have protection under. It predated non-natives coming, and it was very much the first order of business for a lot of the Jesuit missionaries - to disband that five nations coalition, so that it couldn't serve to function as an authority within other First Nations communities within North and South America.
The development of tobacco as a resource has predominantly been maintained within the Mohawk Nation, the Oneidas, who are members of the Confederacy of the league. They are the ones that now are stepping forward and having the climate in the area with which to produce the tobacco. The Senecas have been in involved in a lot of distribution on the state side, as well as the Cayugas and the Onadagas which are focused outside of Syracuse, New York. They have also been involved in the utilization of tobacco within their own communities and within their own nation, but principally manufacturing seems to have stayed within Mohawk communities.
The product, the finished product as its manufactured, certainly is far-reaching, something that people feel should be maintained within First Nations communities. That trade is along the line of nation to nation, from indigenous people to indigenous people. That's primarily how we're structured. It would not be accurate to say that it doesn't reach the hands of non-native people, because non-native people come to our communities in order to purchase gas, cheaper gas, cheaper tobacco products.
And so even in communities that don't manufacture, it's the non-native market that props up the economy in those communities. There's gas that is brought in and it's one of those areas that Revenue Canada is also looking at, under the guise of the Indian Act - which we don't function under - but they have the opportunity to purchase gas with one tax gone, and it's that tax missing that allows for an area of profitability. So you could bring TVs in here, or appliances, or other electronics, and if it were delivered to this community it would be 15% cheaper, because of no PST and GST. So people are able to put the price of goods at a cost which is competitive, less the 15%, so the 15% becomes the profit and you're cheaper by design and people – non-native people find that attractive.
Within my lifetime and growing up in this community, we very much grew up without running water, without hydro, without those things. My experiences, even from growing up, you know, walking down with my mom to a person's place, just down the road, who was recognized in the community as a commercial harvester, we would take fish from the fish box, and it would be in exchange for my mom doing paper work for people who couldn't read and write. These fellows that would go out and harvest for the community on a very small scale, and for strict and sole distribution in our communities, would often be confronted with ministry officials and police. They would be arrested and jailed for harvesting on a so-called commercial basis.
It's only been within maybe 14 years when the community had enough of that, and we were tired of interventions into our community, and we were tired of our people going to jail. and what happened was there was a concerted effort to bring it above the table, and bring it to the shores of the rivers in the cities that surrounded us, to say that we are prepared to deal with this.
We confronted non-native people on their understanding of what our relationship was to that as a resource, and our right to harvest and our right to feed our families, and from that, and through that process, we were able to not just deal with the civilian population, but also address the actions of the police and the government and to say that we will not be stopped. We will assert our rights, and we will do it with any means necessary to have them understand that we weren't going to be stopped again, that we weren't going to be imprisoned for this again.
Now, 14 years later, we have the ability to sell fish at the markets, we trade with other First Nations communities, but also we have direct access now to non-native markets, with some stipulations and regulations which are locally and self-imposed. So that industry, while it's relatively new, is something which is maturing, and also forms a part of our economic standing within this community. People do it now, they're able to go out and harvest in the daytime, they're able to be proud of what they do and not to be classified or viewed as poachers or people that are decimating the resources.
Certainly, I had a person ask me 'how is that you can say that your practices aren't impacting on the resources?' And our simple response is that we've been here forever, and the fish are still here. So our practices are something which have demonstrated that, from the beginning of time, by simply the example, that we still have the stocks here. The stocks are stronger than ever so it's our standing proof of our ability to manage and exist within society, and in harmony with the resources.
I believe that government has always structured policies and regulations so that First Nations people aren't allowed to move beyond a moderate standard of living or modest means for generating wealth. The government has in the past engaged people and set up business loans through industry, trade and technology. Often, the outcome is not favourable to people because there's a great deal of things that are involved in business, and there are people that can manufacture things, but if they can't market them then they can't succeed.
So government has traditionally sponsored initiatives which would allow for the creation of jobs in areas within our communities, but has always stopped short of providing the support and the assistance that was necessary to ensure the success.
I very much believe it's done for systemic reasons, to show us as failures, to show us as people that have to be taken care of, have to have those decisions made for us. Although we're given so many chances, we are unable to break through those notions and those stereotypes. I can only believe, because of the means by which they start these projects and then just step back and let them fail, that's heartbreaking. For people culturally and for Mohawk people the notion of failing, the notion of not being successful in something is a very hard thing. I saw people in this community whose businesses lacked that support and hadn't been successful. And then to see how they react as individuals after that, and how they are perceived in the community as being someone that wasn't up to the task, it's disheartening sometimes.
I believe that when licenses are offered, or regulations are put forward, they are not genuinely in the interests or for the best benefit of the First Nations person or the company to ensure its success. It goes back again to having control, and being able to limit the degree to which someone can be successful. I think that with the issuance of licenses, it's also a means of just controlling who can have access to capital, who will be able to make those decisions for themselves, and how far you can go.
We know that, when licenses are issued and regulations attached, you fall under a different type of control, and you have to acquiesce and give up to that, because it's the basis for your operating. So it is very much a means to control the people.
Why have some members of the Mohawk Nation chosen to operate under Canadian regulations?
Brant: Kahnawake has taken on Canadian licenses for the purposes of manufacturing. I guess, when something is offered under the threat of intervention, or the threat of police action, people feel safer or more secure if they just take that piece of paper, or that license, or that authority and that they are somehow not going to be subject to those things.
There was a meeting recently held in Kahnawake in which partners came to the table, I guess, Health Canada, Revenue Canada and people from the community, manufacturers as well as the band council. From that meeting, there were attempts by the government and Health Canada to intervene into the manufacturing facilities. They requested unrestricted access to the manufacturing facilities, as well as to the communities.
There was a denial of that request by the community, that no such access would be granted to the governments. But at the same time, by the same token, we're sitting here and we're thinking, 'they took the license, they operated under that authority – they've felt and lived through that security of having supposedly a partner in government that was recognizing their right to produce, and when the one partner makes a request then it's very difficult for them to deny them access and the right to the community.' In that instance, it creates a situation of people being able to suggest, 'well, they want it both ways, they want to have licensing and security by the federal government, and at the same time, when it's convenient, they want to be Mohawks and sovereign and they want to deny access or any relationship at all.' It's that type of inconsistency that people within our communities need to examine carefully before they enter into those types of agreements.
I believe with certainty that Mohawk people are a very free, a very sovereign speaking, thinking people and relinquishing even that is seen to be a compromise and a violation of our constitution. We function under a very specific guideline, very specific rules and regulations under our law, our constitution. I believe that they feel that that's an infringement upon our laws, and it is. Certainly people have to be chagrined by the fact that if they're conducting business in a manner that allows for an infringement against our law, based upon their actions, then they too should be held accountable for bringing in that outside foreign body, that authority within the community that affects everyone, and there should be concern for it. But I believe principally that's how people feel.
Unlike the situation in Kahnawake, Tyendinaga has taken a different approach to its own model of regulation and control and licensing, if you will, if you want to call it that. We don't have involvement with the federal government, as far as making a determination, or recognition of a person who is known in this community to be a trader within tobacco, or as a person within this community who is known to be a commercial harvester of fish or other wildlife. There are notices of that recognition that are issued through the longhouse, through the office of the registrar, which says 'we as a community recognize that this person is engaged in this activity, and we recognize them but within that recognition that person is also subject to the laws as they pertain through our laws and our constitution.'
So within their recognition, there is also a reminder that their actions must be consistent with that law, and that their activities can't go beyond what's specified to have outside people coming into our community.
Tyendinaga is unique, because we've taken it on the aspect that we don't need the Department of Indian Affairs to determine who we recognize as being harvester, or resource managers -we can make that recognition on our own, and we can maintain the paperwork. Then we can maintain a sense of regulation and control.
I've known from being involved in other communities, their political affairs, their personal affairs and through nation business, that I've always maintained an number of friends and associates who've carried on business in the tobacco industry. When we first purchased our cigarettes from Kahnawake, that first 20 boxes, we went into the community and sought out a manufacturer that we felt would be best to provide the product, could provide on a consistent basis, and the product was safe and met those requirements that we had.
So we went down and took down 15,000.00 dollars and bought 20 boxes of cigarettes, and brought them back up. We put them forward to people here, and we sat and discussed it and talked about marketing and certain options. We put those boxes out, and people put them on the shelves, and they were marked as Tyendinaga Mohawk tobacco products. We made them available to the customers, and put them out for exactly what we paid for them.
As we built up credibility within the business ourselves, we were able to secure other contracts with suppliers for better prices, so that people saw us as being an attractive business associate, that would be consistent in our ordering, that would order more, that would be able to maintain their businesses.
So we developed relationships with people on the basis of business that we would take from one company that we would supply, that we would be faithful, that we would be loyal, and that we would move forward. We explained to people our plans, and what we had intended to do and, because it involved the reestablishment, or the reemergence, or the rerecogination, of our traditional government, and its authority that people were keenly interested. They didn't see us as being buyers and brokers for personal benefit. They saw us as being buyers and brokers for the nation, and that we had plans to a point where we are today.
We have approximately 6 to 7 million dollars a month which comes into the community as new revenue from the outside, that we've been able to establish infrastructure within our community. We've been able to put forward our first institution of government, as we call it, the longhouse. We showed them that we were going to use the proceeds from tobacco in order to recreate ourselves within the society, that we wouldn't we would allow for something greater to come from it than just padding the pockets of a few people.
So Tyendinaga now sits in a unique situation, where we have this money coming in, where the stores bring it in at retail level, where construction crews and workers are working, people are preparing their roofs and contributing in a way to, not only the local economy, but also to the surrounding economy in a way that we never had. We're in position now where we are able to have, as a community, some influence in the outside world. When our people go out shopping, because of the availability of revenue within here, they're not treated like shit anymore, they're treated like consumers that have access to revenues, that are going out and making purchases. They're treated in a way and a standard that we've never enjoyed before.
So we've allowed for ourselves to be taken from a position of pitiful, helpless, impoverished, to being recognized as a strong, independent, and a very vital economy that everyone enjoys.
Can you talk about your accountability to the community?
Brant: I think that the accountability within the industry is something that's taken time. When you suggest to someone, or suggest to your community, that you would have an ability to work in a direction for the benefit, I think people are sceptical, and I think that they have every right to be.
Over the course of the past couple of years, we've been able to not simply speak about doing things, we've been able to undertake projects and complete them. For 35 years I've grown up and listened to people talk about the building of the longhouse - they've had bake sales and spaghetti suppers and things like that. It's never come to a point where people would say it's actually happening. When we suggested that we would use the money first to initially establish that institution, people had heard it for 35 years. We undertook the project and we have the building which is near completion, which is probably one of the most impressive buildings within this community, so that demonstrates it.
When we speak as a government that cares about its people, and cares about the day to day activities and day to day needs of our people, we've been able to use resources and develop nutritional programs, food program, health programs, social programs that we've been able to identify and make ourselves available to people. We're approachable, in that they can come and say,'we need help or our family has met some circumstances where we need assistance', and we've been able to meet those things.
We haven't simply taken and accumulated huge wealth and made it inaccessible, or made the requirements for accessing it to be so high that they're unattainable. We very much care for our people, and our government cares for our people, and over the past couple of years we've been able to demonstrate by meeting people's day to day needs and recognizing the circumstances that they're in. And the accountability – most people would see accountability as being something like the bottom line on a spread sheet – our accountability exists within this community and our reputation. We live at a standard not higher than the lowest person, or I guess, the poorest person in this community. So we've been able to maintain a standard of living where people say 'hey this is true, what they're talking about is true', they can see it.
For First Nations people, accountability exists when you can see something, not when you're being told a story. So we've done that from the beginning, and we've built that trust, I believe, within our community, and that expectation, and that realization that these things are true. Now, when we speak to the creation of new projects and new developments, people don't meet them with scepticism, they meet them with pride, or happiness, or the satisfaction to know that these things will come true as well.
The government of the Haudenosaunee people, the five nations government, the government which is based within the Kaianerenkowa, which is our law, which allows for the structure of our institution... that government is very different from the band council. In fact, the creation of the Indian Act system was the creation of the government of Canada – these councils that exist now, that people refer to as chief and council and number one Indian, they are actually a creation of Canada. They were brought in and our own governments were dispossessed of their authority within our own communities, and they were was done so violently.
In 1899, there was a Hoyanee (traditional leader) killed in Akwesasne in the first election, and seven others that were imprisoned for seven seasons. So the policy has been to wipe from our minds the memory of the governing body that we know gives us peace, prosperity, brotherly feelings, compassion, understanding, strength. Those were the values that were encompassed, and are encompassed again today, within our own government, and those were the ones that were suppressed by the government of Canada.
I think for people in the community, the longhouse represents many different things to many different people. Every person has a relationship to that longhouse from their history, even if one never existed before. People see it as that institution of governance, that place where people come that safe spot. People see it as place to conduct our ceremonies again, publicly and openly. People see it as a unifying force for our people, commonality within a fast and turbulent society now, and others see it - myself included - as a promise, I guess.
We've been told, and I've been told from the time that I was a child, of the significance of the house. We've had difficult times in the last 150 years, from our participation in the American revolution. We've struggled from that time, our ancestors knew that there was a point in time when the peace, the constitution would be broken, that we would shed the blood of another sister nation, and that the peace would be broken.
But we were also told that, after suffering from that decision, that we would have the opportunity to redemonstrate our commitment to the law, to our existence, to our society and that all we had to do was build this house in Tyendinaga (laughs). We had Indian Act chiefs in the past who took money on the promise that they would not teach the language to our kids anymore. They vowed that we would never have the longhouse. They promised the government we would never have a house.
So we were told if we could build it, that all those things that we enjoyed before would be given back to us, that our place, our trust, on the land would be given back, so I got a hard time. It makes me happy – it's just a nice thing. What we decided was that these things that we had been told, if all we had to do was build the dam place, that we'd build it. So I've had this image in my mind for years, and just to see it built, to see it come makes me really happy, and I know that the promises that were made to us will come true.
When the peace was broken, we were told that we would suffer to the point that we would not be able to keep our kids alive, that we would live in poverty, that everything would break down. The original constitution came from the shores of Tyendinaga, so it bound together the original five nations, a subsequent sixth nation and approximately 212 other indigenous communities within North and South America. That's what we knew before, so when that peace was broken what we were promised was those same qualities of life, those same values, the same opportunities to exist.
We were promised an end to the things that caused us to live as sadly as we have for so long, and with the destruction of the environment, with the way things have been going – we are also recognized as caretakers and stewards of the land. We've been unable to even fulfil those requirements, because we've been held back. So we've also been promised that we would have a return to those things, so that we could live our life as it was intended to be, as stewards to the land as caretakers.
The first wampum of the constitution says anyone who comes forward to seek shelter will be welcome, so it's an opportunity that we see that can unite all people - not just Mohawk people and not just First Nations peoples, but all people under belief and value and characteristics of a strong healthy society for all of us and one that can be preserved, one that we can leave our kids and not ever have to face their criticism and their scorn for leaving them something less than what we've had.
That's what the promise is. The promise is everything. We've often said, whether you believe it or not, we have to build it to see. All the programs that we have in the community now are all designed and intended to bring forward the integrity of our government of our people. Everything is intended to represent that, and everything is represented within each of those tasks. We have initiatives with harvesting, of planting, it's part of the nutrition program, as well where those foods and the diet that has always kept us strong that we've strayed from, is the one that it is necessary to reintroduce for our people.
So we do do a lot of planting, a lot of gardens, this year we're excited, we've got large community gardens, we've entered into new initiatives with family and children's services and other agencies in the community for collective planting, harvesting, collective distribution through the food program through the harvesting program, it allows us too to be able to reach out to other organizations and people outside the community and bring them in.
We have men who will stand fight on the lines and will go down for the cause. Not everybody is comfortable in that role, so we felt it not only just something that was important, but something that was necessary to create avenues for involvement for everyone where people could participate in an overall governing structure, governing system, community initiative people without feeling compelled to be on the lines or do something they weren't comfortable in dealing with.
So the planting and harvesting program is one initiative, and it allows for our men to go out as well and harvest animals for the food program. We currently reach out to about 75 households a week in the community, and several hundred people, and we have men who harvest and help prepare the food for distribution by other community members. It brings in the values of sharing, and respecting one another, and it's not something that we base on income - it's something that we base on health.
I'd say, going back maybe even only five years, the community was divided along political lines, and I think the band council was the instigator of those types of divisions. It has authority under the Indian Act to administrate the funds that are sent down by the Department of Indian Affairs. However, as a result of non-native people on the outside, their perception of the duties, or their perception of the responsibilities of these people, was so much that they had figured, because they were called chief, they must be in charge of everything, that they have the right to make determinations about land or resources, or the law, or governing. So for about the past five years, we've been able to remind them that their authority is limited to the administration of funds, and accountability to the Department of Indian Affairs for that source funding, and that it doesn't go beyond that.
We've been able to convince them that they should stay within the parameters of their responsibility and leave the other issues that affect us, not just as people but as a nation, to the people who have that right and that authority. So even though we have existed in this community in the absence of the longhouse in the absence of a physical structure, we've existed in our relationship, knowing what our boundaries are, and knowing what our responsibilities are. So that division, or that attempt from one side to have power over the other, has been mitigated, and now we exist in almost like a harmony, where they do their job and we do our job.
There isn't much conflict and certainly there hasn't been conflict in the two years and that's nice. As much as we hate the Indian Act system, as much as we know how good people can go into that process and be corrupted simply because of the way that its designed, rather than being at conflict, we found a way to live together for now.
Since the development of the resource in Tyendinaga to the level that it is at now, the benefits to the community have been visibly apparent. There have also been benefits which aren't as easily recognizable as someone putting a new roof on their house, or the bettering of people's living standards. There has been, as I said, the initiatives as far as for the creation and development of social programs and the harvesting programs, but as well there has been impacts on the joblessness of the people in our community.
The Canadian demographics on First Nations communities are pretty clear: 50% of each community is under the age of 25, and about one third are under the age of 16. Communities are growing, the number of children that are growing as well.
There isn't those considerations given when it comes to the allocation of funds from Department of Indian Affairs. Right now, we are concretely set in a housing shortage, a housing crisis in First Nations communities. We have water crises, our lives are in a constant crisis. But while the years pass, there is an increased burden that is being placed upon limited resources that are coming into the community. The government won't meet the needs for housing now, but in 10 years the needs for housing will have doubled, and 12 years after that they are going to double again. Government is trying to get out of the process before those new needs come forward - just based on the demographics.
Tyendinaga is similar, in that we have a very large number: of the 2800 people resident in the community, approximately 1400 are below 25. So there is a need for employment, a need for direction for the future. The tobacco industry within Tyendinaga is such that it's the largest employer within our community now, that most of the new opportunities that are coming forward are being made available to younger people, who are paid a decent living wage - not a minimum wage. Also we have an ability to offer positions and create those opportunities with the understanding of how people think culturally and how they think as Mohawk people.
In the past, we've had people that go outside to work and there are requirements that ‘you show up at this time' and ‘you do this and you do that.' We don't function within the same way. The employment that is being generated now is such that people look forward to going to work. They're proud to be able to contributing to something not just for themselves, but something greater. So there's a sense of fulfillment that also comes from the employment side of it, which is very important to people and to the community.
The other aspect to it is the long term, that ability for people to see a future, a sense of good things coming – so much so that, with the attitude we don't have a suicide crisis in our community, people are very much proud of who they are, and that's reinforced on a daily basis. We don't have a suicide crisis, and with the influx in tobacco revenues, we've also experienced a significant decline in the rate of criminal activity - however it's termed... instances involving the police. Those numbers, I've been told, have gone down by 45%, or even 50%, since the tobacco money has come in and those opportunities have been created.
We've been able to see, by example, other communities that have been involved and experienced similar types of boom from the tobacco industry. Akwesasne's one of them, and in some communities there's a real drag that comes along with money coming in… there's often times drugs, alcohol, and things move a little faster. We've been very careful not to go down roads where we've saw our sister communities trying to get back from now. We keep the booze out, we keep the drugs out. If people are involved in the scourge going around – meth amphetamine, crack, like in the other community, then we deal with it, and we deal with it as a community, and as men within the community.
We want people to see that with many things like hunting or fishing comes the responsibility for maintaining the stocks. With the development or creation of an economy, there are also responsibilities for people to maintain, a sense of restraint and control within themselves. People are held accountable to that through the house, and through the broader picture, that things aren't going to be tolerated.
If someone says 'I don't have something,' or 'I need something,' then there are opportunities that can be made available to them to create something for themselves and it isn't that people go without. People have opportunities, and if people choose to take advantage of those opportunities, then they realize their goals. But people have that decision, and for the first time ever, people actually have a right to decide how they're going to proceed and have choices. They can make choices based upon those opportunities that are presented to them.
I've been through all the reserves in Ontario, most of Quebec and Manitoba, and you see what happens because there's no sense of self-worth. I've watched people in Kenora walk down the street, when a white person comes towards them, their head is down and it's like they're looking for change on the sidewalk, they move out of the way. They have no feeling of contribution or worth.
We've been involved in a number of other First Nations communities and suicide initiatives, and it's as simple as not throwing money. It's as simple as creating pride within people. We often say you stand up and fight. If it's bad then you fight.
The wife and I were on welfare and we sold a piece of land, and hired a bus to bring people down to Queens' Park in Toronto after September 11th. They brought mounted police and riot squads out to meet us, and the people from there stood and fought and confronted the fears.
Before they went back up to their community north of Kenora, they had a feast prepared for them at the ferry dock when they got off, and there were no suicides in the community. Kids burning up an OPP truck, pictures of smiling kids in trucks, it changed them, they never had the suicides after that – just from one incident. Maybe the story was embellished by the time they got back there …it doesn't matter, it's what works and keeps the kids – you can tell when a little one looks at you and they're feeling pride… that's the direction that communities are taking, and need to take.
We were in Kanesatake at the time in 1990 and we were there July 11, during the first piss up and shooting and stuff that was going on – we felt like we played an important role. It was the period of transition – it was our time to step forward, it was to say that 'these are boundaries that we are setting, and we won't let people cross.' If it's to move our ancestors that are buried in the ground to make way for a golf course – that's unacceptable.
So many times we've conceded our position, or we've acquiesced, because we've been scared. When you say the dignity of the men, women and children that lived before, and bled on this land, and died on this land, is something that you have to die for, if people take your life in defence of that, then truly you've lived a great life, because you've defended against the greatest injustice and the greatest indignity that someone could perpetrate on you.
Unfortunately, Kanesatake was replayed in Ipperwash in 1995, and people died there as well, in the protection of the dignity of their people. It's something that I couldn't say wouldn't happen again – it's the cold and callousness of a society that seeks its existence through development, and the marginalization of people, that society lets them so easily do. While I know that governments have done incredible, pretty terrible things in the past –they wouldn't do it unless they felt that they were justified within their constituencies, and by their society, that it could be done.
People need to carefully examine themselves and the priorities and those mandates that are extended to governments, that allow them to feel justified to do that. That's how we perceive things. We don't necessarily place the full responsibility on government. We place an equal amount of responsibility on the societies that elect them. The Canadian government has demonstrated in the past a willingness to develop a military option to the tobacco issue as its evolved in the Mohawk communities in 1994. They had a military option on the table, where they were to deploy several thousand soldiers and RCMP into the communities.
In fact, here in 1994, the first deployment of JF2 - Canada's secret commandos - was to Tyendinaga. They were on the ground here and, as they prepared to invade Akwesasne, Kanahwake, and Kanesatake over tobacco, they deployed JF2 - supposedly to protect infrastructure that surrounds our community.. CN lines, CP lines, highway 401, gas lines, hydro lines. They ran all this shit through our community, and our land was cheap.
We've had experiences with the military in the past, with policing operations – in 2004 in Kanesatake the government, as it was stated by the Quebec security minister, hired 70 or so mercenaries to come into Kanesatake, with the mandate of shooting Mohawks. That was their job, and they were to dismantle the tobacco industry and in Kanesatake.
They had hired one of the largest PR firms in Quebec, and spent millions of dollars discrediting the community. It was put forward that Kanestake was involved with organized crime, bike gangs, that there was drugs, illicit activities, and that police were being kept out, in order that warlords and gangsters could protect their industry and their bottom line - to the point where the community of Montreal and surrounding areas didn't feel much sympathy towards Mohawk people, and certainly gave no regards to their arguments for economic development and sustainability within their community.
I can agree with people's positions that, while standing in the protection of a piece of land that people can easily see is a grave site of our ancestors, it's not as clear cut in that respect, or people's ability to perceive the issue. But I know within this community, and the degree of sadness that has existed for so long, that there are benefits to the economy through the development of tobacco as a resource.
Having said that, in Tyendinaga, as we approach our time, we've realized that there needs to be an outreach and an understanding that we have to get out before the government starts its propaganda machine rolling. We want to avail the community to outside people, to see that we are very much in control. At the same time, community members have stated to me personally that this is something that's worth standing up for. Because we're reaching the point now where our standard of living has increased to a point where it is equal to the outside. We've been developing these things that we are prepared to defend. While the government has engaged, as in the past, on issues, we feel confident, within our situation, that it is worth defending our future, our children's future, our society's future, our very existence could be contingent upon this.
While people may not understand, we are more afraid to go back then to stand and fight for where we are now. To simply concede those things that we've been able to generate would be to say they were not worth having in the beginning. There'a an old saying 'you can teach a man to fish or you can give him fish.'
So we've evolved, if you want to call it that, to a point where we are now, where this is as important as a place, where we bury our ancestors. This is important to the respect and integrity of the people who are alive, as well as those who have gone before us. We simply see it now as a need to protect the righteousness and dignity of the people who are alive as fully as we defend those who died. So we take that position, and I believe, and most people believe, that it is worth putting on lives on the line.
The government can come in and say ‘we're only going to take your product and you'll have to appear in court - is that worth people dying for?' I guess if someone had lived in our circumstances, and been able to witness the transition, I think people would not take that as such an easy statement to make on our validation of what's important in life, and we've taken that position. We don't see it as simply taking our product, we see it as driving us back, as undermining our economy, as having the control over our very existence. Not being able to do anything without band office approval, when you've lived free for a moment you never forget, and if they came in and killed people, and we killed people, we'd do it again, and we would just continue because we can't let it go now.
What about the fact that tobacco can make people sick?
Brant: Within our own community we've had a number of discussions where we've had to deal with the issue of the product that we're marketing, developing an economy based on a product that we know creates cancer, ill health, all the medical conditions that go along with smoking, we've had to deal with that. I guess we've sort of had to resign ourselves to being in a position where the government has been for the past few decades, in marketing a toxic substance and benefiting from the addictions, ill health, deaths of other people.
In balancing that, and I guess that's more important than justifying it, we could simply say 'well, Canada's done it so what's the problem?' But we don't think of things in such a shallow sense, so we've had to grapple with it and had to make determinations that the needs of our people, our nation, our future may depend on this now, but that this can provide for other opportunities. Money can be used to create other industries and access other means of generating money, and something that we're looking to tobacco, maybe in a shorter term than we are looking to a structure in a long term development within our communities.
We actually grow 2 different kinds of tobacco - we grow tobacco from seeds that are 1800 years old, and we use that ceremonially, traditionally. Tobacco is something that's how we've created the historical understanding that it's always been a part of our society, and I think people are looking at it and saying 'well, the exploitation of that we've always used ceremonially is an exploitation,' that it's an affront to market it in such a way.
Tobacco ancestrally was something that was given to us, something we were provided for, and we engaged in trading with other nations and other communities and other people that did smoke tobacco, and we also smoked tobacco.
There's no doubt in my mind, and I think while things may seem skewed in my opinion, and it may be in conflict with other peoples opinions', I feel that its a resource that was provided for us by our creator. It gave us economic standing then, and its something that we just never utilized until recently for those reasons. But certainly I can appreciate that argument, I may not necessarily agree with it fully, but I can certainly appreciate it, and I appreciate the ability for us to develop that into something more significant.
Tobacco is a medicine, tobacco is a gift, tobacco is an offering and it was originally given to us by our creator…something that has always been vested with us.
Do you use additives in your product?
Brant: Recently Health Canada had taken samples of our tobacco and had put them through for chemicals analysis, I think with the expectation that we would have an unrefined unprocessed tobacco that they could portray as being more toxic, more harmful than contemporary cigarettes.
What they actually found in the tobacco was that there was some 200 fewer additives that where put in the tobacco product when they were manufactured. We obtain inspected tobacco. It‘s inspected for pesticide and fertilisers and stuff like that. We refine a product that is as safe as it could be. And we don't add chemicals and additives to the process.
Recently there has been a push by Health Canada prompted by the United States to put fire retardants in the tobacco that allows them to go out when they're left unattended, the rationale being that it won't cause as many fires if people fall into sleep with cigarettes in their hands. That is just one more additive. And we don't comply with that. We actually don't put anything in our tobacco or jack it up with nicotine, or anything like that. It's just a blended cure tobacco that we use, and we think that it appeals to people as well.
I think people are fundamentally more aware of what is going in, and everyone knows it's a toxic substance, but it gets made more toxic with the additives put in. Cough suppressant and fire retardants, stuff to make it burn faster, stuff to make it burn slower. It's just a litany of chemicals added which make it even more toxic then the naturally occurring toxics that exist in tobacco.
How much money do you think the government is missing out on?
Brant: It's millions of dollars, it's difficult to say accurately …. in 1994, when the government of Canada engaged in a plan to invade us militarily, there was an estimated one billion dollars a year that they were losing through the sale of tobacco, through lost tobacco revenues and taxes – they dropped the price of a carton of cigarettes in 1994 rather than to invade us militarily.
Now we're in a similar situation, where numbers of a similar scale are being put out there again, that there is a billion dollar loss to the governments of Ontario and Canada and Quebec.
So while I can't speak for their motivation, it's easy to suggest that the similarities between 1994 and now is that there's a need to intervene within our communities, because of the significant losses or similar losses today. And while our community may benefit 8 – 10 million dollars a month in new monies coming in, the actual loss to the government is far greater, because our product is much cheaper and there's no taxes that are on the product. I think for the government, they are looking at things monetarily to that loss, and if they can impact it. But money is also an easy justification for other extraordinary ideas or policies that they develop, and money is an easy way to say 'let's shut them down because we're losing money.'
The flipside to that is while we develop and grow we have an unimpeded and unobstructed ability to spend revenues, and direct those revenues into programs of our choosing. And while the superficial argument may be that they are losing money, the underlying decision for their actions may be that they're using control.
When First Nations people have access to resources that we've never had, and we've been shit on so much by government and society for so long, that they're afraid because of what they've done to us in the past, that we should want to bite them in the ass and get even for everything that's been done, they should be afraid of that, because they deservedly have that coming. I don't believe its peoples motivation. It's certainly not our motivation to extract revenge. We simply see having the revenues as a means for the creation of infrastructure, of programs of our choosing on our terms and a government. They don't want that we can maintain and can stand up as being a legitimate opposition, not just to their government, but to the bigger government – in southern Ontario, Mohawks are the landowners; we exist on treaties that are pre-confederation – Canada wasn't a signatory to them.
If we can create an economy and develop something of significance within that land base - those lands are ours. We're the ones that can put ourselves forward as being the landowners. Revenue allows us the opportunity to access different means, or different avenues, or different recourses, that can also prove those things, that we can have access to historical documents and information of legal claims and precedence of hiring people to do the work. That's necessary to reestablish our land bases and what's rightfully ours. I think that's primarily of concern in my opinion, the greatest motivation would be to stop that.
A recent article in the Toronto Star discusses rumours of a potential raid into the Mohawk trade – what do you know about that?
Brant: We've had so many instances and involvement with the government, in 1990, 1994, when they planned to invade, and then we had 2004 in Kanesatake over exactly this. The circumstances now with the army manoeuvres and the little incursions that are going on, carrying around our community, the circumstances are very similar to what was going on in 1994. I believe that, whether it occurs now, or it occurs at some other time, I believe that its in the works. I believe that the Department of National Defence will present to the Prime Minister an option, a military option to the issue. I believe that other people will present economic alternatives and economic issues to the Prime Minister, and then I believe that a decision will be made.
It may not be made now, it may be made 11th hour, but those options will be available and will be there. It's so similar to 1994 that I believe that it is being tabled as a very serious, real option. We've grown up expecting this. We've never figured that tobacco would be the issue or anything specific, we've always just believed that by our existence in where we are, where we are placed along the southern borders, between Canada and the U.S., and because of our location and since September 11th, we are now seen as security risks and security threats to people moving into the U.S., and the movement of other things between two countries.
We've always known, and we've always been told to prepare for this time, when they would stop at nothing to remove us, to have us not exist. We've been through the assimilation process and it didn't work, and now there's one option that as a nation, a military option is very real. I believe the day will come, and with Kanesatake in 1990, when the people of that community stood up and everything changed, we talked about the transition time.
Kanestake has got nothing in the 16 years since 1990: they haven't settled the land claims, their status within the Indian act, they haven't settled their financial and fiduciary responsibilities with them – it's a community where schools barely exist, their programs are non-existent. While everything changed in people's minds across Canada, and maybe the way in which people perceive us as changed, nothing has changed for them and that's their punishment for 1990. If Tyendinaga can take on that responsibility, and take the brunt of the force and the government's wrath, and it allows for some peaceful to exist in Kanesatake, then we'll gladly shoulder that responsibility. We don't just see it as being something just around us. It's time for our sisters and brothers that have fought for so long to have a break and let them turn their attention to us, and we'll welcome it.
With respect to the government moving in, if it wasn't as had been expected and put forward, I guess we now have to no longer focus in on one day but be able to be in a position to be prepared for the day in which they do decide to come.
Who are the people that you look up to? Is there someone who has influenced you in particular?
Brant: Within this community there are people who are responsible for teaching different things. My mother taught me compassion, and those values of sharing, of friendship. My father taught me about honour and the importance of your words. He took me to my first fight. There are people in the community that have taught me courage. A lot of people I guess acknowledge me as a speaker on their behalf - words that they've said to me.
Historically, I personally have always thought that the strong men and warriors are the ones I often looked up to - members of the American Indian movement who faced tremendous adversity in the struggle: Dennis Banks, Russell Means and other non-Native figures that I also have been struck by, their courage and their ability to move through adversity and maintain the focus.
And of course Geronimo: you can't deny a man who has kicked the shit out of enough people to say they haven't had influence on your life. I grew up in a house with no running water and electricity. On the wall was a poster, no pictures. Just a poster of Geronimo with a rifle in front of him, that famous picture – it says: ‘I'd rather be red than dead' – I grew up looking at that. If I could be seen to be a little bit like that, I'd be pleased – but that's hard.
I've been told a lot about principles and philosophy. I guess, I generally always took to learn when I heard about Gandhi. I never really gave much consideration because we are not people that just sit on our hands, but I actually found out that it's not what it was about.
Malcolm X is a huge hero of mine. And it's kind of embarrassing to say but I also looked as one of my heros as Jesus. Not in a religious sense at all, but as a man, as a true great revolutionary who ran around. And they were armed - dozens or so of them - and they knocked the hell out of people, kicked tables over, booted people out and lived a life of righteousness, and truth and honour, and that kind of struck me as well. That very much, as well, is one of my heroes, but again not in a religious sense.