smoke shacks and a hole in the ground

A couple of years ago, a friend ranted about the smoke shacks that had popped up along the main road on his home territory. I listened, politely. I’d heard it all before and had said some of the same at one time or another. It goes like this:

  • These guys and their smoke shacks are selling our collective, tax-exempt rights to Whites for the price of a pack of smokes;
  • They’re padding their own pockets but giving little back to the community;
  • They hire kids to sit on their asses in those shacks, watching DVD’s and playing video games instead of staying in school, finding a real job, or learning how to support themselves in the real world;
  • They are putting our collective rights in danger with their actions – without our collective consent or support;
  • They’re dependent on a false economy that might disappear tomorrow leaving them with nothing;
  • They sell a product that kills people, adds to the cost of health care and human suffering – including their own people;
  • They are responsible for an increase in drug and alcohol abuse and crime;
  • They resist regulation by their own councils, defy outside authorities, exist in a vacuum of law and order;
  • Some have grown rich enough, strong enough, to buy band councils (at least a few councillors);
  • They have turned some communities in “one-industry” towns, with all that implies about who really runs things.

Rant ended, we spoke of other things. After awhile, my friend slipped into another story. He’s a middle manager at an international corporation who’s travelled to more Indian territories across Canada than me – and that’s saying something. He’s a businessman. He was struck by a TV documentary about a hole in the Amazon jungle. His take was an ode to entrepreneurship, and it went something like this:

  • Someone discovered diamonds that could be dug out with a shovel;
  • Soon, hundreds of people were digging an ever-growing pit in the middle of the jungle and far from any town or village;
  • With the arrival of these people, others saw opportunity to open shops and sell everything from food and clothing, to tools and women;
  • Along with this new economy – unofficial and unregulated – a town was born;
  • Eventually, people installed a local government, made laws and regulations, and hired the means to enforce them.

Afterward, I point out to my friend that I saw little difference between the people (entrepreneurs) that he admired so in the documentary, and the folks running smoke shops on his home territory.

In both stories, I said, people saw an opportunity to improve their lives where little existed before. In Canada, unless you want to move off the territory and into the city, there aren’t many jobs outside of those few at the band council or school. Anyone hoping to set up their own small businesses face daunting, almost impossible, barriers. It almost seems as though the federal and provincial governments have designed a crossfire of regulations to kill any local initiative with red tape and bureaucratic stupidity. Other businesses, usually owned by Whites in neighbouring towns, do their best to shoot down any potential competition from the territory, and their votes count more with White politicians.

So some people on the territory say to hell with the government, to hell with the band council, and to hell with those who sit in comfortable office jobs or tap on keypads as if that was work. If people want to stop at their smoke shops and spend money, then let them. They are building a successful local economy in the wake of decade after decade of failed federal economic development programs that wasted millions of dollars. They say they are doing what governments haven’t been able to do — precisely because they cut out government altogether.

My friend is aghast with me. I point out that we have always been a mercantile people. We were manufacturers, traders and middlemen long before Columbus. In fact, our role as middlemen and traders was key to our dominance over and relations with the Dutch and English. It was also much of the reason why the French sought to destroy the Mohawk and their brother nations in the Confederacy – the French wanted to cut out the middleman and dominate the fur trade themselves. During much of this continent’s early colonized history, the Five Nations Confederacy (later Six Nations) held military, political and economic dominance over much of eastern North America. I stress the word “economic” to my friend.

I point out that his territory now has an economic zone where nothing existed ten years ago. Restaurants, gas stations, car washes, clothing, furniture and electronic stores and more have sprung up within that time. It happened, I add, without government aid or interference. The smoke shops owners diversified, said to hell with the government because it was holding them back. Now, I continue, the government sees success and wants to get involved so it can claim credit. Bullroar, I tell him, we both know the government did squat.

This story, I tell him, isn’t in the newspapers or on TV. There is no story about how all of these legitimate businesses are off-shoots of so-called “illicit activity.” What we see instead are stories about “illegal smuggling,” “crime” or “drugs.” It’s almost as if the government, Canadian society and the media wants us to remain perennial victims, permanently poverty-stricken, because there is too much invested in “managing” Indians. If they get independent, a lot of Whites lose their jobs.

The real story, I go on, may be about governments trying to stamp out these “illicit activities” with arrests and raids because what the governments really want is their cut. They’re like any other mob or gang. Give them their cut and they will sing your praises. Deny them and you’re “criminals” and “smugglers.”

As for the other complaints, about the moral and ethical questions raised about selling a deadly product to your own people and others… adding to the suffering of others… jeopardizing collective rights for individual gain… these need to be explored by the media to force debate – not by the White community but in our own territories. Those debates won’t take place unless the media starts doing its job better by providing more informed coverage on these issues, and less of the government line. The debate, much-needed and overdue, won’t take place at the insistance of our own politicians because they seem almost as gutless and ill-informed as White politicians. They will always choose the path of least resistance.

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Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Canadian politics, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous rights

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