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Strong views on aboriginals and tobacco

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THIS is a substantial, and interesting, work on an important topic: the place of tobacco and related issues in North America today.

As the subtitle suggests, im pl re Am ge to ab control of the tobacco industry is a central concern of aboriginal interests — control that was taken over in the past by non-aboriginal people and institutions. These included national and corporate interests and, of course, governments.

Ontario journalist Jim Poling Sr. describes the origins of competition, which developed with the arrival of Europeans. It explains the complexity of issues related to tobacco and the reasons for its being so in North America; that is, "because natives are inexorably connected to it."

The contraband tobacco trade occupies centre stage. Huge amounts of money are at stake. The Mohawks of Kahnawake in Quebec and other aboriginal groups both in Canada and the U.S. insist they are entitled to the revenue from sales of tobacco — with their customers located internationally (as far away as Germany).

Poling, a former aboriginal and northern affairs writer for The Canadian Press, expresses strong views on the issues involved in Smoke Signals. He wastes no time in castigating non-aboriginals for their selfcentred attitudes. Not surprisingly, he has harsh words for governments, charging that politicians collect increasing revenues in taxes and spend the money in unproductive ways.

Though Poling eventually focuses on present-day tobacco issues, the early part of the book reads like a history of tobacco. Among the interesting facts is that tobacco was unknown in Europe until the Spanish explored, and eventually encountered tobacco, in what is now Latin America.

Then, Sir Walter Raleigh, court favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, was one of the buccaneers who led the British exploration and settlement of the New World. The British were latecomers compared to the Spanish, who occupied and controlled areas in the south of Latin America. This gave the Spanish an advantage in the early tobacco trade since the tobacco growing more southerly was sweeter.

The British, however, increased their trade when John Rolfe and Pocahontas found ways to cultivate the soils of Virginia. Competition sharpened when the smaller operators morphed into Big Tobacco, as represented by Imperial and Rothmans and, for a time, Export A.

One of Poling’s most interesting chapters is about the rise of warrior societies in the last 40 years or so. These societies, he notes, have acted as defenders, not aggressors. Historically, inter-tribal battles involved very few casualties; defeated enemies were typically not killed but taken captive to strengthen the personnel of the victors. Battles were rarely fought to the last fighter.

In other words, if aboriginals have been historically defensive, conflict between them and whites, especially police, is unlikely to turn violent.

As Poling relates, however, the situation along the international boundary around 1990 was anything but peaceful among the Mohawks. The sound of gunshots reflected the chaos that amounted to civil war pitting pro-gambling factions against gambling factions. Gradually life at Akwesasne — a territory that reaches into Ontario, Quebec and New York — normalized, with the stabilizing influence of the police and military.

This was somewhat remarkable, since the intervention of police in a native community can lead to violence — as proved months later outside the town of Oka in the summer of 1990.

Van loads of police and Canadian soldiers using tear gas took part in the 78-day standoff. Poling observes that the "Indian problem" left over from colonial days was "not going away despite many attempts to bury it beneath assimilation efforts."

He calls for actions that lead to "sustained community well-being." The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development is one initiative he cites in illustrating that aboriginal sovereignty must grow and be recognized by the cultural mainstream if tobacco problems are to be overcome.

 

Winnipeg writer and historian Ron Kirbyson has long experience working on native issues.

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