BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN
Supporters of the Dakota Nation and five men charged in connection with the operation of a controversial smoke shop near Pipestone ride along 18th Street in Brandon on Tuesday. The group made its way along Rosser Avenue before ending up at the Brandon courthouse.
Supporters of five men charged in connection with a controversial smoke shop say their trial isn’t about cheap smokes — it’s about sovereignty and the economic aspirations of aboriginal people.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak speaks outside the Brandon courthouse on Tuesday. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/ BRANDON SUN )
Among those outside the Brandon courthouse on Tuesday morning as the trial was about to begin was Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
He said the assembly supports the "economic sovereignty" of the Dakota people who stand at the centre of the smoke shop case.
"If they choose to express their sovereignty by engaging in the tobacco trade, then we’re going to stand here with them to support that," Nepinak said.
The Dakota men on trial face numerous charges under the Tax Administration and Miscellaneous Taxes Act. The charges — which span November 2011 to March 2012 — include possession and sale of unmarked tobacco, and the unauthorized possession and sale of tobacco.
They relate to the operation of the Dakota Chundee Smoke Shop near the community of Pipestone, which sold cut-rate cigarettes.
The shop was repeatedly raided by Manitoba Finance after it opened in November 2011, and thousands of cigarettes were seized before it was shut down.
Originally, eight men were charged, but two had their counts stayed and another man is now sought on an arrest warrant. The five accused on trial include Dakota Plains First Nation Chief Orville Charles Smoke and former Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation chief Franklin Brown.
Brown was Canupawakpa chief at the time of the allegations, but confirmed that he resigned as of mid-September.
In his resignation letter, Brown indicates that he doesn’t want to be recognized as "an Indian agent of the federal government," but a "private person with private rights."
Also being tried is Murray A. Stonechild, Garth Leon Blacksmith and Charles Conrad Blacksmith of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.
All the accused are representing themselves in court.
Prior to proceedings, supporters gathered outside the courthouse, including riders on horseback.
Some supporters held signs such as: "The great buffalo Dakota; we faced atrocities."
The provincial court trial is currently scheduled to run until Friday and Crown counsel Shaun Sass said he expects to call up to 15 witnesses.
It began with the accused entering not guilty pleas, save for Brown, who declined to enter a plea but had his not guilty plea entered on his behalf by Judge Shauna Hewitt-Michta.
The Crown calls its witnesses first, but court heard that Brown and the accused are expected to challenge the court’s jurisdiction.
The first witness to be called by the Crown was a Manitoba Finance special investigator. He described how cigarettes were repeatedly seized.
Any cigarette packs should have been marked for provincial tax purposes using a cellophane tear strip and none of the cigarettes — including those found in plastic bag "cartons" — were marked for tax purposes in Manitoba.
The investigator described finding Wolf Pack and Deerfield brand cigarettes from Quebec.
Land titles documents indicated that Brown and Smoke owned the smoke shop property at the time of the allegations, he testified.
However, he said that records show that the shop, Brown and Smoke didn’t have the required retail sales tax authorization. Nor did they have a dealer’s licence to sell tobacco, the investigator testified.
He watched the smoke shops on various dates and described how customers would carry away cartons of cigarettes.
He also described one of his own visits to the shop in November 2011 and how he was told he could get a pack of cigarettes for $5 and a carton for $40. By contrast, the investigator estimated that a carton of 200 cigarettes, properly marked for tax in Manitoba, currently costs around $115.
Meanwhile, the smoke shop remains closed.
It was shut down after the court handed control of the property over to the provincial government because the store had continued to operate despite a court-ordered injunction.
A permanent injunction is being sought in Court of Queen’s Bench.
The smoke shop was first opened in November 2011, and its creators described it as a way to exercise Dakota sovereignty in Canada and speed up treaty negotiations with the federal government.
Dakota people have a history that predates Confederation in Canada, but they have no treaty that recognizes them in this country.
An economic argument has now entered the debate, too.
Nepinak said provincial and federal government regulations have served to block the economic goals of aboriginal people.
"We’re standing up strong to that now," Nepinak said. "We’re organizing in a way that we haven’t organized in many years."
The trial continues today.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 18, 2013