The provincial government should prepare for a legal fight if it intends to stand by its position that on-reserve gaming centres allowing smoking will not reopen.
While VLT lounges, bingo halls, billiard rooms and other indoor amusement centres may get the go-ahead to reopen under Phase 3 of the province’s proposed economic roadmap for recovery plan, Premier Brian Pallister has made it clear that will not be the case for the approximately 30 centres allowing smoking.
"We will not be proceeding to open smoking VLT facilities," Pallister said at his news conference late last week.
The on-reserve gaming centres were grandfathered with smoking allowed because they existed prior to the Non-Smokers Health Protection Act, which passed in 2004.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, who heads the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), said the move is yet another instance of Pallister overstepping.
"It’s a jurisdictional dispute," Daniels said.
In March, Pallister said the province "absolutely" has jurisdiction.
"But I’m not proposing to act unilaterally. I want to be very clear on that. I have great respect for our chiefs and I want to work with them," he said then, adding the government had already been speaking with regional chiefs on the issue.
At the time, Swan Lake First Nation Chief Francine Meeches — a member of the SCO — said: "We are federally run, federally funded. He needs to keep his nose out of our business."
Pallister again said last week that he has spoken with affected leaders.
"I don’t know who he’s talked to, because he hasn’t talked to me. I haven’t spoken with any of his ministers in any official capacity for months now, mostly because they’re unwilling to move on this tobacco rebate," Daniels said.
"This adds fuel to that fire."
Included on Daniels’ list of areas where the province has allegedly overstepped is the tobacco tax rebate system. Previously, the province rebated 90 per cent of the provincial sales tax when First Nations bought tobacco products from wholesalers. Now it’s a 40/60 split, said Daniels. Pallister made that change.
In March, member chiefs of the SCO confirmed support for Brokenhead Ojibway Nation’s legal challenge of the province’s new version of Tobacco Tax Rebate program.
For many reserves, the only independent source of revenue is through the tobacco tax rebate, VLT centres, and from the sale of confectionery and gas.
"That’s our start-up money. That’s our money to diversify into other areas so we can work as real partners in this province and in this country," Daniels said.
Further, Daniels said First Nations have a long-standing disagreement with the province about VLTs. He said the province cornered the market on VLTs, not allowing VLTs onto First Nations without the province’s say — including only being able to use province-owned VLT machines.
"They actually mark up the price on the VLTs, so they’re making money that way by imposing a higher tax on us for the VLTs. We could go to another provider or produce our own gaming systems and have higher returns on that," Daniels said.
Daniels added the province does not play a role in supporting First Nations with any of the social issues they face on reserves. Yet, Pallister’s actions on this matter seem to indicate it wishes to.
"We inherited these rules which allow smoking," Pallister said. "We’ve got to get rid of them, and this is the time to do it in keeping with our consistent and unifying desires to see people kept healthy and well."
But Daniels said Pallister’s talk is empty rhetoric. Where was Pallister with regards to First Nations during COVID-19? asked Daniels. Not to mention the issue Pallister is currently pressing was put to rest 10 to 15 years ago when the NDP tried to abolish smoking at on-reserve gaming centres. Brokenhead Ojibway Nation decided to take the province to court on the matter. The government backed off.
"They knew if it went to court, First Nations’ jurisdiction would prevail," Daniels said.
Daniels said First Nations haven’t been pushing back, but they will.
"Even the First Nations that are successful (in the province), it’s a fraction of the kind of economic development that we’re seeing south of the border," he said.
He also asserts Pallister is attempting to do indirectly what he does not have the authority to do directly.
"There are other ways to go about this (smoking issue)," Daniels said, such as providing education and tools to make better choices.
Daniels said First Nations would prefer not to go the costly and time-consuming court route, but they are prepared to.
SCO chiefs also resolved in March to explore the creation and implementation of an Anishinaabe and Dakota-led Liquor, Gaming, and Cannabis Authority.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.