What is and isn't contraband?: W5 investigates the world of untaxed tobacco
Brennan Leffler, W5 producer
Published Saturday, March 31, 2018 7:00AM EDT
When W5 visited smoke shacks on Tyendinaga First Nation, untaxed cigarettes were so common and easy to buy, it almost seemed legal.
It's not, but Canadian laws around tobacco taxes can be confusing; depending on who you are and where you live, you may be breaking the law, without even realizing it.
Here's how the laws work:
Indigenous Canadians living on reserve are allowed to buy tobacco products tax-free, usually under quota systems enacted by each province. Under these quota systems, a limited amount of tax free cigarettes are made available for sale only on reserve. It is illegal for non-indigenous Canadians to buy these cigarettes, on or off reserve.
Cigarettes distributed under this quota system are marked with a peach-coloured stamp by the federal government:
For non-indigenous Canadians, the laws are simple. You may not buy any cigarettes without a federal, province-specific stamp. These cigarettes are subject to provincial and federal taxes that usually represent about 70% of the cost of the product. Non-indigenous Canadians are not legally allowed to buy any tax-exempt cigarettes.
Each province has a different coloured stamp, identifiable by the name of the province:
There are many cigarettes available on and off First Nations territories that have no stamps at all. These also tend to be the cheapest cigarettes you can buy. You can often get a package of 200 for as little as $10. Under Canadian law, these are illegal for both indigenous and non-indigenous people to buy.
Seems simple, but here's where things get complicated. Many First Nations do not recognize Canada's jurisdiction to regulate commerce on traditional land. The Grand Chief of Kahnawake Mohawk territory in Quebec, Joseph Norton, says tobacco is an important cultural and economic product for his people, and they will not be bound by Canadian laws he believes are illegitimate.
“There's always been the position taken by the community that it's not illegal for us, what we're doing it's not criminal...what's legal here is legal, what's legal out there is theirs. Ours and theirs. There's a big difference between the two, so we're going to continue to practise what we believe is our right to do so.“
Tax-free cigarettes are widely available, but smokers beware: if you are caught with untaxed cigarettes, you could be slapped with thousands of dollars in fines, and even jail time.