POLITICS

Manitoba changes law to make it easier to shut down smoke shops

06/06/2012 04:12 EDT | Updated 08/06/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government will soon be able to shut down aboriginal smoke shops, including one that has openly defied the province, without a court order.

An omnibus budget bill tabled in the legislature Wednesday would allow the government to issue its own stop-operating order to anyone selling tobacco without a provincial licence. It would be much faster than the current approach, which requires the government to go to court, convince a judge that illicit tobacco has been sold repeatedly and ask for an injunction.

"We want to make sure that the mandates that we get from the people of Manitoba and the laws that are put in place can easily be administered," Finance Minister Stan Struthers said.

"We think we have to move forward judiciously and rapidly in these kinds of cases."

The bill follows a lengthy battle with the Dakota Chundee Smoke Shop, which has been selling discount tobacco near Pipestone, Man., since last November without paying provincial taxes. Police have raided the store five times, seized thousands of cigarettes and laid a total of 66 charges that are still before the courts.

But after each raid, the store was open and restocked the following day.

The government won a court injunction last week after convincing a Court of Queen's bench judge that the smoke shop had repeatedly flouted the law. But the store's owners have vowed to remain open.

Chief Frank Brown and other members of the Canupawakpa First Nation say the province has no right to regulate them. The First Nation has no treaty with the Crown and never surrendered its authority to any government, Brown has said. The store sells cartons of cigarettes from Mohawk distributors in Quebec for $40 — less than half the price of a typical carton.

The dispute is believed to be the first of its kind in Manitoba. Other First Nations have obtained provincial licences.

A convenience store lobby group has warned that aboriginal smoke shops could spread across the Prairies the way they have in some parts of Quebec and Ontario. The Canadian Convenience Stores Association wants more enforcement, including fines for customers and increased police surveillance of trucks along nearby highways.

Manitoba's proposed legal change is part of a 60-page omnibus bill that also enacts measures announced in the April 17 budget. Those measures include:

— an expansion of the provincial sales tax to include tattoos, piercings and many types of insurance.

— an increase in tax credits for employers who offer apprenticeship programs.

— a two-year pay freeze for legislature members, who normally receive an increase in line with the cost of living.