11/09/2011 11:29 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Manitoba First Nation baiting government, RCMP with illegal smoke shop, VLT lounge

PIPESTONE, Man. - A small Manitoba First Nation hopes that opening up an illegal smoke shop and unlicensed gambling lounge Wednesday will generate much-needed cash and bait Ottawa and the province into a court battle over treaty status.

Chief Frank Brown of the Canupawakpa First Nation says he's tired of watching mounting social problems for the 600 people on the reserve near the Saskatchewan boundary. The reserve's funding hasn't changed since 1980 although its population has doubled since then, he says.

Housing is deteriorating, water is contaminated and many residents suffer from chronic health problems, he says.

"This is the reason why we are practising our sovereignty," Brown said in an interview Wednesday. "To generate some kind of revenue to sustain the health of our people, to (deal with) the housing problems we have, the poverty, the education problems, the contaminated water we live (with)."

Canupawakpa First Nation is in a relatively rare situation in Manitoba. Brown said the band had a treaty with the British, but current members don't have official treaty status and are essentially considered refugees within Canada.

The band filed a claim in federal court against Ottawa several years ago, but nothing has come of it, he said. That's why the band decided to make the move aimed at getting itself prosecuted. Brown said that would allow the First Nation to argue its case in court and speed up the quest for treaty status.

"The provincial regulations are legal but how does it apply to us?" Brown said. "It's a justice issue. Canada has to deal with the non-treaty nations. That's what we want."

Brown was charged with selling illegal cigarettes two years ago, but the charges were dropped. This time, the shop will be selling cigarettes from Mohawk distributors in Quebec for $40 a carton — less than half the price of a legal carton in Manitoba.

The chief said he's not worried that setting up a gambling lounge and selling cheap cigarettes will exacerbate the reserve's social problems. The cigarettes they sell contain all the graphic warnings of a regular pack but aren't as addictive, he said.

"Am I a criminal trying to save my people? Change the future for my children and my grandchildren? Everybody is saying, 'you'll be locked up.' For what? Trying to make things right? That's the question today."

The RCMP have said they are monitoring the situation. Manitoba Gaming Minister Dave Chomiak was not available to comment. Jodee Mason, Chomiak's spokeswoman, said the ministry has met with Brown to talk about the Manitoba Tobacco Tax Act.

"Discussions were co-operative in nature and we are confident that Mr. Brown knows what the laws for the sale of tobacco in Manitoba are as agreements have been signed," she said in an emailed statement.

"We expect Mr. Frank Brown to follow the law and regulations in this private venture, just like everyone else."

A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said the department was looking for someone to respond.

But one aboriginal expert said it's becoming increasingly common for First Nations to find other ways to have their claims dealt with by the federal government.

Peter Kulchyski, native studies professor at the University of Manitoba, said First Nation negotiations have stalled under the Conservative government. Talks break off quickly if the government thinks the First Nation is asking too much, he said.

That's caused more people to take matters into their own hands, rather than go through the official channels, he said.

"It gets settled in the courts, it gets settled with arrests and a much more expensive process," Kulchyski said. "Obviously negotiating ahead of time and solving these problems ahead of time is a much less costly and, ultimately, much more desirable resolution."

— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg