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Community members were outraged after the Kahnawake COVID-19 Task Force announced that Thompson’s, a tobacco store in the community, had been reclassified as a convenience store and could continue to operate.
The news comes on the heels of Thompson’s being fined a total of $15,100 after being caught selling tobacco to non-locals last Thursday (January 14). The cashier was also fined an additional $1,541.
After receiving multiple complaints, officers observed Thompson’s on Highway 132 selling tobacco to people outside of the community. Fines were issued to both the establishment and the cashier as per section 31 of the Kahnawake Emergency Preparedness Law.
It was the second time that Thompson’s had been fined for contravening the law since the latest shutdown on December 31.
Every other tobacco store and factory in the community currently remains closed as per Directive #55.
Kanentiio Ross, who is in the tobacco industry, said that everyone is furious.
“Somebody found a loophole, and they exploited it,” said Ross.
As part of the directive, Thompson’s can continue to operate, but they are still prohibited from selling tobacco to non-locals. The reclassification applies to both Thompson’s locations on Highways 132 and 138.
The Task Force and the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) quickly acknowledged the controversy, and released a statement saying that the situation was complicated, as lawyers had gotten involved.
“The individual that caused this got his way. He is the only one,” said Ross.
The person Ross is referring to is Lee Thompson, the owner of Thompson’s.
The Eastern Door made several attempts to contact Thompson for a statement, but he could not be reached.
“I understand it (the outrage),” said MCK chief Cody Diabo, who also released a statement on social media. “I myself was shocked, and even that is an understatement. You are taken aback that somebody would want to do this. I understand, and I sympathize with all the people who are frustrated by it because I myself am.”
According to Ross, a group that he is a part of in the tobacco industry has also been unable to reach Thompson. They did, however, meet with his manager, who said that she would pass along a message. And that message is that the industry wants him to close down like everybody else.
“Where I stand with everybody right now, everybody is against him being open. This is causing a lot of controversy and a lot of headaches,” said Ross.
“We still don’t understand. We are in a pandemic and shutdown. Why would you offer a reclassification for a convenience store to open on a major highway, that is known only to attract non-local business?” he said.
Task Force lieutenant and Public Safety commissioner Lloyd Phillips explained that based on Directive #52, convenience stores are allowed to remain open, as they are deemed essential. The Task Force has no way of stopping a business from requesting a reclassification if they abide by all of the requirements.
“He was subject to inspections and after being reviewed by inspectors, and it was determined that he could operate as a convenience store,” said Phillips.
“There were communications that were done with him – through MCK lawyers and his lawyers that clearly outlined the criteria in which he could operate,” he continued.
The commissioner said that the Task Force understands the situation caused a lot of anger in the community. However, Ross believes that the closure and the reclassification of Thompson’s are dividing the community.
“We see a lot of people are defending the Task Force – don’t get me wrong, I think the Task Force did a phenomenal job for health and safety purposes, ” said Ross.
“I am not going to take that away from them, but when it came to them acting on certain closures, I think they were far off from doing the right thing.”
He added that there are also a lot of people defending the tobacco industry.
Moreover, the fact the reclassification was approved after Thompson’s had already been caught and fined selling tobacco to non-locals was another blow, he said.
“The fines are still there. He has to answer to those when the time is appropriate. That has not changed. But despite the circumstances that we may not appreciate, we still have to make unbiased decisions,” said Phillips.
Furthermore, Phillips said that getting lawyers involved is not his preferred way of doing things.
“Certainly, the Council and Task Force will defend the jurisdiction against the outside. We are on solid legal ground. We are on Kahnawake law, which we have been operating for the past 10 months – and we’re confident that everything we are doing is legally enforceable,” he continued.
The Task Force also didn’t want to get distracted by legal challenges and is now focusing on the community’s health and safety, and looking forward to a potential reopening in February.
However, for the tobacco industry, the overall situation regarding the closure has been difficult and disheartening.
“There were a lot of people upset with this shutdown. They feel like there wasn’t enough notice given,” said Ross.
Task Force inspectors made visits to different shops and factories the day before the shutdown, according to Ross.
“To us, it seems like something that was already planned and put in place, and there was no turning back. We feel we were targeted,” he said.
Ross said that everybody in the industry cares deeply about the health and safety of the community. He said they have also complied with every single directive and requirement.
MCK chief Frank McComber who is part of the Regulatory Boards/Commissions & Labor portfolio, which includes tobacco, said that the large majority of the tobacco industry has been following all of the directives.
“It is important that the community gets to see what they are trying to do and how they are trying to help. Just because there is one person who decides to go against every directive, it should not fall on the industry, but on that one person,” said McComber.
The Task Force members explained continuously that they ultimately made the decision to close down retail in the community because the goal was to limit people’s movements to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“We know the tobacco industry creates a lot of traffic in the community, and so obviously, they were impacted the most,” said Phillips.
For his part, Ross thinks that the Task Force should have met with representatives of the tobacco industry and made a concrete plan of action that would have taken into account the health and safety of the community as well as the economic impact before actually shutting down.
“We still do have multiple businesses open on the major arteries of Kahnawake that are still catering to non-local traffic and probably higher amounts than the whole tobacco industry put together,” said Ross.
As for Thompson, Ross’ message is that he should be a part of the industry and community and not standalone.
“There’s always something going on in this industry. In the end, I want everybody here to stand together and move forward and not tear each other apart. That is not us, that is not our people,” he said.
If Thompson’s is caught selling tobacco to non-locals again, Phillips said there would be harsher penalties.