(Marisela Amador The Eastern Door)
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On Monday morning, community members and tobacco industry workers gathered in front of Thompson & Co. cigarette store on Highway 132 to protest its reclassification as a convenience store.
The crowd held signs that read: “You are not above the community” and “Community safety and not personal wealth,” as well as “Violated Directive 55.”
The Kahnawake Peacekeepers were on the scene as people started arriving at around 8:10 a.m. for the peaceful demonstration. The Peacekeepers made sure that the entrance to the store’s parking lot was clear for customers.
One community member, who did not want to provide her name, said that she had decided to participate in the demonstration because Lee Thompson, the owner of Thompson and Co., had gone against the community by not shutting down and continuing to sell tobacco to non-locals, in violation of Directive #55.
“He doesn’t deserve to make money. The rest of the community should prosper, but not him,” she said.
“A lot of people tried to contact him. He is cowering. He doesn’t want to answer. The community is angry,” she continued.
She also explained that she did not comprehend why the Kahnawake COVID-19 Task Force would reclassify the store after it had already been issued fines for contravening directives.
“I also don’t understand how as a governing body, he can approach with a lawyer, but yet you (the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake) can’t stop him or do anything against him. How can you be a governing body when one person can go against you?” she said.
After Directive #55 shut down the retail industry on December 31, Thompson and Co. was caught selling tobacco products to non-locals on January 14. It was the second time that one of Thompson’s stores had been fined for contravening section 31 of the Kahnawake Preparedness Law.
Subsequently, the Kahnawake COVID-19 Task Force released a statement saying that the cigarette store had been reclassified as a convenience store and could continue to operate following a request for reclassification from Thompson and his lawyers.
At the time, the MCK said that their legal departments had been in contact with Thompson’s attorneys to outline the criteria for reclassification, which the owner later met upon inspection and review by Task Force inspectors.
Task Force lieutenant and Public Safety commissioner Lloyd Phillips said that the Task Force had no way of stopping a business from requesting a reclassification if they abide by all of the requirements.
As of Monday (February 1), the retail industry reopened in Kahnawake.
Kanentiio Ross, who is part of the tobacco industry, said that he had not even been to his store yet on Monday morning because he believed the demonstration was important.
“It’s our first day of reopening. On the tobacco industry side of things, I would like him to get a taste of his own medicine,” said Ross.
“We had everything organized with the police. We abided by their rules. We had to keep an opening for the customers that do want to come in, but it seems like what we are doing is working,” he continued.
Ross explained that the tobacco working group, which he is part of, has yet to hear from Thompson after repeated requests to meet.
The Eastern Door went into Thompson’s and spoke to three employees that were inside as the protest was taking place.
“It is so uncalled for. It’s unfair and comes down to more jealousy,” said the first employee.
The second employee acknowledged that Thompson had made a mistake, but stressed that he had already paid for it.
“I have worked for this man for 16 years, and he has been nothing but respectful and good to me. He has always treated me well. I have never had a problem with him,” said the third employee.
MCK chief Gina Deer told The Eastern Door that MCK believes that people have a right to a peaceful protest and that Council sees the importance of health and safety for community members.
Iohahiio (Wahiio) Delisle, who is also part of the tobacco industry and tobacco working group, explained that prior to all of the controversy, a consensus was made by the tobacco industry to adhere to and respect Directive #55.
“The ultimate issue here and what Tiio (Ross) wants to assert and bring awareness to, is the fact that some of our community members throughout this second shut down have undermined our jurisdiction,” said Delisle.
“This is a security issue. Undermining our jurisdiction politically and bringing in an outside government and using it against us,” he continued.
Delisle explained that it not only disregarded the decision made by the tobacco industry but that it put in jeopardy the health and safety of the community.
Both Ross and Delisle said that they were worried that Thompson would fight the fines in court.
“If you argue the fines in court, we will continue doing this. Pay your fine. There has got to be accountability here,” said Delisle.
Ultimately, the men said that they, along with the tobacco industry, are hoping that Thompson will sit down with the tobacco working group and come to an agreement.
The small crowd started dispersing and left Thompson’s at around 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon.