In the Mohawk Nations of Eastern Canada, tobacco has turned communities around. The smoke traders buy cigarettes tax-free and sell them, discounted, to non-natives. This trade has made all the difference, giving people a way out of poverty.

But the RCMP calls what the Mohawk are doing illegal—as they try to stop them from crossing provincial and national boundaries to sell their cigarettes, the Mohawk point out that in their treaties, these boundaries are meaningless. Spending three years shooting, Jeff Dorn and Catherine Bainbridge follow charismatic characters whose lives have been touched by the tobacco trade. We interviewed Bainbridge about the experience of making the film.

She Does The City: What inspired you to make the film? 

Catherine Bainbridge: At Rezolution Pictures, we have been making films and TV shows about Native themes for over 10 years. I am an Irish Canadian, and although I am not native I have always been drawn to human rights issues and justice issues. Without a doubt, the biggest justice issue in our country is about Native people. I also like controversy. So for me the smoke trade, whereby Mohawks control 50% of the tobacco trade in Eastern Canada, is a great subject for a documentary. With this trade, Mohawks have done more for their economies than anything the Canadian government has ever done. And most people don’t know that. I am also always attracted to subjects and characters that show Canadians a different view of Native people than they are used to seeing . 

SDTC: How do you think the government will react to the film? The Native communities? 

CB: I don’t know. What I do know is most Canadians haven’t had a chance to hear the real story from the POV of Mohawks in the trade.

SDTC: Brian is a former Smoke Trader who, for the sake of his child, has decided to go straight. He’s trying to open a solar panel plant on the reserve, which would bring jobs and revenue to the community, but he struggles with ridiculous red tape. What changes need to be made for projects like Brian’s to have more possibility? 

CB: It’s simple. Canada has deliberately tried to undermine Native people, cultures and Native economies since Europeans first set foot on this land.  We’ve wanted their land (and their resources) from the beginning, and have succeeded in stealing most of it.  And any that is left, we are busy building tar sands, mines or hydro electric projects on it now. The Mohawks have lost almost everything. They are cornered into tiny plots of land. So any attempt to start a business in one of the communities by someone with vision and talent should be supported.

SDTC: What was the most difficult moment in making the film?

CB: This is a process film where we followed our main characters for several years. Jeff Dorn, my co-director, was filming for over three years in the communities. It was really hard! Then we spent another year in editing with our amazing editor Howard Goldberg. That is like living in a cave for a year. But that aside,  I think the hardest moment was when we didn’t have an ending to the film, and we we were just waiting to see what would happen to our characters. I just kept saying, “We have to have faith, something big and dramatic will happen.” And it did.

SDTC: What is your favourite moment in the film? 

CB:   I love all the jokes! There are lots of funny moments in the film. Most white people think Natives are stoic and don’t have a  good sense of humour. Of course, they don’t think we’re very funny either! (I stole that joke from the legendary Native comedian Charlie Hill!) Ha. But seriously, I love all the funny moments with the characters. Our narrator, a former Smoke Trader named Tim Montour, is really funny!

Thurs, May 3rd, 9 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 (Rush only.)

Fri, May 4th, 3:45 pm, Cumberland 2. Buy tickets.

~ Haley Cullingham