‘A real opportunity’: Cannabis entrepreneurship lifting some First Nations communities

It’s a quiet, cool autumn morning in early October and Medicine Wheel Natural Healing is bustling.

In the span of an hour, dozens of customers visit and crowd the counters in the shop, manned by a security guard, looking at cannabis flowers, concentrates, oils and infused topical creams available for purchase. Employees wearing headsets enthusiastically chat with clients about various products, which are brought up from a storage area through a pneumatic tube. Most of the customers are baby boomers.

“Today is actually a slow day for us,” says Rob Stevenson, the owner of Medicine Wheel. Located southwest of Peterborough, Ont., Medicine Wheel which was the first Indigenous-owned and operated dispensary to open on Alderville First Nation in June 2017.

Driving through a short stretch of Highway 45 in Alderville in the weeks leading up to October 17, you wouldn’t be able to tell that cannabis had yet to be legalized. There are currently eight dispensaries lining this section of highway, prompting a few locals to dub it “the Green Mile.”

“It’s done a lot for the community,” said Stevenson, who is Anishnabeg from Alderville First Nations and a member of the Bear Clan.

“It’s increased traffic flow into the community and… I think it’s a real opportunity for people to become more self-sustainable, to be able to move up in life, be able to buy houses, buy cars and just do things they maybe didn’t have the opportunity to do before.”

But the shops lining the so-called “Green Mile” are operating within what many say is a grey area.

Under the federal government’s Bill C-45, provinces and territories were responsible for determining how cannabis is distributed and sold. But where indigenous communities – which fall under the federal Indian Act – fit into this picture is still unclear, given questions about jurisdiction and self-governance.

Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott told the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples earlier this month that the government is working on addressing concerns regarding jurisdictional issues.

“I know that indigenous communities, organizations and businesses have spoken up about jurisdictional concerns but specifically the exercise of First Nation bylaw-making powers in relation to the legalization and regulation of cannabis,” Philpott told the committee.

“Our government recognizes and respects the jurisdiction of indigenous governments. We will continue to work with First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities to address and accommodate jurisdictional issues in an appropriate way moving forward.”

In Ontario, the only legal option to purchase cannabis until April will be through the province-run online store. Under the province’s proposed legislation, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) will grant licenses to private retailers ahead of an April 1 launch.

Under the same proposed legislation, First Nations can opt out of that private retail model through a band council resolution. Brian Gray, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General, said in an emailed statement that any store located within a First Nations reserve would require approval by the communities’ Chief and Council via band resolution before the AGCO issues a license.

“Additionally, the proposed legislation includes the authority for the Attorney General to enter into arrangements or agreements with a council of the band with respect to the matters related to the private retail of cannabis within a community,” Gray said. No such agreement has been reached to date, but Gray added that “some communities have expressed a potential interest in an agreement.”

“Ontario has and will continue to engage with Indigenous peoples, communities and organizations to discuss interests, perspectives and concerns, and consider opportunities for collaboration, including with respect to the development of a private retail model for cannabis,” Gray said.

Still, some of the dispensaries on some Ontario First Nations – including in Alderville – plan on keeping their doors open, with or without a provincial retail license.

Medicine Wheel Natural Healing is one of the many dispensaries that plans on staying open. The jurisdictional issues were stressful for Stevenson in the early days of operation, but he says that anxiousness has since faded. He says First Nations communities have the right to do this.

“If we look at the face value of our treaty rights, the constitution, the United Nations Declaration of the Right of Indigenous Peoples, we have every right to be doing this,” Stevenson said.

Tyler Marsden, the co-founder of another Highway 45 dispensary, Healing House Medicinals, agrees with Stevenson.

“October 17 doesn’t change anything for us necessarily,… we’re exercising our sovereign right to share and grow our medicine,” Marsden said. “I want them to let us self-regulate. I want them to trust that we are going to create our own bylaws that benefit our community.”

In the meantime, Stevenson, Marsden and other members working in the Alderville cannabis community have teamed up to launch the Mississauga of Rice Lake Cannabis Association, an organization that’s aiming to create rules and standards for the local industry.

“We’re looking at childproof packaging, how products are being tested, standards for who we can and can’t sell to, and using that to build up a model right now until we can get more oversight from chief and council,” Stevenson said.

“We do have the power and authority to start creating and making our own rules. Until that happens, we’re trying to be proactive.”

An hour’s drive from Alderville First Nations, dozens of cannabis dispensaries have opened their doors on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Tim Barnhart, owner of Legacy 420, a medicinal shop with a license from Health Canada, said he recently drove around the community and counted 32 dispensaries, while other residents have pegged that figure at more than 45. According to 2016 census data, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory has a population of about 2,500, meaning there is one cannabis store per 78 people, based on Barnhart’s potentially conservative estimates.

Barnhart’s concern about the dozens of shops that have recently popped up on reserve is not about the sheer number of new businesses, but of a lack of standards regulating the industry that has seemingly appeared overnight.

“For us, it’s about health, safety and security,” he said. “I started growing because I wanted to know what I was ingesting. I’d like to see a system that’s standardized and regulated and (ensures) that everybody is selling a healthy product. And then there could be a hundred dispensaries, I don’t care.”

But it’s clear, Barnhart says, that the cannabis shops have brought an economic benefit to the community. He said his business has an annual payroll of $3.7 million and 80 per cent of his 30 employees live in Tyendinaga.

“The money is going right back into this community,” he said.

Both Barnhart and Stevenson have already set their sights on future expansion plans, including potentially opening up healing centres that in their communities. But they both say the understand if their retail model is not the way other Indigenous communities.

“We’re doing it the way we want to do it here,” Stevenson said.

“Maybe they want to opt in and be involved in the cannabis industry, maybe they don’t. Maybe they want to go the provincial route and go through the licensed producers. That should be up to them. From my mind, we should be able to do this on our own. and create our own industry.”


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