CANNABIS CULTURE – To some, weed is medicine. To others, it’s a source of joy. But to First Nations, cannabis is even more. It’s a much-needed opportunity.

Among First Nations cannabis advocates there is the hope the process could provide First Nation communities with a steady source of jobs and income, allowing them to re-invest in other badly needed economic development projects.

If managed correctly, legalization could be a healthy boon to indigenous communities across Canada, many of whom struggle with high unemployment and poverty, as well as declining revenues from industries like timber and mining.

The Start of an Industry

“Of course, we’re always trying to strengthen our economy. So [legalization]  is something we took a hard look at,” said Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches, in a phone call with Cannabis Culture. “We thought: Ok, we need to get involved”.

A signatory to Treaty One, Long Plain reserves and urban economic zones cover a land base of over 10,000 acres in the central plains of Manitoba.

The community doesn’t have a particularly strong stigma against cannabis, explained Chief Meeches, so legalization has largely been welcomed as an economic opportunity. Now legal recreational cannabis is here, the community intends to make a success of it. In a historic moment for Long Plain First Nation, on Friday Nov. 9 the community opened the first legal recreational cannabis store located at their Keeshkeemaquah urban reserve in Portage La Prairie.

“We hope to see good things come from it in terms of employment opportunities and in terms of creating profits for Long Plain First nation that we can reinvest back into the community” said Chief Meeches.

The move had been in the works for more than a year. Initially, when Trudeau’s Liberal government announced the legalization of cannabis in 2017, there was a mixed reaction from many First Nations leaders, some of whom wanted to delay legalization until they could learn more about cannabis.

On Dec 6, 2017, at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, they debated the issue, but it quickly became clear that many saw in cannabis a great opportunity. There was just one requirement, on which nearly everyone present agreed – that the First Nations, and not the federal or provincial governments, be the ones to govern over the rules around the use and sale of marijuana on reserves.

Strengthening the Indigenous Economy

Just over a week later, Chief Meeches stood with the Chiefs of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and the Peguis First Nation, Christian Sinclair and Glenn Hudson, and announced their plans to work with the cannabis industry to ensure the success of legalization for indigenous communities.

The Chiefs called for a program that would mimic rebate programs for tobacco and petrol and help them create more sustainable trade opportunities for First Nations.

“Although the cannabis industry might not be the saviour for First Nations and Indigenous people, it will go a long way to helping provide sustainable development in the years to come,” Chief Meeches told the Winnipeg Free press that day. “Our people need to work, we need to lift our people out of poverty. The struggle for economic independence is real.”

The three chiefs reached a partnership agreement with National Access Cannabis CEO Mark Goliger to open five retail locations in First Nations land by the end of the year under the “Meta Supply” brand.

Working with the Community

In the year since, community leaders across Canada’s indigenous communities have been working to consult, educate and organise their communities to make the best of this opportunity.

“It made sense for Long Plain just for the economic benefits,” argues Chief Meeches, thinking back to the discussions his community had on the issues. “Economic sovereignty is a goal that we’re reaching for. We’ve come to realise, quite some time ago, that government funding is nowhere near enough to offset the challenges we face to provide programs and services to our people.”

Taking control of the cannabis industry within the jurisdiction of their reserves is a way that communities like the Long Plain can re-emphasize their sovereignty and push for more sovereign rights from the Canadian government.

Now the community is hopeful that the revenues of cannabis will help subsidize many of the projects that they are looking to implement, as well as creating a steady source of jobs for young people.

Creating jobs

One of our main goals, from the beginning, is open stores on First Nations lands and develop a true partnership with these communities,” says Matt Ryan, VP of marketing for National Access Cannabis and Meta Cannabis Supply. “We’re creating jobs. That’s always been important to us and to the First Nations groups we’ve been working with”.

Under their partnership agreement with Meta, Long Plain owns 51% of the retail store, which will be staffed by Long Plain members that have been trained using NAC’s harm reduction model.

The next step will be the opening of the second Meta shop, on 420 Maddison in Winnipeg. The possibility of opening a third location on their main reserve is still in the works, but Chief Meeches is careful around what he sees as a volatile market.

“So far it seems to be ok,” he noted, but cautioned that they will need to evaluate how things are going in the next three to six months.

But despite the developing nature of the legal cannabis industry, indigenous communities are moving forward quickly to take part. On Nov. 19, about a month after the Canadian federal government legalized cannabis, the Tsuut’ina Nation hosted the first National Indigenous Cannabis and Hemp Conference at their Grey Eagle Resort and Casino, welcoming delegates from all over Canada to discuss the potential of cannabis to help indigenous communities. Approximately 500 participants attended, and once again emerged with the common goal of working together to stake claim in the new cannabis industry.

For Chief Meeches, the important thing is to maximise the benefit to his community. “Legalization is here; it’s an industry, and we need to tap in to that industry. I think we have and hopefully it grows.”

Moving Forward

That’s not to say there haven’t been glitches. Much like the rest of Canada, demand for cannabis has far outpaced expectations, resulting in chronic supply shortages for many products. Any type of Cannabis oil for example – from pure CBD to other infusions – is very hard to get right now.

“The shortage is real” lamented Ryan. “No one really knew what demand was going to be like, so we’re meeting demand in that we haven’t run out, but we’re not fully meeting demand because we don’t have the full range of product.”

According to him though, According to him though, META is working hard to get their full-line of products back in stores. “We anticipated that there would be some challenges with product availability since we are working within a new industry. Our team is focused and committed on ordering more products as soon as possible, which will eventually balance out the shortages.”

The most popular product by far right now is dried flower and, luckily, First Nations customers can expect to find a “healthy amount” of that on the shelves.

Once the supply glitches are sorted, and local communities are satisfied that any alleged risks have been addressed, the NAC is hoping to keep expanding its list of locations, starting with the five dispensaries open on First Nation lands by the end of 2018.

“We certainly want to open more stores. We’re very happy with how the stores are doing so far but we are just getting started.”

Echoing the sentiment, Chief Meeches emphasised the need to keep moving forward. “Right now, we’re just starting out. We’re happy to be engaged in that and we look forward to the growth of [the cannabis]  industry.”