Confirming the Chain of Command

Meanwhile, Chief Nathan Pasap, of White Bear First Nation, planned to challenge Saskatchewan’s decision to leave his Nation off the list of eligible communities, saying that there is case law to support his claim that his Nation’s claim is to the federal government, not the provincial.

“We want to be proactive, we want to create jobs. We want to basically take (a dispensary) on as another way of being self-sustaining.”

Chief Nathan Pasap of White Bear First Nation

“If the provincial government wishes to challenge us or shut us down then we’re going to end up in a judicial process because they failed to consult us,” he said in a CBC interview. Later, speaking to CTV, he continued, “We want to be proactive, we want to create jobs. We want to basically take [a dispensary] on as another way of being self-sustaining.”

In both cases, the First Nations were supported by Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, who believe it is each First Nation’s right to decide for themselves whether they will participate in legalization or not, regardless of federal or provincial laws, depending on the feelings of their membership.

Speaking to the annual conference of the Assembly of First Nations, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day explained, “Our people are going to say, ‘Listen, we have Aboriginal treaty rights, we have economic rights as First Nations people. Who is Canada to say we can’t have a dispensary in our community?’”


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However, he added, “What if a community says we want [legal age] to be 23 or 24 because the studies show that the development of a young person’s brain isn’t complete until they are in their 20s?”

Another Indigenous group to feel shut out of the discussion is the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), who applied to open a recreational cannabis retail store in Manitoba but were refused. Of the four organizations who were granted permission to operate in Manitoba, two—National Access Cannabis and 10552763 Canada Corporation—include First Nations partners. No Métis organizations are included.

In a press release, the MMF railed against the decision, saying “Once again Manitoba has forgotten the Métis nation. The decision to ignore the Métis nation further diminishes an already strained relationship and demonstrates Manitoba’s adversarial views toward the Métis nation.”

The Clash of Opinions

The Globe and Mail reports there is a split in opinion is between southern communities, who hope to market cannabis to non-Indigenous customers, and more isolated northern communities, who tend toward opposing legalization because the majority of users will be locals.

Attawapiskat First Nation, located near James Bay in Northern Ontario, has been the focus of a series of crises over the past decade, from housing crises to sewage floods to the tragic suicide crisis that caught Canadian media attention. Chief Ignace Gull sees little potential advantage in bringing legal cannabis to his community.

“We don’t have the resources to deal with this. There is no funding to educate or make people aware of what cannabis is all about.”

Chief Ignace Gull of Attawapiskat First Nation

“It will affect the community because we don’t have the resources to deal with this,” he said. “There is no funding to educate or make people aware of what cannabis is all about.”

Chief Gull’s opinions were reflected even farther north. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) represents the Inuit of Nunavut on matters related to treaty negotiation. Last October, NTI called for a formal delay in the legalization process to allow for the federal government to consult with Inuit whether or not legalization should occur in Inuit communities, and if it will be happen, to provide support for responding to potential harms that may come with it.

A variety of First Nations and other Indigenous communities were irate they were left out of the discussion between the provinces and the federal government about revenue sharing from the federal cannabis excise tax, which will apply even on reserve (where other taxes are not). At the moment, excise tax revenues will be shared 75/25 between the provinces and the federal government—but none are to be directed to Indigenous governments. Jane Philpott, Minister of Indigenous Services, assured First Nations their interests have been considered, even if their leadership has not been invited to the negotiation table.


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“It certainly has come up on many occasions,” she told iPolitics.

While Indigenous governments don’t want to be excluded from the excise tax revenues, one perspective Indigenous communities seem to share toward the federal government as legalization approaches is the conviction that they should be the ones who decide how legalization takes place on their land.

A variety of First Nations and other Indigenous communities were irate they were left out of the discussion between the provinces and the federal government about revenue sharing from the federal cannabis excise tax.

“Listen, this is self-determination. Stay out of our affairs,” said Jeff Hawk of Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation (near Hamilton), following a raid in January on the dispensary he owned. A month after the raid, he presented results of a survey he administered showing broad support for dispensaries in the community, though the raid was undertaken by reserve police and supported by the Nation’s band council.

Between Kingston and Belleville Ontario, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, one of the member Nations of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, has 22 dispensaries on reserve, and they expect no raids. The community is hostile to intervention from non-Native police—which includes the Tyendinaga police, funded in part by the Ontario Provincial Police. After Chief Ron Maracle attempted unsuccessfully to close a dispensary last July, community backlash led to a group of ten vendors forming the Kenhteke Cannabis Association, saying they did not recognize the authority of Tyendinaga police or elected band council. Since that time, community police have decided to leave the dispensaries be.

Not all southern communities close to non-Indigenous populations are open to legalization, however. In Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, on the US border near Ottawa, Grand Chief Abram Benedict asked the community for feedback on opening a dispensary there after legalization occurred. He received mixed responses, with many noting that it ran contrary to the spirit of the community’s own ban on intoxicants (which only prohibits intoxicating drinks). The community sent a survey to its membership, but Grand Chief Benedict remained open to the idea.


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“We could have a dispensary on Cornwall Island, and if the market we are going after is non-Indigenous people, there is potentially a market to be had,” Benedict told the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder. “We’re saying that perhaps we should try to get ahead of the curve and see how we could benefit.”

The Legislative Coordinating Commission of Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, outside Montreal, is accepting feedback until May 11 on a draft law that will set the minimum age for cannabis purchase on-reserve to 21 (instead of the provincial minimum of 18), ban cannabis smoking and vaping in public areas, and impose a point-of-sale tax for cannabis sales to non-Indigenous buyers (presumably those who are not visibly Native and do not hold an Indian Status card). Businesses intending to sell cannabis in Kahnawake will require permission from both Health Canada and from Kahnawake, and proceeds from the tax will go to fund socio-economic initiatives.

“We’re trying to be proactive because if we don’t pass this in our own community, federal legislation will be enforced upon us.”

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Chief Rhonda Kirby

“I know it’s still very controversial for a lot of community members,” Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Chief Rhonda Kirby told community paper The Eastern Door, “but we’re trying to be proactive because if we don’t pass this in our own community, federal legislation will be enforced upon us.”

An hour away, Kanesatake Mohawk Territory was the site of the 1990 Oka Crisis, a two-month armed standoff between the Mohawk community, and more than 2,000 members of Quebec’s provincial police and the RCMP, who were supported by 4,500 Canadian Forces soldiers. In mid-April, Clifton Ariwakehte Nicholas—who carried an AK-47 on patrol during the Oka crisis and says he was ready to die for the unceded Kanesatake Mohawk Territory—opened Smoke Signals, an unlicensed dispensary in the community.

Nicholas explained to the Montreal Gazette, “If you come to me and you’re hurting, I have a responsibility to help you,” Nicholas says. “Indigenous people were using this plant long before Canada ever existed. I’m not a healer, I’m not a doctor, but I know this medicine and I know it works.”


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In opening Smoke Signals, Nicholas was defying Kanesatake Chief Serge Simon, who has called for open consultation to decide whether or not to allow cannabis in the community.

“I’m not against medical cannabis — in fact we’re open to it — but the community has to have its say,” Chief Simon told the Montreal Gazette.

Huron-Wendat community Wendake First Nation, just outside Quebec City, is not going to bother trying to attract non-Indigenous money through cannabis. In November Chief Konrad Siouia told Radio-Canada, “We have a zero-tolerance policy [for alcohol], so we want to remain logical in our own economic development.” Even if cannabis is legal in Canada, it will remain prohibited in Wendake.

Drug use “is a scourge in the world of First Nations, you just have to admit it,” Chief Siouia said. “At the time [of alcohol control], that seemed like a scourge. Today we will add to that cannabis and other forms of drugs. We’ll keep watch with our lawyers to best understand how to apply regulations that will make sense.”

The Current Roadblock

Two weeks ago, Acting Director General and Senior General Counsel for the Department of Justice’s Aboriginal Affairs Portfolio Stefan Matiatian told the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples while the right of First Nations to ban alcohol is written into the Indian Act, the wording is so specific that First Nations have no right to ban cannabis. Consequently, he said, any attempt to pass a cannabis ban would violate Bill C-45, which would lead to a legal challenge, meaning, “it would be up to the courts to determine the relationship between the existing Indian Act provisions and the cannabis legislation.”

Quoted on iPolitics, Senator Gwen Boniface said, “From a First Nation leadership perspective… [W]e keep hearing people say well, [First Nations communities] could do the same thing as they do for alcohol, but the answer, in law at least, is no.”


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Few who saw that discussion expected the Standing Committee would resolve the issue tidily, and in calling for a year’s delay the group has done the most they could to allow the necessary time to find lasting answers to the array of question legalization presents Canada’s Indigenous communities.. However, with recreational cannabis as a signature issue and the total consumer cannabis sales for 2018 estimated to be $8.6-billion, Trudeau’s Liberals will not likely accept a delay. That places the federal government on a collision course with a multitude of Indigenous communities, which will certainly result in a series of court challenges, and along with that, endless debate.

Top photo: Hundreds of supporters gather on Parliament Hill, in support of a group of young aboriginal people who traveled 1,600 km on foot from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Quebec on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday March 25, 2013. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Midline photo: James Bay, Attawapiskat, North of Ontario. (Ivorr/iStock)