Thomson Reuters Foundation – In their struggle to regain control over resources and spur economic growth, Canada’s Indigenous communities have found an unlikely ally: cannabis.
Facing higher levels of poverty and unemployment than the general population, many Indigenous people see the marijuana trade as a valuable source of income.
Canada became the first industrialized nation to legalize recreational cannabis on October 17.
While Indigenous entrepreneurs have already been selling cannabis for years, they say legalization could allow them to build fully legal businesses and tap into a market that spans the whole country.
And that could strengthen communities’ fight for self-governance, said Samantha McGuire, manager of cannabis shop the Organic Green Dispensary in Tyendinaga, an Indigenous Mohawk community about 250 km northeast of Toronto.
“The production and distribution of cannabis is our sovereign Indigenous right,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It is about self-determination.”
Tyendinaga is at the epicentre of Canada’s burgeoning Indigenous-run cannabis trade. Although it has fewer than 5,000 residents, according to the latest census data from 2016, the Mohawk Territory has more than 30 marijuana stores.
From “Peacemaker 420” to “Smoke on the Water,” most shops are located inside mobile homes parked around the rural community, beside a major highway connecting the cities of Toronto and Montreal.
And the trade is profitable, local businesses say.
The owner of Smoke Signals, a cannabis dispensary company with four locations in Tyendinaga, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he earns between $5,000 and $10,000 per day from cannabis sales.
Canadians spent more than $5 billion on cannabis last year — when it was still illegal — according to government estimates.
What is less clear is what will happen to stores like McGuire’s now that legalization has taken effect.
Canada’s provincial governments, rather than the national authorities, are tasked with deciding who can sell cannabis and under what conditions.
In Ontario, where Tyendinaga is located, recreational cannabis can currently only be sold through a government-owned online portal.
The provincial government aims to allow private outlets to sell cannabis by 2019.
But Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said in August that anyone operating a store like McGuire’s after October 17 will not be able to apply for a licence to run a legal store.
“The government doesn’t want to be doing businesses with dispensaries that have been operating illegally,” she said, although she did not mention what would happen to cannabis stores operating on Indigenous reserves.
Karine Martel, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Canada, the national department in charge of domestic security, did not confirm or deny whether raids on Indigenous cannabis shops would continue after legalization.
“Provincial laws of general application will apply on reserve land unless they conflict with a federal statute” or with bylaws created by local Indigenous councils like the one which governs Tyendinaga, she said in emailed comments.
Tyendinaga has not passed a bylaw backing the dispensaries, nor have local police conducted large-scale raids on the dozens of stores operating openly in the community, according to the website of the reserve’s Indigenous band council.
McGuire and other Indigenous cannabis traders say provincial rules do not apply to them because historic treaties signed between Mohawks and the national government supersede provincial rules.
Indigenous people have sovereignty to decide what happens on their land, said McGuire — and that includes continuing to sell cannabis even after the Oct. 17 deadline.
“As far as self-determination goes, cannabis has been part of our ancestors’ history and it is something we have always had the right to distribute, use, possess,” she said.
The community received formal rights to the land that McGuire’s store sits on from the British following the War of 1812, said Peter Kulchyski, a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba.
Mohawk warriors and other Indigenous people joined British soldiers in rebuffing an American invasion of territory that would later become part of Canada, he said in an interview.
That history and their “treaty rights to the land” mean the government should not dictate to Indigenous people how they should develop economically, he added.
“Tyendinaga is a particular situation where you are close to an urban centre and you could create a significant amount of employment for the community,” he said.
Indigenous Canadians, who make up about five per cent of Canada’s 36 million people and face more poverty and violence, have fought for generations to gain greater control of the development of the country’s natural resources.
Nearly one-third of Indigenous people living on reserves faced overcrowding at home, according to government data from 2017, far higher than the national average.
Entrepreneurs like McGuire hope the cannabis trade will help spur economic development on land controlled by Indigenous communities and create more retail hubs.
“There are lots of communities where companies want to do this kind of business,” said Rick Colbourne, professor of Indigenous entrepreneurship at the University of Northern British Columbia.
“Some communities are going to see land as a resource that they can leverage to grow cannabis as a cash crop for economic development.”