CBC News has learned that the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba has taken a major stake in a medical marijuana company, with an eye to becoming a big player in the sale of pot once it becomes legal.

The First Nation, located approximately 530 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, has purchased $3 million worth — approximately 10 per cent — of shares in National Access Cannabis. The privately held company will be traded publicly for the first time Friday on the TSX Venture Exchange.

OCN Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair said the investment represents a shift in thinking. Where marijuana was once part of the war on drugs, the plant will be now be part of the war on poverty in his community, Sinclair said.

"The fact of the matter is [the sale of marijuana] is happening before our eyes and the only people who are profiting is the black market, so this will bring us to the forefront very quickly." 

Chief Christian Sinclair

'The fact of the matter is [the sale of marijuana] is happening before our eyes and the only people who are profiting is the black market, so this will bring us to the forefront very quickly,' says OCN Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair. (Province of Manitoba handout)

National Access Cannabis currently operates 10 medical marijuana clinics in cities across Canada.

OCN and other investors in the company are counting on provincial governments allowing the private sector to sell pot to customers, instead of setting up provincially run distributors.

The company will not get into the production of pot, instead relying on federally licensed producers for its supply. Sinclair said the production side of the business carried too many pitfalls.

"We found that to be very high-risk and cash-intensive to get it started," Sinclair said.

On top of that, he said, Health Canada may or may not approve a facility to grow the plants. Sinclair said further study of the industry identified the retail side of the business as having the lowest risk and the potential for the highest return.

Sinclair said members of OCN's economic development team went to a presentation earlier this year by National Access Cannabis at the company's downtown Winnipeg location and were impressed by its business strategy and the expertise of its executive team, including president Derek Ogden.

Ogden had previously been a senior RCMP officer, at one time in charge of the Mounties' national drug enforcement program and acting as director general of the force's organized crime branch.

"That really intrigued us — a person of that stature working in this industry," Sinclair said.

Venture gets approval from OCN elders

Sinclair said the idea of investing in the pot business was vetted and accepted unanimously by OCN's leadership and its council of elders.

"They referred to it not as a drug, but as medicine," Sinclair said.

'It's about time," OCN elder Stan Wilson said of the proposal.

"Indigenous people have this connection to their environment and their relationship to nature and plants, and if we do things the proper way, there are benefits for human beings," Wilson said.

He said the long period where marijuana has been stigmatized by its illegal status strikes a chord.

"We have a history with that, with Europeans, because they outlawed so many of our spiritual practices as well as the use of medicines and so on," Wilson said.

OCN has experienced difficulty in reaping benefits from gambling, as poor turnout at its casino in The Pas prompted its leadership to ask for a gaming licence in Winnipeg — something Premier Brian Pallister flatly rejected.

Sinclair said selling pot and running casinos are two completely different businesses, but he hopes the province gets on board with the private sale of weed. 

Aseneskak Casino The Pas

Manitoba's government has said no to Opaskwayak Cree Nation's request to move its casino to Winnipeg. OCN is now investing in marijuana, and the First Nation's chief hopes the province gets on board with the private sale of weed. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"This one is a different opportunity … we would hope the province, which is big on economic development, would see this as an opportunity for First Nations and Indigenous communities to participate heavily and actively in this field," Sinclair said.

He said there might be employment opportunities for his members in the retail side of the business, but he hopes the investment will pay dividends OCN can reinvest in the community. 

Premier 'encouraged' by OCN's investment

The province's Progressive Conservative government has not signaled what its intentions for retailing marijuana are, instead focusing first on public safety issues.

While Brian Pallister has asked Ottawa to delay legalization, the premier told CBC News he is in favour of OCN's decision to get into the pot business, and even suggested his conservative government would be open to doing business with the first nation at some point.

"Anytime I see investments in enterprise by Manitobans I am encouraged by that," he said. "OCN is a very forward-looking, well-led first nations community, so I wish them all the best in their investments."

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, said they have concerns about private businesses profiting from the sale of pot in Manitoba.

"We know from all of the studies that have been done, the safest, most accountable way to do this is through the public system," she said.

"The best way and the safest way to sell a controlled substance like this is to do it through the public system and ensure that any profits that are made on it go back to into the public system that Manitobans rely on. It's the only way to go."

Other Indigenous group eye pot business

Mark Goliger

National Access Cannabis CEO Mark Goligar says partnering with Indigenous groups is 'important to us, important to Canadian society.' (LinkedIn)

Mark Goliger, the CEO of National Access Canada, sees pitfalls for governments selling pot through their own outlets. 

"Would you divert $20 million of taxpayers' [money] out of health care, education, infrastructure support — to create a Cannabis Control Board of Manitoba, to service rural locations, with a hope and a prayer that it's going to return a greater benefit?" Goliger said.

OCN isn't the first Indigenous group to get into the marijuana business. Phil Fontaine, who was previously the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is now the lead of Indigenous Roots, a medicinal cannabis company.

The Wahgoshig First Nation near Kirkland Lake, Ont., has partnered with an Ontario company called DelShen Therapeutics to grow "pharmaceutical-grade" pot.