Health Canada says delaying pot bill for more Indigenous consultation would leave kids vulnerable

Delaying pot legalization won't change much, Health Canada says after senators urge for Indigenous voices to sit at the table.

Standing Senate committee on Aboriginal peoples says some called consultations inadequate

A worker produces marijuana at Canopy Growth Corporation's facility in Smiths Falls, Ont. Health Canada told CBC that delaying pot legalization to include Indigenous voices won't change the issue with the current criminal system. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

After a Senate committee proposed postponing cannabis legalization so that Indigenous leaders could have a seat at the table, a federal agency on the file has responded —  the problem is with the current system, and putting off legalization won't fix that, it says.

"The current system is not working — Canada has some of the highest rates of youth use of cannabis, the illegal market is thriving and Canadians continue to be subject to criminal prosecution for possession of small amounts of cannabis," said Health Canada in a statement to CBC News.

"Delaying the legalization and regulation of cannabis would not change this." 

CBC had asked the federal justice department for their response to Northern community leaders who were concerned about a lack of consultation from Indigenous groups.

Indigenous communities from across the country told us they are not ready.- Senator Scott Tannas

On May 1, the standing Senate committee on Aboriginal peoples called on the government to delay legalization.

The committee said that bureaucrats needed to better consult Indigenous leaders about preventing substance abuse in their communities and about making it easier for Indigenous communities to profit in the burgeoning market.

"Representatives of Indigenous communities from across the country told us they are not ready," said the deputy chair of the committee, Senator Scott Tannas in a press release.

"We listened. The government should too."

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson is on the committee.

He told CBC that Indigenous groups have been left out of the "excise tax bonanza" of money that will come from the cannabis industry.

The Senate committee heard from 23 witnesses before preparing the report. It said that consultation of Indigenous communities had been inadequate. 

Patterson said that much of the federal government's outreach to Indigenous communities happened after the drafting of the bill.

"That's not how to do consultations," he said.

Patterson said during a tour of Nunavut communities earlier this year, he heard from elders who worried about the correlation between schizophrenia risk in youth and cannabis use. He also heard from high school students who thought legalization would increase access to the drug and be bad for school attendance.

Patterson also pointed to Nunavut Tunngavik and the Assembly of First Nations; he says both groups have called for a delay in cannabis legalization.

Task force talked to Indigenous groups: department

Health Canada responded to CBC saying that in 2016, the government "mandated a task force" to talk with several groups, including Indigenous governments, about how cannabis should be legalized.

That task force names 407 groups and experts to thank them for being involved.

CBC has counted that, along with the Government of Nunavut, ten groups that advocate for Indigenous peoples were acknowledged, including the Assembly of First Nations, the Listuguj Mi'gmaq Government and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Two elders were also consulted.

More people contributed, but it's unclear how many Indigenous people that would have been, because people who did not meet the task force in person were not named.

"In addition to the in-person consultations, the task force received approximately 30,000 submissions," notes the Health Canada statement to CBC.

The department says federal representatives have been to "at least 50 meetings with First Nations, Inuit and Métis across Canada, with leaders, Elders, service providers and other experts from across sectors" in the past few months.

It also says that it is working to make things easier for Indigenous groups that want to grow medical cannabis.

"Upon application, a licensing professional reaches out to self-identified Indigenous applicants, and offers to provide assistance and answer questions regarding the application process," the statement says.

"Currently, there are four licensed producers as well as 14 applications that have identified affiliations, including financial or other partnerships with Indigenous communities or organizations."