British Columbia

From lumber to leaf: How mill workers could become pot growers in Burns Lake

An Indigenous owned company hopes to open a marijuana cultivation facility in an idle lumber mill in northern B.C.

Indigenous company hopes to create jobs by cultivating cannabis inside idled northern mill

Nations Cannabis wants to transform an idled mill in northern B.C. into a marijuana production facility (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

An Indigenous-owned cannabis company wants to replace vanishing forestry jobs with new jobs in pot production in a northern B.C. mill town. 

Nations Cannabis is holding a job fair this week in Burns Lake, B.C., as it prepares to transform an idled wood products mill into a large marijuana production facility.

"Here's a project that could replace a number of [forestry] jobs," said Wesley Sam, executive director and founder of Nations Cannabis.

"A lot of the locals are looking forward to a new industry in town." 

Sam hopes cannabis profits will rejuvenate local Indigenous communities and create up to 60 jobs in construction and cannabis cultivation.

"I just see an opportunity for a brand new industry that basically you don't have to be in the big city to do," he said.

Nations Cannabis hopes to hire up to 60 people for construction and cannabis cultivation in northern B.C. (Nations Cannabis/Contributed )

The marijuana initiative comes as the region's forestry fortunes are flagging.

The community has faced  a deadly mill explosion, wildfires, and a devastating pine beetle infestation that killed great swathes of forest and reduced the supply of timber.

"We're running out of wood here in Burns Lake," Sam said. "This is where the pine beetle epidemic started and the beetle destroyed our forests." 

'What if we lose one of our mills?'

"This caused quite a bit of anxiety for the First Nations and people working in the forest industry," said Sam, who served as a band chief and village councillor for years. 

"What if we lose one of our mills? Well, here's a project that could replace a number of [mill] jobs," he said.

Wesley Sam stands outside the idle mill he hopes to convert into a marijuana production facility. Sam served as a band chief and village councillor in northern B.C. before becoming executive director of Nations Cannabis. (Supplied by Nations Cannabis )

Burns Lake Mayor Dolores Funk said she believes "absolutely" in the prospect of new jobs.

"The timing is almost perfect," she said. "We're very excited to welcome Nations Cannabis into our business community. We're fortunate they've chosen to locate here. They will play an important role in diversifying our economy."

Diversifying the economy

Nations Cannabis plans to renovate a former wood specialty mill in nearby Decker Lake, so that 25,000 square feet of marijuana can be cultivated in a three-tiered production facility.

Six local First Nations are partners, and the municipality has approved the rezoning. The company said it has cleared a security review but still requires final Health Canada approval. 

Sam said the cannabis he hopes to grow will be branded as a "First Nations product."

But he acknowledges some Indigenous traditionalists oppose the facility. So do several churches in the area. 

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.

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