Fort McMurray First Nation getting in on Canadian cannabis boom

The Fort McMurray #468 First Nation says it will join other Canadian Indigenous communities that will grow and sell legal marijuana.

Fort McMurray #468 First Nation could reap $13M in annual cannabis revenues, according to its business partner

The Fort McMurray First Nation plans to produce medical and recreational marijuana. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy)

The Fort McMurray #468 First Nation says it will join other Canadian Indigenous communities that will grow and sell legal marijuana.

The band is planning to open a cannabis-growing facility about 40 kilometres south of Fort McMurray in July 2019.

The facility will spread out over 24,000 square feet of reserve land, with room to expand the facility's footprint tenfold, according to the band.

Called Sweet Grass, the operation could produce about 2,600 kilograms of marijuana annually, or enough to fill almost five million joints.

Brad Callihoo, CEO of the Fort McMurray #468 First Nation, said his band wants to diversify its business interests away from oil and gas development.

Workers produce medical marijuana at Canopy Growth Corporation's Tweed facility in Smiths Falls, Ont. (Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

"When the oil prices dropped, the Fort McMurray First Nation's business arm really suffered," Callihoo said.

"Chief and council really focused on economic diversification and cannabis was definitely an area that we looked at along with a few others."

'We have always dealt with plants'

The Canadian government has set July 1st as the date it plans to legalize recreational marijuana use, although changes to the bill in the Senate may delay that until August.

Alberta has opted for a private retail model and expects to license 250 stores to sell cannabis within the first year.

Artist renderings of the Fort McMurray #468 First Nation's future marijuana-growing facility. (Fort McMurray #468 First Nation)

Callihoo said the Fort McMurray #468 First Nation has been mulling the economic opportunities of becoming a supplier within the provincial and national cannabis sector for the last five years.

He said the response from band members has been positive.

"We've seen the trends of the market and where things are going and the potential of the legalization down the road," Callihoo said. "It's a plant. And as a First Nations community, we have always dealt with plants and plant-based medicine.

"It's not a negative whatsoever."

$13M in annual revenue

The First Nation's business arm, Christina River Enterprises, will construct and operate the facility.

The nation plans to raise $150 million in startup capital and will also explore setting up a dispensary on the reserve and off the reserve.

RavenQuest BioMed, a company that is partnering with the First Nation on the project, expects the facility will generate $13 million annually.

Mathieu McDonald, head of corporate communications for RavenQuest BioMed, said the facility will create 20 to 40 local jobs in a variety of areas, such as cultivating, packaging  and shipping the marijuana.

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David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.