'Blazing a new trail': OCN's new cannabis store believed to be 1st to open on a reserve

Starting Wednesday, there’s going to be a new pot dealer in town on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation — a legal dealer.

'It's historic and exciting for Opaskwayak Cree Nation,' says Onekanew Christian Sinclair

Opaskwayak Cree Nation Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair made the first purchase at Meta Cannabis Supply Co. in Winnipeg on Oct. 17. Now he's getting ready for the first store to open in his community. (Jordan Popowich)

Starting Wednesday, there's going to be a new pot dealer in town on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation — a legal dealer.

The First Nation is opening a new legal retail cannabis store in the northern Manitoba community's mall — believed to be the first such store on a First Nation in the country.

"It's very unique and interesting for us, and a new way of doing business for us, which is what makes it exciting for Opaskwayak — blazing a new trail and [being] pathfinders in this new industry as we move forward," said OCN Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair.

Sinclair said Meta Cannabis Supply Co. has a modern look and will feel like a shop that wouldn't be out of place in downtown Toronto. It will have eight different strains of cannabis, starting at $8 per gram, available for sale when it opens at noon Wednesday.

"I think that customers will be very happy."

The First Nation owns 51 per cent of the store, with the other 49 per cent owned by managing partner National Access Cannabis. The First Nation is the largest private shareholder in National Access.

Customers browse products at Winnipeg's Delta 9, shortly after it opened for business on Oct. 17. OCN's new cannabis shop will have eight different strains available for sale, starting at $8 a gram, for when it opens to customers at noon Wednesday. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

OCN believes it's the first legal store to open on First Nations land in Canada, but Sinclair acknowledged there are already cannabis dispensaries, which the government considers illegal, operating on other reserves.

Some of the dispensaries are being run by Indigenous retail owners who assert their sovereignty to do so.

Sinclair said the OCN store will serve an area of about 30,000 people, and the retailer has already been getting calls from customers off-reserve in nearby communities who are eager to check out the new retailer.

The reserve is located about 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, adjacent to The Pas, and has about 3,000 community members living on the First Nation.

Melissa Constant is the store manager's and could hardly contain her enthusiasm about the retailer's opening.

"I am so excited. I don't know if I can get any sleep tonight," she said Tuesday night.

Prior to taking a job with the Meta Cannabis Supply Co., Constant worked as a retail manager at a clothing store on the reserve.

"The learning experience is amazing. I can't believe that I'm actually in this kind of industry," she said. "I love it already."

The goal is to do about $5,000 in sales a day at the location on-reserve, but that's just an early estimate at this point. Sinclair said the community is leasing the retail space to the store and will benefit from profits at other National Access Cannabis stores expected to open across Canada.

"We're winning on a number of fronts," he said.

The store's goal is to create economic opportunities for the community while eliminating the black market, Sinclair said, pointing out cannabis was already being sold prior to legalization last month.

Revenue could pay off community's debt

"We're not fooling anybody by thinking this is something new that just popped up out of nowhere. The black market has been thriving off of it and with very healthy margins for many many decades."

Unlike some First Nations in Manitoba, OCN is not a dry reserve. Sinclair said about 20 years ago, the community's leadership decided to allow alcohol.

"It showed the maturity of our community in being able to allow our community to partake in those types of products, and the fact being that if they don't get it there, they're just going to drive across the bridge two minutes away and buy it in the local establishments [in The Pas]," he said.

"So why not be a part of that market and show that our community is mature like anybody else?"

Sinclair said OCN leadership has been working hard behind the scenes for about 14 months to get into the cannabis industry.

He said revenue from sales will be used to pay off debt the community has and could be used toward language revitalization, health and recreation.

How the First Nation spends its money will be based on guidance from community members, and "it has to find a balance of economic interests as well as social interests," Sinclair said.

The First Nation owns 51 per cent of the store, with the other 49 per cent owned by managing partner National Access Cannabis. The First Nation is the largest private shareholder in National Access. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The new store has 12 employees so far, 11 of whom are members of OCN. The other employee is from The Pas, Sinclair said.

National Access Cannabis, meanwhile, is on the verge of hiring over 700 employees right now to work at different retail locations across Canada, he said.

The company will open 16 stores in Manitoba alone, with a new location set to open soon on the Long Plain First Nation, Sinclair said.

The retailer isn't growing product itself. Instead, it's getting the cannabis from licensed growers.

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin has had an itch for news since he was young. He landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country.​ Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca