'We're absolutely not ready': Quebec's pot bill concerns Indigenous communities

After the province unveiled its marijuana bill, Indigenous leaders in Quebec are calling for more frontline workers and strengthened police services as their communities brace for recreational marijuana use.

Leaders worry about police services, resources needed to deal with recreational marijuana

The village of Kuujjuaq in Nunuavik will need more resources to deal with the legalization of marijuana. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

After the province unveiled its marijuana bill, Indigenous leaders in Quebec are calling for more frontline workers and strengthened police services as their communities brace for recreational marijuana use.

Quebec and Labrador Assembly of First Nations Chief Ghislain Picard said there are concerns about dwindling resources in communities that are already stretched thin.

"Many leaders spoke about substance abuse and how much you know this act will add to the burden that is already heavy on the communities," said Picard.

"The fact of the matter is that our communities, Indigenous communities, have been doing a lot of intervention, more intervention probably than prevention so that's another issue."

Bill 157 outlines Quebec's framework for the distribution and consumption of marijuana when it becomes legal across Canada on July 1, 2018.

As part of that bill, the province states it is will enter into agreements with Indigenous communities to adapt to their realities — but some are staunchly against the idea all together.

In Northern Quebec, Kuujjuaq Mayor Tunu Napartuk said he's worried about what the legalization of marijuana will mean for his young and isolated village, where more than half of population of 2,400 is under 21.

"If there was a way to convince any level of government of not legalizing marijuana, I would use that tool but at this point," said Napartuk.

Nunavik health board has trouble recruiting. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Consultations with the provincial government in the fall made leaders feel as though it was already too late to debate bringing marijuana into their communities, leaving many with what Napartuk calls a sense of powerlessness.

"We'll find a way to cope with it and as if life is not complicated enough in our communities, we're thrown another wrench."

A spokesperson for Quebec Health Minister Lucie Charlebois, Bianca Boutin, clarified that if Indigenous territories want to ban marijuana on their territory, that has to be negotiated with the federal government.

'We're absolutely not ready'

The province's rules have made it clear that there will be zero tolerance for motorists when it comes to smoking marijuana, and that training to bring police forces up to speed to deal with drivers who are high is underway.

Both Ottawa and Quebec, said Picard, have yet to address strengthening local police forces in Indigenous communities — where budgets are tight, training isn't on par with the rest of the province and there is difficulty in attracting new recruits.

"Our policing services are clearly, clearly not up to the same level as the capacity as any other level of police forces in Quebec," he said.

In Kuujjuaq, authorities are also scrambling to adapt. There are needs for more funding for an array of frontline workers and awareness campaigns to be in place by next summer, said Napartuk.

Under Quebec's rules for marijuana legalization, police officers will crack down on drivers who smoke up. (Shutterstock)

"Our resources, whether it's through the police force, mental health workers, information for parents and students through teachers, through our education system, we're absolutely not ready," said Napartuk.

"We're certainly going to need a lot more resources which unfortunately means we're going to need a lot more money to get to talk about this subject and it has to be done right now."

Wanting more time

What Indigenous leaders seem to agree on and are hoping for is an extension of the deadline set by Ottawa in order to have more time to deal with legal pot.

"How much resolve can we come to? Only time will tell but it's certainly an issue of importance to our communities and it is a priority because something is being pushed on us and we need to react," said Picard.

Gina Deer, a chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said it appeared that Quebec — like other provinces — is scrambling to meet the deadline set by Ottawa. 

"It just shows that they're as unprepared as everyone else," Deer said. "Nobody's prepared, and it's showing in the way they're putting out their models."

The chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, said there are concerns over beefing up police services in Indigenous communities. (Radio-Canada)

Napartuk agreed, saying that his community needs more time to adapt on a decision that's being forced on them.

"It doesn't provide enough time for many of the elected leaders throughout Northern Quebec, throughout Nunavik for how we're going to deal with this," he said. "We're still in kind of a shock that we're trying to deal with this question."

With files from Jonathan Montpetit