Quebec chief urges caution as First Nations look to capitalize on pot legalization

As several First Nations communities consider entering the recreational cannabis business, one prominent Quebec Indigenous leader is sounding alarm bells.

Kahnawake to hold public consultations on potentially getting into the recreational marijuana market

The Liberal government tabled a bill to legalize pot by July 2018. (Ron Ward/Canadian Press )

As several First Nations communities consider entering the recreational cannabis business, one prominent Quebec Indigenous leader is sounding alarm bells.

Businesses have approached Indigenous communities in the province in the hopes of setting up pot-production operations, attracted by the tax-free status on reserves.

Given the federal government's plans to legalize marijuana by July 2018, some anticipate pot-production could develop into a multi-billion dollar industry. 

But Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, questions whether First Nations in Quebec have the resources to accommodate such an industry.

Ghislain Picard, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, says there needs to be more consultation with communities about legalizing marijuana. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"If I look around me today, the concerns regarding the bill, and eventually the law, certainly outweigh the economic opportunities," Picard told CBC Montreal on Friday.

"Speaking of public safety, for instance, we're not equipped the same way the provincial police is equipped, or municipal police of that matter. It's much broader than just recreational aspects and the medical aspects of the product."

Picard argues there needs to be more research and program development before communities enter the commercial marijuana market.

"How do we ensure that a product that is still illegal, which will become legal, how do you make sure you have programs that will prevent abuse?" he asked.

Exploring what's out there

The issue has prompted mixed reactions from First Nations communities in Quebec.

The Huron-Wendat community of Wendake recently rejected any kind of pot business on its territory. But Kahnawake, located on Montreal's South Shore, is considering its options after companies approached the band council.

Chief Gina Deer, who is in charge of Kahnawake's economic development portfolio, contends that recreational marijuana could bring a new source of money and create employment opportunities for the Mohawk territory.

"We've told people that until we meet with the community we can't give a definite answer," said Deer. "It hasn't stopped us from exploring what's out there because this is going to be a very big industry."

The federal government introduced a bill to legalize recreational cannabis by July 2018.

Residents for the most part seem to be in favour of legalization and are excited by the prospect of more local jobs. Their support, though, does come with some caveats.

"I think it would be a good idea because of the jobs, but I think it would be safer for the community, making sure it stays out of anybody under the age of 18 hands," said Ciera Lahache.

Investing back into communities

Deer also says that extra financial support would help Kahnawake fund cultural programs that are integral to its survival.

"Our big stride is to regain the language, the culture — we'd like to invest in that," she said. "That's why we go out looking for economic opportunities."

Kahnawake has been approached to set up pot production facilities.

Kahnawake will hold public information sessions with residents in May, but it could still be years before a project breaks ground.

Picard, however, is urging caution. He wants more consultations between First Nations and the federal government in the near future to address both concerns and potential benefits.

"I think there needs to be more talk," he said. "We're meeting our chiefs in less than two months and this issue is definitely on the agenda."

With files from Jay Turnbull, Tim Fontaine and CBC Montreal's Daybreak