Yukon First Nations see potential opportunity in cannabis industry
'We know it is starting to happen out there, all we are trying to do is to see if it works for us'
Stigma may once have kept First Nations from talking much about cannabis, but as perceptions shift and legalisation approaches, some are wondering about the business opportunities.
In Yukon, some First Nations leaders say they have been researching the growing industry in hopes of getting in on, or near, the ground floor.
The Carcross/Tagish Management Corporation has been talking to grow operations elsewhere in Canada, to figure out whether it's feasible in Yukon.
"Well, we are looking at seeing whether or not cultivating cannabis is the right thing to do at this point," said Nelson Lepine, chief executive officer of the management corporation.
"We know it is starting to happen out there, all we are trying to do is to see if it works for us in terms of the direction that we are going," says Lepine.
The First Nation predicts a cannabis growing operation could create 20 to 30 full time jobs in their community — such as a master grower, quality assurance positions, harvester/trimmer positions, and so on.
The idea is on the agenda for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation's next meeting this summer.
Growing commercial cannabis for recreational use may be a tough sell, though, for some First Nations citizens.
"Well, I think it's changing as the generations evolve," says Steve Smith, Chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
"Some of the concerns are coming from our elders who, when they were young, you know, marijuana or grass or whatever you wanted to call it had a real negative stigma," Smith says.
Peter Johnston, Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), agrees.
"People think it's the 'Devil's lettuce,' or whatever it is referred to as," he said. "This is what's going to wipe us out, if anything."
Johnston says cannabis has been discussed at CYFN leadership meetings, and it's not always taken seriously.
"You know everybody kind of laughs. It is kind of a funny topic, because you are talking about weed," he said. "It is something that is almost fictitious in our world, yet it's been here forever, right?"
Johnston thinks that the dangers of legalisation are sometimes overstated.
"The fact that some people think that the kids are going to have easier access to it — I believe it's totally the other way around."
Smith says elders have expressed those very concerns.
"What is the impact on our people? Is legalization going to make it more accessible and more readily available to our young people? And what could be some of the consequences?" Smith asks.
'I don't think they understand'
Kwanlin Dun First Nation elder Jessie Dawson believes it's a matter of education, to dispel any stigma around legal cannabis use.
"It hasn't been discussed this openly right across the country. And with the elders, I don't think they understand fully, you know," she said.
"They are probably associating it to other hardcore drugs, like the opioid crisis we are having right now."
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation chief Bruce Charlie in Old Crow says some elders have legitimate questions — for example, about the health impacts of cannabis.
Old Crow is Yukon's only fly-in community, and alcohol is prohibited there. But Charlie says the community will not try to keep cannabis out.
"Well, it [will] be legal, so we had a fairly extensive discussion on the cannabis," he said.
He says he would like to have a discussion about what the economic benefits of cannabis could be for his community
'We are approaching a date that will give this drug legalization, and it puts us in uncharted territories. It's going to be challenging," he said.
Do the homework, says B.C. grower
Even if First Nations decide there is a good business case for growing cannabis, Mike Fontaine is urging caution.
He's the vice president of Indigenous Roots, a medical marijuana business based in B.C. He says there are plenty of people who will try to take advantage of the situation.
"You know, fast-talking salesmen going around saying, 'we'll get you this, we'll get you this.' There is nobody in Canada that can ease access to getting a [growing] licence," said Fontaine.
"It's a process everybody has to follow."
He says it is important for interested First Nations to do their homework, because growing legal marijuana is not a simple backyard greenhouse operation.
"You are essentially building a medical facility. You are not operating out of a garage, for instance. You are operating out of something with key-codes between each section of the building. You're essentially having to wear a hazmat suit to go into a sterile environment where the plants are growing," he said.
Indigenous Roots is a joint venture with Cronos Group, a medical-marijuana grower licensed by Health Canada. Once it is fully operating this summer — with a 3,000-square foot growing facility in B.C. — its profits will be split evenly between partners, First Nations, and Cronos.
Fontaine says they are licensed to produce nearly a ton of cannabis per year.
"This is one of the first industries in Canada where First Nations specifically have an opportunity to enter the space at the ground floor, as opposed to having an already-developed industry and, you know, come in after the fact," said Fontaine.
"I think it's important for First Nations to recognize the opportunity, and then to also jump on it. But at the same time, to jump on it pragmatically with your eyes wide open."