Nova Scotia

High hopes for Queens County marijuana producer as feds tackle backlog

The days of relying on a steady paycheque from a job at a pulp and paper mill are over in Queens County, but there's hope a medical marijuana producer could provide a spark for the area's economy.

'Now there's hope,' says former Bowater employee now working on the project

Myrna Gillis, CEO of Aqualitas, is hopeful recent changes to the marijuana licensing process speed up her company getting approval. (Emma Smith/CBC)

The days of relying on a steady paycheque from a job at a pulp and paper mill are over in Queens County, but there's hope a medical marijuana producer could provide a spark for the area's economy.

Aqualitas still needs a licence from Health Canada, but the company has taken over a building in Brooklyn once owned by the Bowater-Mersey paper mill, which shut down in 2012.

"It's pretty exciting in the sense that now there's hope," said Trent Hupman, a former Bowater employee whose contracting company HRS Industrial has been hired by Aqualitas to carry out the renovation.

Hupman and his team are working on turning a 70,000 square-foot building that once stored paper into a high-tech pot plant.

Aqualitas will grow cannabis in water using a process that involves live koi fish that provide nutrients to the plants.

CEO Myrna Gillis said she expects cultivation could begin as early as 2018, at which time another 45 people would be hired.

The company could get its first inspection by November, she said. It will then need a second inspection before it is licensed to sell product.

Last year, Health Canada approved 10 licences for companies across Canada to produce medical marijuana. So far this year, 13 producers have received the OK. None are in Nova Scotia.

Trent Hupman worked for Bowater in the 1980s and is now building a new marijuana production facility at his former workplace. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Health Canada made a number of changes that it says speeds up its ability to review and process applications. One change is that reviewing an application no longer requires some parts of the other processes to be already finished. For example, security clearance for employees no longer has to be complete for the rest of the application to proceed.

Aqualitas has signed a 10-year lease with Nova Scotia Lands, the Crown corporation that manages the former Bowater property.

Gillis said Queens County was an ideal location and cited a highly-skilled workforce "and that's everything from science positions to security positions to skills that would be transferrable to cultivation."

Aqualitas is still one of 428 medical marijuana companies across Canada waiting for the federal government's green light. Fifteen applications are from Nova Scotia producers.

Aqualitas is building a 70,000 square-foot production facility in a former Bowater building. (Emma Smith/CBC)

It's something the mayor of Stellarton, N.S., is all too familiar with. His community has been waiting since 2014 for a medical marijuana company called Vida Cannabis to get the go-ahead from Health Canada.

"It was bogged down for a couple years, so the community kind of got discouraged not knowing if it was going forward or not," said Mayor Danny MacGillivray.

In January, his council sent a letter urging Health Canada to speed things up. MacGillivray's advice to other municipalities is to follow Stellarton's lead and show the federal government why this industry is important to rural Nova Scotia.

While Aqualitas has promised to bring about 60 jobs to the area, it's the future possibilities that excite David Dagley, the mayor of the Region of Queens Municipality. The company has its eye on another 10 hectares of land that's next to its current facility.

Region of Queens Municipality Mayor David Dagley is hopeful a marijuana production facility will be a big boost to the region's economy. (Emma Smith/CBC)
"With growth comes the need for more product, more employees to produce that product. So it's all good news," said Dagley.

He worked for Bowater for nearly three decades and although he had retired by the time it closed, he saw more than 300 people lose their jobs.

Neither Dagley nor Hupman expected pot to be the industry to replace pulp and paper in Queens County, but they're not complaining.

"It's a lot brighter right now," said Hupman.

With files from CBC's Information Morning