Saskatoon

How First Nations are leaving their mark on the cannabis industry

Indigenous investment in the weed business is strong in Sask., but only one First Nation has been willing to open up shop on-reserve.

Weed sales on Sask. reserves limited, but First Nations investment in industry expanding

5 Bud Cannabis in Warman is owned by a consortium of four First Nations development corporations. (Submitted by Athabasca Basin Development)

Delbert Wapass will be paying close attention when two new Prairie Records cannabis shops open up in Saskatoon on April 20 — also known as 4/20.

The business advisor for Thunderchild First Nation was chief when the reserve became the biggest investor in Westleaf, the company opening both locations.

The $8 million investment, made more than a year ago, came with an announcement that Westleaf is building a 10,700-square-metre production facility on Thunderchild-owned land near North Battleford. If things go according to plan, weed that will end up in those shops could start growing on that land as early as December.

'We wanted to get in where it counted'

Prairie Records is owned by Westleaf, which Thunderchild is the primary stakeholder in. (Prairie Records/Facebook)

Wapass, who is on the Westleaf board of directors, said he is not worried about whether the Prairie Records shops will succeed. There's already a Prairie Records shop in Warman and five more planned in Alberta.

"We researched where the trends are, what should happen, where should we invest and we didn't want to get in after the fact — we wanted to get in where it counted, in the beginning," he said.

This is how his First Nation operates, he said. It makes savvy investment with groups like Westleaf, "who understand capital markets, who understand Bay Street."

The benefits for Thunderchild include alleviating financial pressure on band members for education, health and housing. The production facility will also provide jobs, both during construction and once it's built.

The facility is expected to employ 150 people once it's up and running.

Getting the lay of the land

Thunderchild isn't the only First Nation in the province with a stake in physical pot stores. Dozens of First Nations have investments in shops, either directly or via larger tribal councils.

Battleford Agency Tribal Chiefs is expected to co-open Nipawin's first cannabis shop with a company called Green Tec Holdings later this year.

5 Buds Cannabis, which has shops in Warman and North Battleford, is owned by a consortium of development companies for Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, Prince Albert Grand Council, English River First Nation and several Athabasca Basin First Nations. The company plans to open another store in Yorkton this summer, according to Sean Willy, president and CEO of the English River company, Des Nedhe Developments.

Sean Willy is CEO of the Des Nedhe group of companies. (Sean Willy/Twitter)

Both Prairie Records and 5 Buds have delved into the online world as well. That hasn't been as successful for 5 Buds as initially hoped, Willy said.

"The black market's still alive and well and running through the online portals and there doesn't seem to be a hurry to shut those down at this time. It's just a bit frustrating that there's not a push to shut those avenues down," he said.

On-reserve sales

Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation, located in the Fort Qu'Appelle area northeast of Regina, has the only publicly advertised on-reserve cannabis shop in the province. It does not have a permit under the legal cannabis framework set up by Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Association (SLGA).

Muscowpetung opened doors on the Mino-Maskihki shop in mid-November. The shop's Facebook page says it sells medicinal and recreational cannabis.

Other provinces, Ontario in particular, have seen weed shops pop up on-reserve only to be raided by police soon after.

Muscowpetung filed documents in court in November seeking a declaration that it has the power to sell and regulate cannabis under the constitutional rights of Indigenous people in Canada.

The filing has not officially been served to the Justice Ministry, according to spokesperson Jennifer Graham. She added that discussions between the province and Muscowpetung are ongoing.

Muscowpetung's choice to create its own cannabis laws and operate outside the province's system has thus far only been met with a warning from the province.

Justice Minister Don Morgan said he wants the shop to voluntarily close down and encouraged Muscowpetung to follow the SLGA approval process, but said he was leaving it up to police to decide whether enforcement is needed.

On-reserve sales hesitation elsewhere

There are three Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan — Onion Lake Cree Nation, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and Lac La Ronge Indian Band — that are SLGA-approved to apply for a licence to sell marijuana on-reserve.

Onion Lake Chief Henry Lewis said his nation was initially under the impression that being approved for a permit meant it could open up a shop in Lloydminster.

Chief Henry Lewis says Onion Lake has no current ambitions to open a cannabis shop on reserve. (Onion Lake Cree Nation)

It wasn't until after Onion Lake bought a vacant medical building in the city that it realized the approval only applied on reserve. For now the building in Lloydminster is sitting empty, but Onion Lake is considering applying later to open up a shop in the city, Lewis said.

A shop on-reserve was never a logical choice for them, Lewis said, considering Onion Lake is a dry reserve.

"It should be treated no different from alcohol," he said.

"They'll go off reserve and purchase [cannabis] since it's legal now, it's a given. So why not capitalize on that?"

Other than Lewis, chiefs of First Nations who have money invested in the cannabis industry declined comment for this story or did not respond to calls from CBC.

It can be a touchy topic, said Andrew Gordon, the Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances & Community Engagement at Kiaro — a company that is opening the first legal cannabis store in La Ronge in May.

Andrew Gordon, Senior Vice President of Kiaro, is set to open a cannabis shop in La Ronge next month. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

"Cannabis is something that is definitely new, and unprecedented, and unfamiliar for a lot of people so we are definitely mindful of the concerns in the community," he said.

"You have to engage, you have to inform and you have to empower to really change hearts and minds to end the stigma that surrounds cannabis use and cannabis retail in the community."

Wapass said there will always be detractors, but Thunderchild's investments have mostly received positive feedback.

With files from the Stefanie Taylor, Canadian Press, Brad Bellegarde and Jason Warick