Sask. First Nation says it's ready to challenge province's pot jurisdiction

Some First Nation communities that were left off Saskatchewan's list of places eligible for a cannabis retail store say they may open stores anyway, challenging provincial jurisdiction over reserve land when it comes to pot.

Chief says White Bear First Nation band members will decide whether the community opens a cannabis store

Both Sakimay First Nation and White Bear First Nation have expressed interest in becoming cannabis retailers, but Saskatchewan has not included them on the eligibility list for a permit. Provincial jurisdiction over cannabis is something that both reserves are ready to challenge in court. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Some First Nation communities that were left off Saskatchewan's list of places eligible for a cannabis retail store say they may open stores anyway, challenging provincial jurisdiction over reserve land when it comes to pot.

Nathan Pasap, Chief of White Bear First Nation, said the First Nation's leadership is interested in becoming a retailer for medicinal and recreational marijuana and they are creating their own laws for self-regulating in their community.

He said once the laws are in place they will move forward with opening their own retail location as long as the band membership consents.

"If the provincial government wishes to challenge us or shut us down then we're going to end up in a judicial process because they failed to consult us... both the federal and the provincial government," said Pasap.

Pasap said regardless if the membership is in favour or against becoming a retailer, the failure to consult is still a major issue.

40 communities eligible

Last week the Province of Saskatchewan announced its cannabis legislation which included a list of 40 communities eligible for 60 retail permits. On the list were three First Nation communities: Onion Lake Cree Nation, Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

The province said in an email, "the initial allocation of retail store permits will be in municipalities and First Nations with populations of at least 2,500 people."

The email also stated that the province will reassess the effectiveness of the initial allocation and may provide additional opportunities 12-18 months after legalization.

Previous jurisdiction challenge over casinos

Pasap said "our relationship is with the federal government." 

"There is case law that supports it historically."

In 1993, White Bear First Nation opened up Bear Claw Casino without provincial approval.

Pasap said the decision to open up the casino was based on exercising the reserve's own jurisdiction as a sovereign nation. That resulted in the casino being raided by masked and armed RCMP officers not long after the casino opened. 

The case ended up going to before a judge, "[and] It was thrown out of the provincial court because of jurisdictional reasoning," said Pasap.

The court case and actions of White Bear First Nation at that time eventually led to a gaming framework agreement between the province and Saskatchewan First Nations.

​Sakimay First Nation also interested

Sakimay First Nation is also interested in becoming a cannabis retailer and provincial jurisdiction over cannabis retail doesn't sit well with the chief.

"Anytime there has been an attempt by the province to assert jurisdiction such as gaming, tobacco and gas sales, there has always been unilateral imposition of provincial statutes," said Sakimay First Nation chief Lynn Acoose.

Lynn Acoose, chief of Sakimay First Nation, said she supports White Bear First Nation and any other First Nations in Saskatchewan that are planning on exerting their own jurisdiction over cannabis sales. Sakimay First Nation is also interested in becoming a cannabis retailer on its urban reserve properties. (CBC)

Acoose said in terms of gaming, "[Premier] Brad Wall was actually trying to determine how First Nations spend their [Community Development Corporation] dollars... out of our [provincial] gaming revenue."

In terms of exerting First Nations jurisdiction over cannabis retailing, Acoose said, "I'm with Chief Pasap on that."

"I'll support White Bear if they want to take a stand again or [other] First Nations. If they choose to take a stand, then that's what we need to do," she said.

"I don't think that we should necessarily be accepting the way that both the federal government and provincial governments are willing to absorb us into their legal framework. We've compromised enough in terms of jurisdiction."

Acoose added that the more that governments impose laws upon First Nations people and their children, the more traditional laws become diminished.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a statement that the key issue for First Nations is jurisdiction. 

"First Nations, and not the federal or provincial governments, must determine the rules around the use and sale of marijuana on reserves," he said.

The assembly passed a resolution in 2016 that called on Canada to ensure First Nations who are interested in the cannabis industry can take part in the new economic opportunity.

Permits not transferable 

The cannabis legislation announcement last week by the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) indicated that the selection of the 40 communities was phase one of the province's cannabis legislation. Those communities have the option to opt in or opt out.

Phase two will be conducted for permits only in municipalities that have not opted out of becoming a cannabis retailer.

In a case where a community is eligible for three permits, "If 40 individuals/businesses express interest in operating in that community and qualify through phase one of the selection process then the 40 individuals will be placed in a draw for the three opportunities," the province said in an email.

The email went on to say if a community has opted out of applying for a permit, that permit will not be reissued to another community in the province.


Brad Bellegarde

Reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Saskatchewan

Born and raised in Treaty 4 Territory, he holds an Indian Communication Arts Certificate from the First Nations University of Canada and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Regina. Follow him on Twitter @BBellegardeCBC