Canada’s First Nations lobbying to be included as equal partners in recreational market

A newly-formed organization is working to ensure that indigenous communities across Canada can benefit from the legalization of pot next year

The National Indigenous Medical Cannabis Association (NIMCA) advocates for indigenous rights in relation to medical and recreational cannabis. The association’s mandate is broad, from putting pressure on the government to adjust the proposed Cannabis Act, to providing a forum for indigenous producers and retailers and encouraging indigenous self-regulation and determination on the issue.

According to Clifton Nicholas, NIMCA’s Quebec representative, the aim is “to be included as equal partners” in the roll-out to July 2018.  “It is our sovereign right to use cannabis and to make it an economy,” he explained, “without any interference from the government.”

Nicholas was elected to NIMCA’s board in late March when the organization met in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in southern Ontario to choose representatives from all 10 provinces. The association was spearheaded by Tim Barnhart, the owner of Legacy 420, a medical cannabis dispensary operating on the territory.

Tyendinaga is a beacon of hope to the indigenous cannabis industry; Legacy 420 is one of eight medical marijuana dispensaries in operation there.

While there has been talk of dispensaries opening on Kanesatake Mohawk Territory near Montreal, and in Innu and Algonquin territories, Quebec is still a long way off this point, according to Nicholas. Quebec is notoriously a “hard nut to crack,” and Mohawk territories have a fractured history with law enforcement when it comes to cannabis, stretching beyond the 1990 Oka crisis. “We are vulnerable, we are targeted often, if we open [a dispensary] in their face it’s going to be shut down the next day,” Nicholas said.

More political will, he said, is needed to reverse these attitudes in the province, NIMCA will have to “create more education and work a little harder to get Quebec on board with what the rest of the country is doing.”

Nicholas’ first step in Quebec is to ensure that the board is both multilingual and has gender parity, alongside ensuring that all indigenous communities across Quebec are represented, including the Inuit, “a group that gets excluded often,” he said.

Nicholas believes there is a “big economic opportunity” for indigenous communities in the labour-intensive industry, adding that there “are people who have the expertise, who have been doing this for decades and who don’t want to be in the shadows anymore.” Ideally, Nicholas would like to see the emergence of “collective dispensaries” that share wealth and benefit the broader community.

Moreover, he believes the decriminalisation of pot is crucial for communities like his in Kanesatake, given that they “are impoverished, and are criminalised more often than not by cannabis production.”

While statistics on rates for indigenous and non-indigenous convictions on cannabis charges are not available, Bill Blair, former Toronto police chief who headed the government task force charged with plans for national legalization, acknowledged that abating marijuana-related crimes was a key reason for new legislation.

Speaking at the Liberal Caucus in February, he said that some of the “great injustices in this country” are the disparate and disproportionate police enforcement of marijuana laws, and “the impact that [this] has on minority communities, aboriginal communities and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods.”

Despite Blair’s comments, the government has remained tight-lipped on whether it will grant pardons for historic marijuana possession convictions.

Nicholas is hopeful that the government will adjust the Cannabis Act both to leave less holes for the black market to exploit and to take control out of the hands of corporate industrial producers. He said that in the current proposal, “you need to be a millionaire to be above board—and you don’t see many indigenous people running around with that kind of capital.”

NIMCA is also hopeful that access to marijuana will be the medicine needed to help members of indigenous communities’ fighting addiction, in particular to opioids.

In 2014, the Obama administration released a memorandum which said that US attorneys would not prevent Native Americans from growing and selling marijuana on sovereign lands, even in states where the practice was still banned.

- Cecilia Keating

Featured image by M A N U E L..

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