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This article was published 8/9/2017 (991 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — A Manitoba First Nation has become a major investor in a nationwide chain of cannabis distribution clinics, as Indigenous groups eye economic opportunities in the budding marijuana industry as a step towards reconciliation.
Today, National Access Cannabis will be publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, with Opaskwayak Cree Nation holding the largest share of the company.
"The war on drugs is over, now it’s the war on poverty, for us to create economic opportunities for First Nations," said Opaskwayak Chief Christian Sinclair, who believes it’s historic to see an Indigenous group hold the largest stake in a publicly traded company.
The marijuana clinic has locations across the country, including Winnipeg, where nurses help people with a legal prescription find the right product. That could be marijuana to smoke or in pill or oil form, which are mailed to the customer through the existing legal framework.
"This isn’t a rubber-stamp organization; this is very above-board," said the company’s chief executive officer, Mark Goliger, noting all dispensaries in Canada remain illegal.
Today’s valuation is around $30 million, and Goliger says Indigenous people should play a key role in the possibly lucrative legalization of marijuana. "It’s fairness; how do we put people on equal footing for resources and opportunity?"
Meanwhile, a prominent Manitoban is trying to get reserves on-board with the idea of cultivating marijuana.
Phil Fontaine, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, claims more than 100 First Nations across Canada are interested in his business venture. It is led through a cultivation company called Cronos Group, which focuses on medical marijuana but is eyeing recreational sales.
"I believe, this would probably be the most important expression of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canada," he said in a recent interview. "Reconciliation is so complex and multilayered. There isn’t just one definition."
Fontaine, who hails from Sagkeeng First Nation, 145 km northeast of Winnipeg, notes studies suggest Indigenous people are disproportionately jailed on drug charges, and marijuana has roots in various First Nations medicinal practices.
Fontaine believes it would be righting a historical wrong to see reserves working their way out of grinding poverty by selling marijuana.
Fontaine said Indigenous people are often the last to profit from resource extraction, whereas cannabis is a burgeoning industry. "We have an opportunity to be at the starting point."
He said it’s possible First Nations growers could be exempt from certain taxes, though Ottawa is still working out the details on its July 1, 2018 deadline to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Fontaine admitted there’s a stigma — people from a handful of First Nations wouldn’t tell the Free Press whether they’re considering the issue. He also rejected the word "marijuana," which historians argue U.S. officials took up to make cannabis seem like a foreign danger.
As for National Access Cannabis, Sinclair said it was mostly a business decision for Opaskwayak, located more than 500 km northwest of Winnipeg, to invest in the company. "We wanted to invest in an area that was very low-risk but also brought a professional look and feel to the industry."
Goliger said Sinclair will help the company find Indigenous producers to work with once those groups get cultivating, which can take years.
Goliger also said Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is missing the mark in asking for a delay in legalizing recreational marijuana. He said the province has entrepreneurial Indigenous groups and a business-minded government that shuns monopolies.
"I think Manitoba could be the shining example to the rest of the provinces on how to do this."
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"
Updated on Friday, September 8, 2017 at 12:32 PM CDT: Minor tweaks to wording.