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Politicians and bureaucrats get an earful at Indigenous Cannabis Conference

OTTAWA – Over 300 delegates attended the second National Indigenous Cannabis and Hemp Conference (NICHC) held on the unceded territory of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan on February 19-20, 2019.

The conference was notable for involving high-powered Canadian cabinet ministers responsible for Canada’s legalization of cannabis efforts such as Bill Blair, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, and Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Health. Top level bureaucrats such as Todd Cain, the Director General of Licensing and Medical Access for the Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Branch at Health Canada and Mohan Denetto, the Director General of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada were also present.

The conference was organized by Isadore Day and his group Bimaadzwin Consulting, and Howard Silver, the owner of the Metropolitan Conference Centre in downtown Calgary and the operator of Silver Shows, a trade show company. The conference was a follow up to the first NICHC gathering that was held on the territory of the Tsuut’ina Nation in Calgary, November 18-21.

In terms of its agenda, the conference was highly biased towards the Canadian government’s point of view. Ministers and government bureaucrats were given pride of place, and grassroots Indigenous dispensary owners were removed from the agenda at the request of Health Canada, who threatened to pull their funding and sponsorship from the conference if any “unregulated” Indigenous cannabis dispensaries were formally listed as appearing on the agenda.

This led to the awkward situation of the conference organizers removing the speakers and logos of the Pikwakanagan Cannabis Business Association (PCBA) from the agenda, even though they had paid to sponsor the conference, and the conference was happening on their own unceded lands. Rob Stevenson, the owner of Medicine Wheel Natural Healing, an Indigenous cannabis dispensary in Alderville First Nation, was also removed from the print version of the agenda. However, while Indigenous dispensaries were not listed in the formal program, both Stevenson and the PCBA did end up making their presentations during the lunch breaks of the conference.

By acceding to the threats of Health Canada to pull funding, the conference organizers lost an opportunity to make Health Canada and Federal and Provincial government representatives recognize and engage with the people who are running the Indigenous cannabis industry in their home communities.

It is unclear whether or not the Provincial and Federal Governments will claim that their attendance and presentations at the NICHC conference constitute “consultation” or “engagement” with Indigenous peoples on the cannabis file, but the fact that the government used its financial influence to limit the people and perspectives being discussed to only those already within the Canadian regulatory structures, should be a clear indication that this conference was no true dialogue, and not a meeting of equals, but an event carried out in accordance with the will of the government. As if to underly this fact, Canadian flags were the only national symbols displayed on the stage.

Government Challenged

While Government officials made tone deaf presentations of all the complex regulatory restrictions that they made up without consulting Indigenous people, conference goers pushed back.

Tim Barnhart of Legacy 420 in Tyendinaga questions Health Canada’s Todd Cain.

Tim Barnhart, the owner of Legacy 420, the first Indigenous cannabis dispensary to open in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in 2015, asked a pointed question to Health Canada and INAC concerning the nation-to-nation relationship that is supposed to underly Crown-Indigenous affairs in the era of reconciliation. “What’s reconciliation to sovereign nations and sovereign people when you’re standing up there and telling us how this is going to be done? Maybe reconciliation should have started four years ago when you guys started writing up this [cannabis] act.”

Todd Cain of Health Canada responded by suggesting that the Cannabis Act was a “pathway” for people who wanted to fall under Canada’s legal system.

“In every community, circumstances are a little different, and working through those opportunities has been quite an intensive exercise. But that’s the kind of commitment that we’ve demonstrated through over 100 community visits and fairly intensive dialogue with a number of communities who’ve come to us and said how can we integrate what’s happening on the ground with this new national system?”

Todd Cain, Health Canada

Unfortunately, Cain missed the point. Barnhart and others like him are not asking to be included inside Canada’s “legal” system. Instead, Barnhart and other Indigenous sovereigntists, believe that they have every right to grow their own natural medicines and use them the way they see fit on their own land. They don’t want to integrate into Canada’s system, but rather want to be left alone to develop and grow their own economy on their own terms, regulated by their own customs and conventions.

Clan Mother Noeline Villbrun addresses NICHC forum.

Clan Mother Noeline Villbrun of the Dene Nation also spoke from the floor and brought a perspective from the grassroots traditional people. Chief among her concerns was that the focus of conference presenters on commercializing and profiting from cannabis was missing the point that cannabis is a natural medicine.

… It is medicine from the land. We have all kinds of medicines and plants that existed before this Canadian government came into being as a corporation under the United States. We know the history of how they outlawed the plants, because they could not control the plants. And why? Because the plants are sovereign to our lands. So who has control over these plants? The clan mothers? The traditional healers?

Clan Mother Noeline Villbrun of the Dene Nation

Villbrun’s perspective of viewing cannabis as a medicine is one that has been advanced by many traditional people who don’t believe that any living being should be made “illegal” by governments. Instead, Canada should respect the nation to nation relationship, and acknowledge the special relationship of Indigenous peoples to natural medicines.

I’m here to remind the people that the plant that you’re talking about and that you want to legislate is our medicine. It is healing people. How are you going to help our people with policies that you’re going to create that are barriers to our medicines? Remember, the government said reconciliation. That includes reconciling our people back to the medicines. My recommendation is that this process be brought back to the people in our communities. We don’t need alcohol, we don’t need meth in our communities. We need these plants. The creator put these plants here for a reason. We need to remind ourselves that for every illness there is a plant.

Clan Mother Noeline Villbrun of the Dene Nation

Finally, Villbrun stressed that the voices of those not in attendance should be taken into account.

There are many women and clan mothers and traditional healers who are not here. Their voices need to be heard in this process. Those plants are there for the people. They are not there for industry, because industry has no heart. We know that, look what’s happening in Canada, there’s no reconciliation, I don’t see it. I see all the protests.

Clan Mother Noeline Villbrun of the Dene Nation
Mohan Benello, Director General, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

The criticism from the floor led Mohan Benello, Director General, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, to acknowledge Indigenous treaty and constitutional rights in relation to cannabis.

I thought I’d make a few comments to address the very, very important question of Section 35 rights [Aboriginal and treaty rights]. The federal government as we well know, and we heard mention of the Supreme Court, in some instances has got it right, in some instances has got it very wrong. Our department – I represent Indigenous Services, but I also work with Crown-Indigenous relations – is undertaking rights and reconciliation discussions across the country with hundreds of communities…. It’s tough work and we’ve heard some very tough and extremely valid questions. We need to look for ways to engage and at the same time realize the opportunities that are in front of us today. We can do that hopefully in parallel…. But as well there’s opportunities for dialogue with Health Canada specifically on cannabis, or with Crown-Indigenous Relations on a whole host of issues where there are concerns about Section 35, whether it be environmental assessment, forestry, fisheries, other economic activities, territorial assertions and claims. Those dialogues will continue. There is space for that.

Mohan Benello, Director General, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Building further on these statements, Benello made explicit reference to the Two Row Wampum – considered by many Indigenous people to be the “grandfather” of the treaties Indigenous people made with Crown. The Two Row is a treaty of mutually-beneficial peace, friendship and non-interference that explicitly recognizes the separate yet parallel paths of the peoples of the canoe and the people of the ship.

I think it is a challenge for all of us. When we talk about reconciliation, I often think of the Two Row Wampum and not only what that means to government, but what that means to me as an individual, as a person that lives here. So what I can commit to do is try to move forward in partnership in the best way possible. That is what I can do, and what I can commit to doing. Certainly, I know that there are concerns out there, and we’re doing our best to address that.

Mohan Benello, Director General, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

The challenges to Canadian government leaders continued on Thursday morning when both The Hon. Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Health and the Hon. Bill Blair, Minister of Border Security & Organized Crime Reduction opened the conference with their remarks.

Rob Stevenson asks a question of Ministers Blair and Petispas.

Rob Stevenson, the owner of Medicine Wheel Natural Healing, an Indigenous cannabis dispensary in Alderville First Nation, cut to the chase. Addressing the ministers, he stated, “You both acknowledged that we’re holding this conference on the land of the Algonquin people. Do you recognize their inherent sovereign right to regulate natural plant based medicines on their own territory?”

Minister Blair responded on behalf of the Liberal government, and straightforwardly acknowledged the reality of Indigenous jurisdiction.

“Let me first say that a well-articulated position for our government is that we acknowledge and respect the jurisdiction of First Nations. There are important discussions that take place on a nation to nation discussion about how both of our jurisdictions are appropriately exercised in order to protect the health and safety of our communities. It is part of an ongoing discussion, but we most certainly do recognize and acknowledge the jurisdiction of First Nations.”

Hon. Bill Blair

Like the first NICHC conference, the Ottawa conference gave ample time to proponents of government policy to explain themselves and their policies. However, unlike the first conference, there was little space made for the host nation present to clearly articulate their rights and responsibilities as Regena Crowchild did for the Tsuut’ina Nation in Calgary. However, the owners of Indigenous cannabis dispensaries did push back, and during lunch on both days, their presentations did go ahead.

Presentations from Indigenous Cannabis Dispensaries

The Medicine Wheel documentary showcases the opportunities for Indigenous cannabis.

Rob Stevenson of Medicine Wheel Natural Healing made his presentation during Wednesday’s luncheon, and played a short film showcasing the many contributions his store has made to the Alderville community. Medicine Wheel serves hundreds of customers every day, and gives back to the community in a myriad of ways. These include a payroll of over $1 million a year going to community members, donations to sports groups, and a free weekly language classes for staff.

Stevenson also spoke about the model for Indigenous cannabis self-regulation that is being developed in Alderville by the Mississauga of Rice Lake Cannabis Association. The group was formed by Alderville community members in June of 2018, and has been developing a framework for self-regulation of the Alderville cannabis industry. The Association is holding a meeting on March 9th, 2019 in Alderville and is hoping to further workshop its framework so that it can be adopted by other Indigenous communities seeking a sovereign, community controlled form of cannabis regulation.

Presentation by the Pikwakanagan Cannabis Business Association.

At the Thursday luncheon, members of the Pikwakanagan Cannabis Business Association made a presentation about their efforts to create an above ground cannabis economy in their community. As in Alderville, a half dozen Indigenous cannabis dispensaries have come together to create an association to represent themselves and advance their sovereign rights. In Pikwakanagan, cannabis dispensaries are the largest employer on reserve, providing work for about 90 members of the community of 450 people.

Next steps

In terms of where the Indigenous cannabis movement goes from here, there are a few possibilities. Indigenous dispensaries from across Ontario will be gathering in Alderville on March 9th to work on developing a common framework, while another NICHC gathering is planned for November 26-28th 2019 in Kelowna, BC. With the industry moving as quickly as it is, how the political terrain will look in 6 months time is anyone’s guess.

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