Burns Lake-based Nations Cannabis is set to become the first Indigenous band in British Columbia to operate a licensed Cannabis growing facility. A leader in the Indigenous cannabis business, Nations Cannabis is currently going through the late-stage federal licensing process. Their goal is to be fully approved, operational, growing and marketing its product as early as possible in 2020.
Former Burns Lake First Nation Chief and Municipal Councillor Wesley Sam is a company founder and executive co- chair of the fully Indigenous-controlled production company. “We started the application process to acquire a standard cultivation license through Health Canada last August, through the Navigator program – which guides all applicants,” said Sam. “We are a late-stage applicant. We recently received word that a high-level review of the application has been completed. That’s a positive sign, indicating the application is moving through the process as planned and there are no areas of concern.
Sam insisted that the company be based in Burns Lake to ensure that the company was developed through an Indigenous-lens, which encompasses more than simply growing cannabis. The Indigenous-lens philosophy means ensuring the local economy and Indigenous people in the region benefit from a social and economic standpoint. Nations Cannabis will provide jobs with wages necessary to support a family, return 5 percent of earnings to meaningful social and economic impacts for local communities and Indigenous populations, and develop health and education partnerships with lasting benefits. Operating through an Indigenous lens also means not going public.
Sam says that full-time employees are still needed in Horticulture and Plant Maintenance; Facility Maintenance; Finishing and Packaging; HVAC and Mechanical; Agricultural Pest Management; Business Administration and IT; Quality Assurance and Control; and Security and Storage. These positions are in addition to the employment opportunities associated with construction and the re-purposing of the Burns Lake Specialty Wood Building that has sat empty for years. Phase I should see up to 50 hires within the first year.
Once construction of the cultivation facility has been completed, Nations will move into the next stage of the process, which involves providing an “Evidence Package” demonstrating the building and appropriate security systems meet mandated requirements. The next stage involves growing product for the purpose of providing samples to Health Canada – Evidence Control – to ensure they meet all required guidelines and standards. It is at that point that a license would be granted. And of course, once a license is granted, there is an ongoing monitoring and inspection process.
Burns Lake is a northern interior community with a population of approximately 2,000 people located at the junction of Highways 35 and 36, which carries thousands of people to the town for shopping, banking and other needs. Six local First Nations call the region home – Burns Lake; Cheslatta Carrier; Lake Babine; Nee Tahi Buhn; Skin Tyee; and Wet’suwet’en). The cultivation facility is not on reserve land but is on First Nations land owned by the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, which has six directors, one from each local First Nation band.
The community’s proud tradition and history has been put to the test by the downturn in the forest industry, which has been the lifeblood of the region for many years. This makes the development of Nations Cannabis more important because of the role it can play in providing jobs with wages suitable to support a family.
Sam says that Burns Lake fully backs Nations Cannabis. “We have consulted with and have received the support of Burns Lake and the Regional District, and are meeting zoning requirements and obtaining building permits,” says Sam. “We have consulted with neighbours who are near the cultivation facility, hosted a community meet and greet in April, and continue to reach out to groups and organizations in the region. We also have the support of the local First Nations [all of which own shares in Nations] and support of the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation.”
Sam and his business colleagues attended the recent Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Cannabis Summit in Vancouver. First Nations Drum asked Sam to share feedback his team received from other First Nation leaders and business operators.
“I believe First Nations want to be a part of this industry because they can see some possibilities for addressing issues like employment and poverty through this form of economic development,” says Sam. “But they also understand there are significant hurdles they need to overcome to get there, including a long and extensive application process, the need for capital, and a solid business plan.”
On a national level, there are currently three First Nations in the cannabis-growing business. This includes the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, who, in 2018, retrofitted an 84,000 sq. ft. former bottling plant located on their land and began producing medical and recreational weed.
Akwesasne’s cannabis business is 100 percent band owned and has 75 employees. Business has been good and the band plans to expand to a 100,000 sq. ft. facility in the near future. Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), located next to The Pas in Manitoba, is another First Nation community that’s gotten into the weed business. They partnered with National Access Cannabis (NAC), in a 51/49 company ownership split. OCN and NAC focus on the recreational segment of the business and sell their products in NAC’s Meta Cannabis Supply Co. stores. They recently opened a dispensary in the OCN providing jobs for 12 Opaskwayak. The Siksika Nation in Southern Alberta hold Canada’s second largest reserve in land mass. Siksika’s goal is for 100 percent ownership.
Some people believe that cannabis use leads to hard and addicting drugs. First Nations Drum asked Sam if Nations Cannabis has programs in place to teach the positive health aspects of cannabis and also address addictions issues. Sam said that Nations Cannabis’ goal is to do more than simply grow cannabis and addressing the question of addiction is part of their mission. “We will be returning 5 percent of earnings to provide meaningful social and economic impacts for local communities and Indigenous populations,” says Sam. “That will include health and educational partnerships with Carrier Sekani Family Services and First Nations Health Authority [in-progress]. Education, as it pertains to cannabis and addiction issues, will be a focal point. We are also establishing a Memorandum of Understanding to pursue education and Cannabis Cultivation Facility in Burns Lake
research opportunities with the University of Northern BC, and this may also be an area of collaboration.”
Sam says that on a broader level, they feel Nations Cannabis can play an important role in providing natural alternative treatments to serious health issues and conditions that are prevalent in many Indigenous communities, not the least of which is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “We are keenly interested to further understand the potential health benefits of Cannabis and in any research Health Canada undertakes that may show the benefits of cannabis in treating other ailments and conditions,” says Sam. “We will be taking direction from Health Canada on medically approved treatments based on their approved research findings.”
The Indigenous perspective, says Sam, is to recognize that people are dying every day from opioids and First Nations have a duty to explore alternatives. “While not a solution to the systemic problems of health among Indigenous Peoples, Nations Cannabis can be part of the solution for treating and advocating for its People,” says Sam. “We feel Nations Cannabis will provide a strong return on investment and have all the building blocks in place to be successful, and in doing so, create some tangible and positive benefits for Indigenous Peoples in the community and region.”