AKWESASNE — It has been nearly a year since the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service raided dispensaries on Cornwall Island, an action that sparked a political crisis in the community that culminated in an angry protest a few weeks later, where a police car was stolen and burned.
Since then, the age-old divisions enflamed by the raids have calmed, for the most part. There have been no more raids on cannabis dispensaries on the island, and several new storefronts have opened – including a new longhouse-affiliated dispensary.
The police, meanwhile, appear to have shifted tactics by going after the supply of cannabis instead of the dispensaries themselves and have made several large busts in recent months.
But while the situation is much calmer, the conflict between the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA) and people of the longhouse over the dispensaries, and who has the right is issue licences for them, is continuing in court.
The legal team of one of the men arrested on the raid on the longhouse-run Wild Flower dispensary, Jared Jock, is planning to argue that the Canadian constitution’s protections for Aboriginal rights guarantees the longhouses’ ability to run their own dispensaries without MCA approval. The MCA, on the other hand, has rejecting an offer by the Crown to resolve Jock’s criminal case through a restorative justice process that might require a compromise of its own position.
Jared Jock is the proprietor of Wild Flower and the son of Roger Jock, the Bear Clan representative at the Indian Way Longhouse, which issued the licence for the dispensary. Jared Jock is facing two charges of possession of illicit cannabis for the purpose of selling it, as well as two counts of breach his release conditions, which included a rule he not return to his dispensary on Cornwall Island. The business was back up and running within days of his arrest, however.
Jock’s lawyer, Michael Crystal, said their legal strategy will be to argue that Section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives Jock and other people of the longhouse the right to sell cannabis without a licence from the MCA.
“He has what we are arguing is a legitimate authorization from the members of his community (the Indian Way Longhouse,) and the MCA is suggesting that because he did not apply to them for a permit under their bylaws that he is operating outside the law. We take issue with that on a constitutional basis,” said Crystal. “Under the constitution, he has a right to engage in this activity because he belongs to the longhouse tradition and, through that authority, he was granted permission.
“We believe that it is recognized that such activity can be authorized.”
The section of the constitution being referred to protects Aboriginal rights, but does not provide a clear-cut definition of what those rights are. It is generally understood to mean the ability to enforce treaties, to have Aboriginal title to traditional lands, as well as the ability to fish, log and hunt. Arguing this section empowers longhouses to license cannabis sales within First Nations appears to be a novel interpretation.
“We intend to argue that there is a vacuum when it comes to the rights of all Indigenous people when it comes to selling cannabis on First Nations lands,” said Crystal.
The Crown counsel in the case is offering a way to resolve the charges against him that would sidestep constitutional arguments about the powers of the longhouse versus the MCA. She suggested it could be resolved through a restorative justice process. This is where an offender meets with representatives of his community where they discuss the crime and the impact it has had and finds a consensus for setting things right.
Doing so would have required assurance the MCA would be willing to take part in such a process. It is not.
In a letter to the prosecutor on Jan. 27, Grand Chief Abram Benedict explained the MCA is standing firm on the principle it is the only body that can issue a legitimate cannabis licence in Akwesasne, and that community laws must be obeyed.
“It is not in the interest of the community as a whole to offer restorative justice in this instance,” wrote Benedict. “The actions being defended by the accused in this court are in direct violation of the Akwesasne Interim Cannabis Regulations. There appears to be an obvious disregard for the community laws of Akwesasne, and this is why the MCA is so strongly opposed to offering restorative justice as an option for this defendant.”
The MCA has been on the verge of issuing the first round of its own cannabis licences to businesses that have gone through the three-to-six-month application process for several weeks. Businesses the Standard-Freeholder spoke to a few weeks ago said they were expecting their MCA licences at any moment.