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Pot-shop lawsuit ‘a big smokescreen,’ says Long Plain First Nation chief

‘The province wants obviously direct control of anything and everything,’ Dennis Meeches says

CBC News • Jul 04, 2021

The province is taking Long Plain First Nation to court over the operation of a cannabis shop on its territory in Portage la Prairie. (Indigenous Bloom Corporate )

The chief of a First Nation being sued by the province over the operation of a cannabis store on its treaty lands says the legal action has nothing to do with health and safety and everything to do with Indigenous sovereignty. 

“It’s a big smokescreen,” Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches said Saturday, in response to a lawsuit filed Friday in which the province is seeking a court injunction to shut down the Indigenous Bloom store at 79 Keeshkeemaquah Dr. in Portage la Prairie. 

“It’s a very, very important issue for us. It’s a matter of defending our sovereignty and our relationship with the Crown. In light of all that though, the province is taking a hard-line approach,” Meeches said. “We’ve always maintained we are a sovereign nation within a sovereign state.” 

The province wants the store shuttered for operating without a licence from Manitoba’s cannabis regulator and selling product not supplied through Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, according to its statement of claim.

“The attorney general takes this step in the public interest … To protect public health and safety, to protect the integrity of the established legal framework for cannabis sales in Manitoba and to protect the interests of all Manitoba cannabis retailers … that participate in the legal system,” the province said in a news release issued Friday afternoon. 

It is very rare for the government to issue media statements about the litigation it chooses to pursue and also make available to the press copies of related statements of claim.  

Meeches argues the cannabis the store sells is approved by Health Canada, so claiming safety issues doesn’t wash. The province contends the product isn’t authorized under Canada’s Cannabis Act, “and is therefore illicit.” 

Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches says he’s prepared for a long legal fight if it comes to it. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

It’s supplied by B.C.-based Indigenous Bloom, a self-described Indigenous cooperative which has 10 First Nation-partnered stores which the province considers “unregulated.” The company is a named defendant in the lawsuit. 

The store began operating under the Indigenous Bloom brand in April. It formerly was a Meta Cannabis Supply store, one the province said was compliant with the law from October 2018 until its license ran out last July. 

Government ‘social responsibility fee’ a thorny issue 

There’s been a long-running dispute between Long Plain and the province about aspects of Manitoba’s cannabis regime, including an MLCC-imposed “social responsibility fee” charged to retailers based on sales volume, he said. 

Meeches likened it to an “indirect tax” that chafes against tax exemptions First Nations peoples have on reserve. 

“I think the province wants obviously direct control of anything and everything that happens … within this province and especially, I think, with Indigenous files,” Meeches said. 

Meeches singled out Premier Brian Pallister for criticism as the person he suspects is forcing the issue. 

“It’s a difficult issue, but there is no economic reconciliation here in this province under this premier,” he said. 

As of Saturday evening, the store remained open.

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