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Senate committee urges Cannabis Act overhaul to address exclusion of First Nations

Committee chair says situation ‘yet another example of how Indigenous Peoples are being let down by Canada’

Brett Forester – CBC News

Senate report
Senators Michèle Audette, Brian Francis and David Arnot present the findings of a study into the Cannabis Act’s impact on Indigenous Peoples on Thursday in Ottawa. (Brett Forester/CBC)

The federal health minister should amend the 2018 Cannabis Act to recognize First Nations’ right to govern the possession, sale and distribution of cannabis on their lands, a Senate committee says.

In a report tabled Wednesday afternoon, the standing Senate committee on Indigenous Peoples says many problems identified before legalization remain unaddressed, with some First Nations still blocked from the lucrative industry.

The legislative gaps have fuelled the rise of what some call a “red market” operating under First Nations sovereignty but in defiance of federal-provincial regulations, sparking jurisdictional confusion and potential conflicts with authorities.

“For the last 150 years, First Nations have been excluded from economic opportunities on their lands,” says the report, titled On the Outside Looking In.

“The committee heard that this exclusion continues today in fisheries, forestry and the cannabis market.”

Progressive Sen. Brian Francis, who is committee chair and Mi’kmaw from Lennox Island First Nation in P.E.I., called the situation “yet another example of how Indigenous Peoples are being let down by Canada.”

“Once again, a government that says it is committed to building a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect and partnership has failed to live up to its promise,” he told a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.

The committee opened its study of the Cannabis Act’s impact on Indigenous peoples in 2022 and gathered testimony from 29 witnesses. It has provided 13 recommendations in the 38-page interim report.

Report calls for revenue sharing

The parliamentarians are calling for the sharing of cannabis-related tax revenue and a review of cannabis licensing schemes to increase the number of licensed Indigenous cannabis producers. 

The report recommends research into the impacts of cannabis legalization on Indigenous Peoples’ health and urges the expert panel reviewing the cannabis law to engage with Indigenous Peoples to address outstanding issues.

These problems include, among other things, a lack of adequate consultation from the outset, a refusal to acknowledge Indigenous jurisdiction, and the lack of enforcement of First Nations cannabis laws.

Progressive Sen. Michèle Audette, who is Innu from Uashat mak Mani-Utenam in Quebec, said the introduction of the bill was a missed opportunity.

“Because our voice wasn’t there since the beginning, until today, we have to do reports and remind Canada we are here and we need those recommendations to be implemented,” she told reporters.

Boreal Cultivation cannabis leaf
The federal government passed the Cannabis Act in 2018 but left out a mechanism for First Nations to regulate cannabis on their territories, says the standing Senate committee on Indigenous Peoples in a June 14 report. (Francis Tessier-Burns/CBC)

The report says several witnesses raised the idea of the “red market” where Indigenous nations or communities can partner to trade expertise and do business with each other but what exists instead is a countrywide patchwork with some First Nations cutting deals with provinces while others insist on their right to self-govern.

First Nations police, the report says, often lack resources to enforce cannabis regulations, while provincial authorities may hesitate to do so given what one witness called “the sensitive relationship between First Nations and Canadian law enforcement.”

The committee is thus recommending the federal government increase cash flow to First Nations for enforcement of band-made cannabis bylaws, and address this problem through its proposed First Nations policing legislation.

It isn’t too late for the Liberals to bridge the gaps and correct the flaws in the legislation, said Independent Sen. David Arnot. 

“This is a golden opportunity for the government to act,” he said.

“There is still time for the government to improve a situation that has, once more, left Indigenous people on the outside looking in.”

A spokesperson for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in an email that his office thanks the senators for their work and “will take the appropriate time to review the report,” but isn’t in a position to comment.

New Senators 20181016
P.E.I. Sen. Brian Francis, who is Mi’kmaw from Lennox Island First Nation, is chair of the standing Senate committee on Indigenous Peoples. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


Brett Forester

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

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