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N.S. First Nation councillor acquitted of cannabis charges

Decision in case of Chris Googoo means treaty rights challenge in provincial court will not be heard

From CBC by Richard Cuthbertson April 5 2024

A constitutional challenge by a councillor for a Nova Scotia First Nation who has claimed a treaty right to sell cannabis will not go ahead this summer after a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to show he was operating a dispensary raided by police in 2020.

Judge Jill Hartlen acquitted Chris Googoo this week in provincial court in Dartmouth, N.S., on counts of possession of cannabis for the purpose of distributing and selling it.

Googoo has been public in recent years that he runs two dispensaries, named High Grade, even noting it on his campaign website when he successfully ran for re-election to council this year for Millbrook First Nation.

At a trial last fall, however, his lawyer argued the Crown had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Googoo had knowledge and control of the contents of the High Grade cannabis store in Cole Harbour, N.S., when it was searched by police, according to Hartlen.

The acquittal is a turn of events for a case that had been set to test whether the Mi’kmaq have a treaty or Aboriginal right to sell cannabis outside Nova Scotia’s regulated system, where all sales must be through the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp.

Lawyers for the Crown and defence had already exchanged briefs on the question, and dates for the challenge under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitutional had been set for July.

A store building is shown.
The High Grade store is shown March 28 on Millbrook First Nation reserve land in Cole Harbour, N.S. (Melissa Oakley/CBC)

Googoo’s lawyer, Jack Lloyd, said in an interview Friday that his client faced the potential of jail time if convicted. Googoo did not testify at trial, and the defence called no evidence.

“We have a massive over-representation of Indigenous people in our jails,” Lloyd said.

The decision means there will be no constitutional challenge related to treaty rights in the case. However, Lloyd said Googoo will seek to challenge cannabis laws in Federal Court, where he doesn’t risk incarceration if he loses.

Some Mi’kmaq who say they have a right to sell cannabis have pointed to the Treaty of 1752, which says “said Indians shall have free liberty” to bring to sale “skins, feathers, fowl, fish or any other thing they shall have to sell.”

The Crown has countered that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that to prove a treaty right, there must be evidence the item was being traded at the time the treaty was signed, or it was “reasonably contemplated by the parties to the treaty.”

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Duration4:21Unauthorized stores selling cannabis continue to open despite provincial regulations. Some are operated by Mi’kmaq claiming they have a treaty right. The right to sell cannabis is escalating into a contentious legal and social battle ground. Richard Cutherbertson reports.

Only two witnesses, a pair of police officers, were called at Googoo’s October trial. Both testified they were at High Grade when it and four other cannabis stores on Millbrook reserve land in Cole Harbour were searched by police on Dec. 23, 2020.

Both testified a man they did not know, but later identified as Googoo, drove up in a pickup truck during the search and began yelling at police.

One officer testified that his best recollection was the man was “saying it was his property,” according to Hartlen, but his notes from the day indicated Googoo had been “swearing about being on Native land” and demanding police leave the property.

Another officer testified that Googoo arrived, started livestreaming the scene on his phone, and was saying that police were on “federal Crown land” and “your powers don’t work here.”

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There was nothing found during the search of the High Grade store, which at the time was a trailer, to link Googoo to the shop, the judge said. She said no deed or ownership paperwork was submitted as evidence.

The Crown argued the inference should be drawn that Googoo owned the store, but the judge said another inference could also be drawn — that Googoo simply had “very strong opinions” about police powers to search dispensaries in Indigenous communities.

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