First Nations call on B.C. to consider reconciliation, traditional law in cannabis regulations

Originally published on The Georgia Straight.

Some B.C. First Nations are optimistic that the legal cannabis industry could bring big opportunities for reconciliation and economic development to their communities.

As part of B.C.’s cannabis regulation engagement process, the province requested that interested stakeholders provide input to lawmakers ahead of a November 1 deadline.

Five First Nations, bands, and councils from across the province submitted their thoughts to the government, including the Hagwilget Village Council, Kamloops Indian Band, Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, Lake Cowichan First Nation, and Ucluelet First Nation. (All stakeholder submissions can be found here.)

Concerns for safety

Although some touched on a few of the same themes—two even appear to be nearly identical—one relatively short letter from a community in northern B.C. expressed concern for the effects that legalization might have on its residents.

“As a small First Nation community in B.C., we have been the casualty of both the federal and provincial governments of the day,” begins the letter, written by Chief Dora Wilson of the Hagwilget Village Council in New Hazelton, B.C.

The council has mixed feelings about the legalization of nonmedical cannabis and has been working to curb the ongoing sale of illegal drugs and alcohol in Hagwilget by enforcing a resolution that any member caught selling illegal drugs will be exiled from the village.

Although Wilson gave no recommendation with respect to proposed regulations, she urged the government to consider the safety and well-being of not only Hagwilget residents but all British Columbians.

Cannabis protected by traditional law

Not far from Hagwilget in Gitanyow, cannabis is playing a very different role. In his submission on behalf of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, Chief Wil Marsden describes the effects of cannabis on his community as positive.

“It is the opinion of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs that cannabis and other medicinal plants on the Lax Yip (traditional territory) must be protected and available to continue healing the Aluugigyet (the People),” he writes.

He shares details about a program run by the community for the last six years that provides members of Gitanyow and Gitxsan First Nations with access to cannabis oil and the education needed to use it.

Several members dealing with conditions like cancer, diabetes, and fibromyalgia have found relief, while others have used it to help remove their dependence on alcohol and other drugs.

Marsden asserts in the letter that medicinal herbs and plants found and cultivated on traditional territory are protected under “Ayookxw”, or traditional law.

Totem poles in Gitanyow.

In a phone interview with the Straight, he added that by having the oil made on request and offering it for free, residents are given an affordable, safe option for pain relief.

He writes that Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs have plans to operate an on-reserve dispensary that will offer “a safe and secure supply of medicinal plants” to its members. In addition, they want the community to be involved in other capacities, like operating cannabis co-ops and greenhouses and cultivating hemp.

Among their recommendations, they suggest a minimum age of 19 for purchase and use, and no additional possession limits. Gitanyow chiefs also encourage the government to supplement planned education for British Columbians with information about the health benefits of cannabis and its relationship to the endocannabinoid system.

“Mass education of the endocannabinoid system would mean a whole lot more understanding, and probably a lot less reefer madness,” Marsden said.

Publish roadside test results to ensure accuracy

In its submission to the province, the Kamloops Indian Band (Tk’emlups te Secwepemc) speaks specifically to provincial regulations, and recommends a minimum age of 19 to buy, grow, and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis.

The band takes a different approach to public consumption by suggesting that smoking cannabis in public be prohibited but that cannabis vaping be permitted wherever tobacco smoking and vaping are allowed, citing its reduced odour.

“In addition, banning public cannabis smoking could help avoid normalizing cannabis use,” it continues.

Another recommendation made by the band is to test and publish the results of the roadside-testing devices used by the RCMP “to show whether they are accurately measuring drivers under the influence”.

On the note of home cultivation, it suggests that nonmedical cannabis be grown outdoors in greenhouses that are not visible from beyond the property and are inaccessible to children.

An opportunity for economic development and reconciliation

In their separate submissions, Chief Councillor Georgina Livingstone of the Lake Cowichan First Nation and President Les Doiron of the Ucluelet First Nation (Yuułuʔʔatḥ) make almost identical recommendations to the government.

Among overlapping suggestions is a call for the province to strike a First Nations steering committee to provide input on how legalization will affect Indigenous communities throughout the province.

Although both nations support the province’s priorities, both express a desire “for the regulations to support community economic development and reconciliation with First Nations”.

As such, they support the implementation of a rule that a minimum percentage of products from First Nations cultivators be displayed in cannabis retail outlets.

Both nations’ submissions point out that improper regulation planning “may lead to higher rates of criminalization of First Nations peoples”, and look back to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s omnibus crime Bill C-10 as an example.

Livingstone and Doiron each write that the Tackling Contraband Tobacco Act showed “a heavy-handed approach” toward the enforcement and criminalization of the growing and selling of illegal tobacoo, something that some First Nations were very involved in.

In a phone interview with the Straight fom Ucluelet, Doiron spoke to some of the challenges that legalizationcan bring to modern-day treaty holders and self-governing nations.

“Being a modern-day treaty nation means we have relinquished our rights and benefits of taxation,” he said. “That’s why we need to find a way to become self-sustainable.”

He added at that on-reserve dispensary is likely a good early target for the nation, and that the land they sit on provides other opportunites to generate a tax base, “just like any other government”.

“We are an infant at six years of self-governing,” he said. “Canada has been a government for over a century, and they’re still making mistakes. The challenge is real.”