On Wednesday the Ontario government released details of the next phase in the licensing of cannabis retail stores. The result is that the door has now been opened for local entrepreneurs to apply to set up shop in the Valley. This is because of the 42 new licences that will be granted across the Province, seven have been allocated to Eastern Ontario. Also, unlike the first wave, there are now no population restrictions which means that any municipality which opted in is up for grabs.
In addition to online availability, currently, Valley residents, if they take the half-hour drive to the Pikwàkanagàn First Nations reserve at Golden Lake, are spoiled for choice. There are eight dispensaries located on the reserve. However, none of these is operating under licence from the Province, if for no other reason than the first licensees were limited to municipalities with a population of at least 50,000. Pikwàkanagàn has 450 residents.
But also on Wednesday the government announced that in a separate process it will licence a total of eight stores located on First Nations reserves throughout the Province. As there are already estimated to be at least ten times that number operating on reserves today, the stage is set for the continuation of the tension that has been brewing ever since the Ontario government implemented its licensing regime.
What is the likelihood of some of these “illegal” vendors participating in the lottery with a view to legitimizing their operations? The answer would appear to be “don’t hold your breath” based on the statements made by First Nations representatives following Wednesday’s announcement. Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald told Global News on Thursday, “Limiting those number of stores is contrary to what we call community sovereignty – that is, those communities making their own decisions whether they are going to operate a retail cannabis operation. It’s an attempt by the government of Ontario to assert its jurisdiction where it doesn’t belong.”
Last November Jamie Kunkel, the owner of Smoke Signals which has a chain of dispensaries across five different First Nations communities, told The Financial Post, “We are not licensed by Canada or Ontario. We are on indigenous land and we have the right to do business on our land as original peoples of this land.”
Ontario’s attempts to include First Nations retailers within its legal framework runs the risk, therefore, of being frustrated. If it attempts to close down the First Nations shops once the new licencing lottery has completed, it seems inevitable that the issue of sovereignty will continue to be the elephant in the room. This carries with it the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal battle.
What this means is Valley residents, many of whom are used to shopping at Pikwàkanagàn for their (discounted) tobacco and gasoline supplies, will be able to do so for cannabis products indefinitely. This scenario should probably deter potential Valley pot vendors at least until the picture becomes clearer.