Legal weed paying off for ambitious BC First Nation

Published on March 18, 2022 by Penticton Herald

Photo: Joe Fries/Penticton Herald
Chief Willie Sellars and cultural co-ordinator David Archie of the Williams Lake First Nation perform a tradition song Friday during a blessing ceremony at the WLFN’s new Unity Cannabis shop in Penticton.

While some Indigenous communities in BC have embraced the grey market for cannabis, the Williams Lake First Nation has taken a different approach that embraces the law.

That decision has paid off handsomely for the WLFN, with officials on Friday performing a cultural blessing at its Unity Cannabis shop in Penticton, which is the third such store it has opened in BC

Chief Willie Sellars, who attended the ceremony, said in an interview afterwards the decision to keep everything above board was grounded in economic and safety reasons.

“We wanted to have the ability to open a bank account legally. We wanted to make sure that the product on the shelves that the membership and community is going to be accessing is Health Canada-certified and safe, and we wanted to have the ability to ensure we take care of the people who are working in these stores,” says Sellars.

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“We truly feel this is the future of the cannabis industry is the legal route. That being said, we also understand that the legal route is going to continue to evolve to make it more user-friendly and appealing to First Nations communities to go down this route.”

In the Okanagan, some First Nations communities have allowed cannabis shops to proliferate on their lands without licences from the BC government or channels to secure a legal supply of weed. There were more than 30 such outlets in the Southern Interior as of last fall, including six on Penticton Indian Band land alone.

As a result, grey-market bud is often much cheaper than what’s found on the shelves at licensed shops like Unity Cannabis, which also has outlets in Williams Lake and Merritt.

By contrast, the WLFN in 2020 signed a unique government-to-government agreement with the province that allows it to operate eight retail stores—provided the shops are licensed and supplied with Health Canada-certified product—along with a production facility that will eventually offer farm-gate sales.

That 7,000-square-foot facility recently went into operation with a micro-cultivation licence under which it can produce 650 kilograms of bud annually, according to Sellars, who led extensive community consultation to secure a mandate to dive head-first into cannabis as a means to improve WLFN members’ lives and fund the restoration of language, culture and traditions.

“It’s going to take an investment, not only in cash but in time, and that’s exactly what we’re striving for,” says Sellars.

— Joe Fries