More than an illegal pot shop


author: john loeppky | editor-in-chief 

jeremy davis

Indigenous sovereignty meets cannabis on Muscowpetung First Nation

Muscowpetung First Nation has opened a cannabis sales operation that the province has deemed illegal. The store is seen by Saskatchewan as being in defiance of the law because it does not have a license to operate. The Qu’Appelle area First Nation claims in response that they are protected under the rights of Treaty 6 that allowed for a so-called medicine chest agreement. Thus, the two sides are at an impasse that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

This may be easy for me to say as a white settler, but I think both sides here are cherry-picking what sides of the law they want to agree with. The Province, by shifting blame and responsibility to the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA), is refusing to cooperate with a community that is trying to benefit from a change in rules that could allow the community to embrace long-held benefits of marijuana, practicing agency with a First Nation-based business. Allowing this business means allowing Muscowpetung to be enriched through it, embracing the notion of Indigenous sovereignty in more than just name only. Muscowpetung in turn, infusing their business as I’m sure they would with traditional understandings of cannabis, could only help the province and its people both on and off reserve. In a written release as quoted by CTV, the chief said of the move to open the store something to this very effect.

“Along with recreational use, Muscowpetung will be focused on using the cannabis plant to promote overall community health benefits and potential economic development opportunities.”

At the same time, however, Muscowpetung has stepped afoul of the law in a way that has angered the province. We are, as usual, in new territory when it comes to cannabis legalization, and I think that this debate was bound to occur. The Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations has, predictably and rightfully, come to Muscowpetung’s defense – but where does that leave us? The answer is that we are left with yet another us versus them debacle that is in absolute defiance of the TRC and the essence of the way both our province and the Indigenous people of Saskatchewan say they want to move forward.

In speaking to CJME, Justice Minister Don Morgan said that he and the government would welcome talks, but that Muscowpetung is making an error.

“‘The wrong way to work through is just by starting out by breaking the law and saying ‘now let’s sit down and talk,’” Morgan said. “The better way would be to sit down and say ‘these are things we’d like to do’ and we would say ‘of course, glad to have the discussion with you.’”

Here’s the problem with Morgan’s argument, though: our Provincial government has a horrendous track record when it comes to having meaningful discussions with Indigenous people on important issues. One only has to look to the way they handled the Justice for Stolen Children Camp to see that this government is not interested in their own conversation and rather wants the essence of colonialism to rule the day. What’s the point of talking in the way Morgan suggests if the Province isn’t willing to have those conversations? Presumably, Muscowpetung thought it best to rely on a risky argument of Indigenous sovereignty instead (their argument being that Treaty 6’s contents apply to the earlier Treaty 4). This along with Saskatchewan’s legal argument are sure to make it to court, but as we have seen over and over, this province cannot be trusted to create a fair legal framework when they themselves are involved.

The editor voice in my head is telling me that this opinion piece needs me to come out on one side at this point, so, here goes: the government should embrace the opening of the store on Muscowpetung as a clear act of support for Indigenous sovereignty, and should be clear that a regulatory body – made up of leaders within the community, jointly led by members of the FSIN and SLGA, perhaps – decide on all future licenses on First Nations. This body (that exists entirely in my head) would operate with the understanding that a license for First Nations will not be reasonably withheld, but that a full business analysis be required. This way, the government avoids the fear of a free-for-all while the sovereignty of Indigenous nations is still respected.

Is this a likely solution? In a word: no. Neither side will want to make concessions, but I think it’s a far better route to take than the legal one. I can’t see into the future, but I can say that I don’t see Muscowpetung winning this particular legal battle.

If Saskatchewan and Muscowpetung can come to an agreement that benefits both sides, they can be on the front line of adjusting to new legislation: on the front of a movement, rather than behind it. In fact, a 1985 Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada report puts the approach this government should be taking in plain sight. The report, prepared by John Leonard Taylor, put forward that the treaties are not bound to only their original verbiage.

“They were meant to last forever and, accordingly, must be flexible enough to suit changing circumstances… Otherwise, they would be a mockery of the addresses made in the name of the Queen at the treaty negotiations. They require reinterpretation in every age in order to fulfil both spirit and terms.”

To me, this issue is just another opportunity for reinterpretation that the Sask. Party is unwilling to buy into.

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