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It’s unfair to describe unlicensed cannabis dispensaries on First Nations land as “illegal” because the shops fall squarely within Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, says a B.C. advocate.

“It is really important to me that people in British Columbia and people around the world have the correct information in this reconciliation era. In British Columbia, this land is unceded land. The First Peoples have jurisdiction over matters that affect them on unceded lands. Canada is only now coming to terms with this,” said Mike McKenzie, a member of the Secwépemc Nation in the Kamloops area, in an email.

McKenzie reached out to the Okanagan Newspaper Group in response to an article published last Saturday regarding a $40-million lawsuit against the B.C. government launched by a group of licensed cannabis retailers who claim the province’s failure to follow through on a promise to curb unlicensed on-reserve weed sales has put them at a competitive disadvantage.

According to McKenzie, who serves in a voluntary capacity on an advisory group examining cannabis use and mental wellness on behalf of the First Nations Information Governance Centre, the lawsuit has it all wrong.

“There are no black markets or illegal cannabis markets in B.C. that are operated by Indigenous peoples because Indigenous peoples have pre-contact rights that weren’t recognized until a short time ago,” he said.

“Those rights are now recognized by Canada, the provinces, and the United Nations in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, specifically the right to self-determination and more.”

Since cannabis was legalized in 2018, some B.C. First Nations have created their own licensing schemes based on the understanding they’re not subject to provincial legislation, while four others have signed nation- to-nation deals with the B.C. government to obtain licences that way.

The Okanagan Newspaper Group has made numerous attempts to get comment from some of the local First Nations that have permitted cannabis dispensaries on their lands, but those efforts have been met with silence. McKenzie isn’t surprised.

“I think that Indigenous peoples are reluctant to speak to the media about this for a few reasons.

“First thing is that the lawsuit is inherently racist. I am not saying the media or the lawyers who drafted it, or even the dispensaries, are racist. I am saying that Canada is inherently racist,” said McKenzie, who has held positions within the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and served on the board of the West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation.

“If you look at the lawsuit, the lawyer wrote it the way it is written in legislation – (but) calling us ‘Indians’ and calling our land ‘Her Majesty’s’ is incorrect. People took offence to Trump when he wanted to number Muslims. Not many people take offence when Canada calls us ‘Indians’ and calls our land ‘Her Majesty’s.’”

McKenzie even conceded a few points to the lawsuit.

“I agree with licensed retailers who complain they’re being forced to compete on an uneven playing field. However, the governments moved forward the reconciliation agenda while moving forward legalization of cannabis. In my opinion, this (provincial) government didn’t want these people to know that Indigenous peoples were taking back jurisdiction,” he said.

McKenzie also acknowledged another concern raised in the lawsuit about on-reserve products potentially being unsafe because they’re not regulated by Health Canada standards.

“With that being said, stoking the fire against sovereign peoples on unceded lands is not going to change things in a good way,” he added. “The government made this mistake and is continuing to make mistakes at our expense as Indigenous peoples.”

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