Spirit River Cannabis challenges the status quo of big retail cannabis in Canada
An unlicensed, Indigenous-owned cannabis retail store has opened its first urban location in London, Ont., looking to claim space in a crowded marketplace by selling cannabis its own way — potentially setting the stage for a major test of Ontario’s cannabis retail laws.
Maurice French, 51, a self-described entrepreneur from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, held the grand opening of the Spirit River Cannabis trading post on Saturday. The London store is the newest in his fleet of three dispensaries, located in Ipperwash, Melbourne and Chippewas of the Thames — and the only location inside a major urban centre.
Spirit River’s debut puts it in direct competition with more than 40 private cannabis retailers in London, whose operations are not only licensed but tightly regulated by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).
Under the AGCO’s rules, retailers may not promote their products as “medicine, health or pharmaceuticals,” must charge all applicable taxes under the law and must source their products from a federally licensed producer.
By contrast, French sells his product tax-free, promotes it as traditional medicine and says it is 80 to 90 per cent “sourced by First Nations people.”
‘We’re exercising our constitutional rights’
“We’re exercising our constitutional rights and our treaty rights to fend off economic genocide,” French said. “This is a medicine.”
The AGCO would not comment on French’s arrival in the marketplace, saying only that his store is not licensed by the provincial cannabis regulator.
French said that while he is not provincially licensed, he still follows strict standards, selling cannabis under the bylaws and safety protocols laid out by the North Shore Anishnabek Cannabis Association.
“Our rules are similar,” he said. “Our product is all tested and sampled.”
French’s store might be new, but it’s by no means the first Indigenous cannabis store to sell its wares on its own terms inside a major urban centre.
Mississaugas of the Credit Medicine Wheel has a number of outlets across Ontario, including three in Toronto and, like French, operates under the premise that it’s offering medicine, while fighting back against “economic genocide.”
Owner not looking for a fight
However, French said he’s not looking to start a fight with the authorities; he’s simply asserting his rights as an entrepreneur and a Chippewa man.
“We’re only here to be amicable. We didn’t come here to cause friction,” French said.
“We’re trying to work with the city, the landowner, because truth and reconciliation and decolonization is a big thing right now. The mayor recognizes it before their meetings that they’re on traditional territories and traditional lands.”
That land acknowledgement was cited in letters written by French’s uncle, adviser, clan chief and longtime Indigenous civil rights activist Del Riley. The two men personally delivered letters announcing their intentions to open the store and sell cannabis within city limits to London Mayor Josh Morgan and London police Chief Steve Williams on Nov. 24.
“It’s the law of the land. We’re enforcing the Constitution of Canada, and we’re doing it peacefully,” Riley told CBC News.
“Our rights come from our nation, and the province of Ontario is not a nation. It has to go to the federal government every time we have issues on aboriginal and treaty rights, they have to run to the feds. They can’t do it themselves.”
Mayor and police chief decline comment
London’s mayor and police chief declined to comment to CBC News. French said he hasn’t yet received a response from either the police service or city hall.
It isn’t clear what, if anything, authorities can or will do. The Ministry of the Attorney General did not return a request for comment from CBC News, and several experts in law, Indigenous culture and history declined to offer analysis on the story.
If anything were to happen, French said he believes he has legal precedent on his side.
The Crown threw out its case against him in May after his dispensary on Chippewas of the Thames, where the sale of cannabis is illegal, was raided by the Ontario Provincial Police in 2018. After the raid, he was charged in December 2018 under the Cannabis Act with possessing cannabis for the purpose of selling.
French, with his lawyers — along with the assistance of Riley and his lawyers — launched a constitutional challenge against the charges, where they argued the band council’s ban on dispensaries was an infringement of French’s constitutional rights and the rights of patients who purchased his products.
According to court filings in the case, French’s lawyers argued that the OPP raid prevented “Aboriginals from dispensing medical cannabis in-person to Aboriginal patients.” This denied them “the Aboriginal approach to traditional healing and plant medicine,” which is enshrined as an Indigenous cultural right under S. 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
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Maurice French now hangs the relevant sections of Canada’s Constitution outside the door of his London store as a reminder to everyone, including his staff, his customers and the authorities.
“We as First Nations have a traditional right to sell our medicines on our territories,” he said.
Chief Jacqueline French of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News.