By Kelsie Kilawna, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse
Members of British Columbia’s Community Safety Unit (CSU) raided Tupa’s Joint in downtown Vernon, an Indigenous-owned cannabis dispensary, and seized all of its products Wednesday, June 10.
“They took $10,000 worth of product,” says owner Cory Brewer.
Brewer, a member of the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), opened Tupa’s Joint on May 23, 2020.
The store sells cannabis and hemp products but is also a healing centre focused on cultural wellness.
But Tupa’s Joint doesn’t have a provincial license to sell cannabis.
Brewer says he doesn’t plan on getting one.
“As far as I’m concerned we’re not doing anything wrong within our territory,” he says.
Brewer also owns three cannabis shops on reserve, and with 20 staff, 18 of whom are Indigenous, is a significant employer for the OKIB.
Tupa’s Joint, his first store off reserve, opened with a letter of support from the Okanagan Indian Band.
“This is a letter of support for Cory Brewer and his associates in establishing a business in the City of Vernon called Tupas Joint,” the letter says. “The establishment is in the territory of the Syilx people and Cory and his team are exercising their creator given rights to operate business on this land,” the letter from Chief Byron Louis states. The letter from OKIB is framed and posted inside the shop. Just under it there’s a binder with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Brewer points to as legislation that allows him to assert his sovereignty off reserve. In November 2019, B.C. became the first province in Canada to implement UNDRIP by passing the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
“We’re going to be exercising our right within our traditional territory, and not only on reserve. Those days are past. Especially where UNDRIP was passed,” says Brewer.
While the CSU, a branch of the B.C. government tasked with applying the province’s cannabis laws, is seizing products and enforcing the Federal Cannabis Act Brewer says UNDRIP is also a provincial legislation that needs to be upheld by the Province of B.C.
“For me it was never about testing the law, it was about exercising our rights, and working together to see it go forward properly,” he says.
IndigiNews contacted the Ministry of Public Safety to ask about the raid and its reaction to Brewer asserting his sovereignty rights.
In an email statement, the ministry says it can’t comment on active cases. “We are unable to comment on specific complaints or enforcement actions or comment on planned activities or actions that the CSU will or will not undertake in response to specific cases or situations.” “Tupa’s Joint does not have a federal production licence and its retail stores are not authorized by the Province,” the email states. Representatives from the Ministry of Indigenous Relations & Reconciliation didn’t respond to a request for comment. Brewer says that he doesn’t believe charges will be laid against him but his understanding is that he will be fined once the CSU calculates the value of the product.”They are just enforcing the fact that we do not have a license,” he says.
“They said I could appeal to get our medicines back.”
When asked if he was going to be following through with the appeal process he says, “Of course, yes.”
First Nations ignored in cannabis law
Non-medicinal cannabis was legalized by the federal government on Oct. 17, 2018 through the federal Cannabis Act.
But exactly how these rules apply to First Nation communities is something that has been brought into question since before the act was implemented.
When the federal government legalized cannabis, it left it up to the provinces and territories to decide how businesses would sell and distribute cannabis products in their own jurisdiction.
Indigenous communities and businesses say both federal and provincial governments failed to consult them. According to a 2018 report from the Standing Senate’s Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, there was “a lack of consultation with Indigenous communities and organizations in the development of Bill C-45 .125Cannabis Act.375.”
“There was an alarming lack of consultation particularly given this Government’s stated intentions of developing a new relationship with Indigenous people,” the report states.
As a result, some communities, including OKIB, have enacted their own Cannabis Control Law.
“The rationale for that is pretty simple. This is an inherent right law, it’s not an Indian Act bylaw,” says Micheal Fotheringham, OKIB manager of policy and strategic initiatives. “This is something that we discussed at length with lawyers and with council.
“And it was felt that the Federal Cannabis Act which gave the provinces the authority to regulate dispensaries there just wasn’t enough consultation with Indigenous communities.”
Fotheringham explains that OKIB officially passed their Cannabis Control Law on May 4.
He says they created the law in consultation with dispensary owners, the community at two different community forums, as well as multiple law firms.
“It’s a big step for OKIB, it’s a big step for the community really to put their foot forward and plant their flag essentially,” he says. “We’re going to regulate this business on reserve, we’re going to do a good job of it.”
While OKIB’s Cannabis Control Law only applies to businesses on-reserve, the chief and council supports Brewers off-reserve business.
“We support our businesses regardless of what businesses it is. It is part of that reconciliation to be exercising our economic rights, and being economically sustainable,” says Val Chiba, council member for OKIB.
“I’m very disappointed and angry, angry that we can’t exercise our inherent rights,” says Chiba, who showed up at Tupa’s Joint when she learned that their products were being seized.
“I know they’ll be back, but I did tell them I’m not shutting anything down,” says Brewer who has decided to restock his shelves and continue business as usual until the proper consultation with Indigenous Peoples regarding the Cannabis Act happens.
For Brewer this is a bigger fight than the recent incident with the CSU, it’s about exercising his rights as a member of a sovereign nation.
“Our cannabis law .125OKIB Cannabis Control Law.375 supersedes the provincial law. We’re federal, and we’re sovereign, so how we’re going about it is different than anybody else,” he says.
Looking ahead Brewer says he wants to open several more dispensaries off-reserve.
He’s also developing the upstairs of Tupas Joint into a language revitalization centre, a space for wellness programs and cannabis cooking classes.
Brewer is now calling out the province of B.C. to do better when working with Indigenous businesses.
“You come in and say you are doing this so it’s fair for everyone, but they left First Nations out of the law altogether, so where’s the fairness in that? F….k that.”
After the seizure, Brewer updated the Tupa’s Joint Facebook page.”Our products are our medicine and we will not be applying for a license to operate as a sovereign indigenous entity in our own traditional territory.”
“Please join us in this push forward as the only sovereign shop in the city limits, now is the time to be about it.”