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The first legal retail cannabis store on First Nations land opened in Manitoba on Wednesday, and while some Indigenous groups have established their own licensing systems for the new industry, more government-approved operations are set to open on reserves as they aim to establish vertically integrated companies.

Some First Nations groups have argued it is their sovereign right to sell recreational cannabis without provincial licensing on their land.

This week, National Access Cannabis (NAC) and Opaskwayak Cree Nation opened the first legal recreational cannabis store – Meta Cannabis Supply Co. – on its land near The Pas, Man., said Christian Sinclair, Opaskwayak chief and NAC board member.

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“We negotiated and structured a deal that put us in a very unique position compared with any other First Nations,Mr. Sinclair said.

The Opaskwayak Cree Nation is one of the largest shareholders of NAC, which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Sinclair said.

It’s the first time in the history of the TSX, that we know of, that a First Nation is a majority shareholder of a publically traded company,” Mr. Sinclair said.

Using a similar licensed retail model on two other urban reserves in Manitoba, another Meta store will open in Portage La Prairie on Friday, on Long Plain First Nation property, and in Thompson later this month on Nisichawayasihk Cree First Nation land.

For all three stores, the First Nation groups own 51 per cent of the outlets on their land while NAC-Meta owns the remainder, Mr. Sinclair said.

Despite being on First Nations land, the provincially licensed stores are subject to Manitoba’s social responsibility fee as well as federal tax, and Mr. Sinclair hopes they will be able to return the fee to their communities, and they hope to negotiate the federal tax.

While Meta stores buy their cannabis supplies through the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba, other First Nations groups aim to become federally licensed producers, with some taking steps toward becoming vertically integrated.

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Bridging Finance Inc. in Toronto is financing cultivation and retail facilities for First Nations, said CEO David Sharpe.

Active with First Nations groups in five provinces, Mr. Sharpe works with governments to either give these groups provincial licenses or establish special ones for them.

One client, Peguis First Nation, is on track to receive a provincial license to open its retail cannabis store on an urban reserve in Winnipeg with 51 per cent ownership, Mr. Sharpe said, adding that U.S.-based MJardin Group owns the remaining 49 per cent.

Mr. Sharpe said Bridging Finance has also partnered with a group of 13 First Nations in Nova Scotia to help finance a cultivation project, and they also want to sell their product legally.

“Because they’re sovereign nations, they have the right to sell cannabis on their land,” he said, but added that they want to be included in the licensing regime in order to become vertically integrated and establish a distribution system.

“The First Nations have said if they’re not going to be treated fairly, they’ll create their own laws for retail sales and do that, but that’s not our first choice,” Sharpe said.

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Eric Filion, CEO of cannabis industry consultancy MDPartners in Calgary, consults for a few First Nations groups on their cannabis production, processing, and retail endeavours, and said his clients are taking steps toward receiving licenses for their ventures.

“First Nations communities and leaders are organizing themselves to have a strong presence and representation in the cannabis industry,” said Mr. Filion, who is also the marketing director of the first National Indigenous Cannabis and Hemp Conference in Calgary later this month.

On the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory and Reserve in Ontario, Mohawk owned and operated Seven Leaf recently received its federal license to grow and aims to begin cultivation in its 50,000 square foot facility in December, said Lorraine White, legal counsel for the company.

While Seven Leaf does not currently plan to enter retail, White said their Mohawk Council has adopted interim cannabis regulations.

What I would love to see is certainly development of this nature within First Nations communities, where there is recognition of First Nation authority to operate within their territories,” White said.

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