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Vernon  

First Nations eye pot biz

Canada's marijuana industry is expanding rapidly, and some First Nations are looking to cash in on the emerging economic opportunities – including in the North Okanagan.

Phil Fontaine, an Indigenous politician turned marijuana executive, has spent the last year travelling the country and talking to First Nations about jobs, wealth and training opportunities the burgeoning marijuana business could bring. One such business is in Armstrong.

"Everywhere we've been, it's been the same reaction, interest, excitement. First Nations are speaking about possibilities and potential. So it's been very encouraging," said the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Marijuana businesses represent "tremendous potential" for First Nations, partially because communities are able to get in on the ground floor, instead of fighting to catch up years later as has traditionally been the case, Fontaine said.

"This is a unique opportunity. This sector is different than any other the Indigenous community has experienced. Everyone is starting off at the same point," he said in a telephone interview.

Fontaine is the CEO of Indigenous Roots, a medical marijuana company operated by and for First Nations across Canada.

The company is a joint venture with Cronos Group, a medical-marijuana grower licensed by Health Canada. Once Indigenous Roots is operating, its profits will be split evenly between partner First Nations and Cronos.

Though recreational marijuana is set to become legal this summer, Indigenous Roots will focus on supplying prescription pot to First Nations communities, which Fontaine said have traditionally had lower access to the drug.

"We want to make sure that this particular service is made available to our communities in every part of the country," he said.

Plans are in the works to build an Indigenous Roots growing facility next to an existing Cronos facility in Armstrong with the aim of serving patients by the end of 2018, Cronos CEO Mike Gorenstein said in an interview.

Current Cronos workers will train First Nations employees to run the Indigenous Roots operation, he said.

"Long term and medium term, this is meant to be an Indigenous-operated company," Gorenstein said. "Our commitment is to make sure that any knowledge that we have or we continue to gain, that we're sharing and we're always there to support.”

The new facility will create between 30 and 50 jobs, plus other opportunities in marketing, sales and accounting, Gorenstein said. Future operations will likely be even bigger, he added.



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