Changing the face of Canada’s cannabis industry

| Tim Wilson |

Women and people of colour have made significant contributions to the Canadian cannabis industry, both before and after legalization. However, the industry still has a long way to go before it is properly reflective of Canadian society. This represents a missed opportunity for all stakeholders.

Part of the challenge with encouraging diversity is that it doesn’t only come from hiring. You have to invest in it, and make structural changes.

Unity Marguerite Whittaker, Director of Offerings, Village Bloomery

“When we keep on investing in the people who have power then, in the end, we’ll be unable to provide for all Canadians,” says Unity Marguerite Whittaker, Director of Offerings at Village Bloomery in Vancouver, BC. “Part of the challenge with encouraging diversity is that it doesn’t only come from hiring. You have to invest in it, and make structural changes.”

Back in 2018, a Montreal Gazette analysis of the top five producers and distributors of cannabis in Canada revealed that people of colour made up a mere three per cent of management. By all indications, things haven’t changed much in the past two years.

…racial and gender bias is systemic in our society, and the cannabis industry is no exception

Nora Nathoo, marketing specialist

“I am lucky in that I work for an organization that has very diverse management, “ says Nora Nathoo, a marketing specialist at a BC based licensed producer. “That said, racial and gender bias is systemic in our society, and the cannabis industry is no exception. Either we acknowledge it and say, ‘Yes, I am coming from a place of racial bias,’ or we can choose to ignore it, and say it doesn’t matter to us.”

Canada’s demographic profile should make us a great test case for a diverse industry. However, despite our cultural and racial mosaic – including the dynamic presence of Indigenous peoples – Canada’s cannabis industry looks a lot like any other. That said, Indigenous-led organizations can show us that cannabis is not any old industry, and that it has unique opportunity to contribute to society.

We are trying to break down those walls by being as constructive and collaborative as possible.

wes sam, executive chairman & founder, nations

“We have very much developed our vision through an Indigenous lens,” says Wes Sam, Executive Chairman and Founder of Nations, a First Nations controlled cannabis production company. “We want to benefit the local economy by providing family-supporting jobs, returning five per cent of EBITA to… local communities and Indigenous populations, and by developing health and education partnerships.”

Nations is located in Burns Lake, BC. The company’s vision includes working with the local Nations and non-profit Indigenous organizations to create a fund that will be accessible to First Nations people for business, support, grants, health, and education, among others. All of this will be based on actual needs as defined by the people themselves.

We believe Nations, and the development of an Indigenous-focused cannabis sector, can serve as a form of reconciliation.

WES SAM, EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN & FOUNDER, NATIONS

“There is a level of mistrust that exists between Indigenous peoples, businesses and government,” says Sam. “We are trying to break down those walls by being as constructive and collaborative as possible.”

Nations sees itself as part of a larger story that extends over time, wherein the organization learns lessons, and builds on them. In this way, the path becomes easier for those who follow. This is a much-needed step given that, during the legalization process, indigenous voices were left out.

“We want to be a leader in the cannabis cultivation space, but we also believe that some of the lessons we are experiencing as an emerging company can be helpful to others,” says Sam. “We’re establishing a network to support Indigenous participants, which will strengthen our collective profit and sustainability.”

Similarly, Ms. Nathoo is working with a recently-registered non-profit, Louder Together, which is intended to connect people of colour in the cannabis industry. The plan is to collect and develop tools that can elevate Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour in the cannabis space, including to executive leadership positions.

“Diversity training is good, but we need to have policies in place to supersede any racial or gender bias,” says Nathoo. “Open dialogue with different organizations is also necessary to find the best way forward with allyship.”

It is up to the men in this industry to hold other men accountable – it’s our role to stand up.

matt watters, ceo, bc craft supply co. ltd.

Often, when advocating for more opportunity for women and people of colour, the message can shift to include a more comprehensive societal critique. For example, back in September, 2017 – well in advance of the June, 2018, legalization of cannabis – the federal government announced $274 million in support of law enforcement. That decision is viewed by some in the industry as adversely affecting people of colour.

“A lot of people don’t know that all the money was allocated,” says Nathoo. “It disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous people. And now, as we see what’s happening with Black Lives Matter, and with Indigenous people in Canada, the silence from the cannabis community has been deafening.”

In many ways the cannabis industry is acting like any other, with an apolitical approach, and a narrow focus on products and profits. As such, it reproduces the same social ills – and political apathy – seen elsewhere. Legalization infused the industry with a “stock bro” culture that is at times overtly misogynistic. Often, the women suffer and the men don’t speak up.

“There is a culture of silence that doesn’t help, especially around powerful men,” says Matt Watters, CEO, BC Craft Supply Co. Ltd. in Vancouver, BC. “It is up to the men in this industry to hold other men accountable – it’s our role to stand up.”

Obviously, few individuals are eager to self-identify as sexist or racist – and here the cannabis industry is no different than any other. However, it is likely that most men are naïve as to the extent of the problem. In researching this article, numerous sources within the cannabis industry recounted extreme examples of harassment. The most onerous included high volumes of sexually explicit or violent content on platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

“I would suggest that the problem is five to ten times worse than most men think,” says Watters. “I personally didn’t understand the extent of the problem until information was shared with me by a female co-worker. Certainly, awareness by men could be better.”

This message resonates also with women arguing for greater opportunity. Despite an environment that can, at times, be toxic, the overwhelming message is that change will most likely come from having a positive approach. Many women interviewed for this article spoke with confidence about the importance of moving forward, and staying positive. This could also true when speaking of the experience of people of colour and Indigenous communities.

“I have seen first-hand some of the significant generational issues that have faced Indigenous families, and continue to impact Indigenous families, in my community of Burns Lake,” says Sam from Nations. “We believe Nations, and the development of an Indigenous-focused cannabis sector, can serve as a form of reconciliation.”