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Wabanaki Cannabis Strain a Surprise to Namesake First Nations

In 1993, the First Nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy—the Mi’kmaq, the Maliseet, Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot, located on both sides of the US-Canadian border— joined together to formally renew their historic alliance for the first time since it was forcibly disbanded by the British in 1862. The gathering—occurring three years after the Oka Crisis, during an upswing of grassroots support for Indigenous self-determination—represented a new political beginning for member Nations long governed by the Indian Act.

“We have to get back at the table and assert our ancestral jurisdiction because our roots go back further than the Indian Act system,” Hereditary Chief Gary Metallic Sr. of the Listuguj District of told APTN in 2014. “Our roots go right back into the ground since time immemorial.”The Council Fire was lit in 1993 and embers have been kept burning since that time, as the Wabanaki Confederacy has supported its member Nations in a variety of political causes in both the US and Canada. Principal among them have been land claims: the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet First Nations, for example, never ceded their land to Canada, and contend they retain title over them.

Environmental issues have remained strongly related to land sovereignty for the Wabanaki Confederacy. In 2013, when the Mi’kmaw Elsipogtog First Nation blockaded highways in protest of shale-gas exploration for fracking and formally evicted SWN Resources Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved on protesters, leading to skirmishes, dozens of arrests, and at least five police cars set on fire. The Wabanaki Confederacy were interveners in a subsequent lawsuit arguing the land does not belong to Canada, as the First Peoples of the region never gave it up.

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The name Wabanaki is strongly associated—both historically, and in the 25 years since its reformation—with the political struggles undertaken by the Confederacy’s member nations. For that reason, Wabanaki people were recently surprised to discover that New Brunswick licensed producer Organigram offers an award-winning sativa strain named after them.

“I’d like to know how they went about putting that name on that product,” Hereditary Chief Metallic told Leafly. “Who did they speak to? Because of the different reasons out there, with Elders not exactly supporting this marijuana business—I’d ask them, ‘How did you go about putting the name ‘Wabanaki’ on marijuana?’ If they didn’t get permission or consult with anybody, I don’t think they should put it on there.”

In the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation, 200 kilometres to the west of Listuguj, Consultation Coordinator Russ Letica wondered the same thing.

“What consultation have they had to use that name?” he asked. “What road have they gone down? What is consultation to this company? I work in consultation when it comes to First Nations, so I have a lot of questions when I hear something like this. Who is it you consulted on this subject? Give us a name!”

Tribute or Insult?

First contacted on Twitter, representatives from Organigram forwarded a press release announcing the 2017 debut of four strains “grown and harvested as an homage to our deep roots and the founding peoples of our country, including the First Nations, the French and the English.” The four strains—Wabanaki, Acadia, Union Jack, and Kanata—were released to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

“You don’t need to call any mood impairing product after any Nation to seem cool.”

Paul Francis, a siganigtookawaj Warrior from Elsipogtog, took offence at the connection between Wabanaki and Canada 150.

“During that time I had AR-15s aimed at my chest by multiple officers for wanting to set up a rain-block [tent] on Parliament Hill for our 50 plus supporters at the ReOccupation campaign,” Francis said, referring to the protest by a group of Indigenous people from many Nations and communities who peacefully forced their way onto Parliament Hill to mount a tipi during the Canada 150 anniversary celebration to reaffirm Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. “I don’t really like claiming valour, but I do feel I did my dues to have my say or at the very least an opinion on the matter.”

A public relations agency hired by Organigram described Chief Commercial Officer Ray Gracewood as “unavailable for an interview,” but forwarded a written response to questions about the naming of the strain.

Most of the statement is taken from the company’s Canada 150 press release, but Gracewood added, “Wabanaki was intended to celebrate the confederation and its role in helping establish Aboriginal rights in North America.” Gage Communications, Organigram’s PR agency, confirmed the strain was not developed or named in consultation with the leadership of the Wabanaki Confederacy, or the leadership or representatives of any of the Confederacy’s member Nations.

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“At a time when first nations are both economical wonders and at the same time one of the poorest nations in a self-described first world country it makes me fucking sick to even see these poor attempts at solidarity,” said Francis, who noted medical cannabis is an enormously touchy subject in First Nations communities.

“You don’t need to call any mood impairing product after any Nation to seem cool,” Francis said.

Intoxication is a controversial issue in communities long assumed —incorrectly—to experience greater rates of addiction than non-Indigenous communities. While more Indigenous people are teetotalers than non-Indigenous people, and those who drink do so at roughly the same rates as non-Indigenous people, addiction in First Nations is often strongly connected with generations of trauma resulting from more than 100 years of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the “cultural genocide” of Indian Residential Schools.

Metallic called legalization “a hot potato in many of the communities.” Some Nations support legalization and hope to profit off it, while others strongly oppose it, but even on a community level, there are significant differences of opinion.

“My community’s the same way,” he said. “What we’re doing now is consulting with the people: they’re having a say, and they’re going to vote eventually. It’ll be left up to them what they want to do.”

Metallic said that the naming reminded him of sports teams using First Nations as mascots—“but it’s for a bigger profit return. This whole marijuana thing, everybody’s scrambling to make money on it—everyone’s looking at these millions, if not billions, that are to be made.”

From the beginning, Letica was unimpressed with Organigram’s press release.

“Nothing says Canadian heritage like taking Indigenous words and concepts for profit without asking the people you're ‘inspired by”

“First of all, it is not known as ‘The place of the first lights,’” Letica stressed. “We’re known as ‘The people of the first dawn.’ Those kinds of [mistakes] don’t come from people who’ve actually done the consultation. They would know that’s not the correct term.”

The error in wording, Letica said, was a red flag that indicated the company had less interest in the Confederacy and than it had in selling a product. He took particular umbrage at Organigram’s insistence that the naming was intended “to celebrate the confederation.

“I don’t find using Native names to be an honouring thing,” said Letica. “I find it to be an insulting thing when done without the people’s consent. I’ve been in consultation for five years, and I’d never heard of anything about a strain of marijuana being named in this way. There’s no honour in this. There’s no honour in capitalism, and this was purely capitalism.”

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North West River, Labrador Inuk reporter/activist Ossie Michelin—best known for his striking photographs of the 2013 blockade standoffs between the RCMP and Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq—was blunter in his assessment of the product.

“Nothing says Canadian heritage like taking Indigenous words and concepts for profit without asking the people you’re ‘inspired by,’” Michelin wrote on Twitter, before adding his suggested names for Organigram’s next strain might be, “1 Appropriation; 2 Colonizer; [and] 3 This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”

Jesse B. Staniforth's Bio Image
Jesse B. Staniforth

Jesse Staniforth reports on cannabis, food safety, and Indigenous issues. He is the former editor of WeedWeek Canada.

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