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Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and Jane Philpott, Minister of Health listen to Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair respond to a question after announcing the legalization of marijuana during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday April 13, 2017. Blair says banning cannabis from indigenous communities is complicated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld It’s unclear whether Indigenous communities in Canada will be able to ban cannabis from their communities once it becomes a legal substance on October 17.

That’s coming from Bill Blair, the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, who was grilled by senators Wednesday night about how Indigenous reserves could regulate the flow of cannabis into their communities.

The Senate’s Aboriginal Rights committee just returned from a joint visit to Canada’s north. While there, the senators visited Old Crow, a fly-in reserve 800 kilometres from Whitehorse, Yukon that has prohibited alcohol.

In her questions to the minister, senator Marilou McPhedran wanted to know if communities like Old Crow could even consider limiting their intake of cannabis with the new laws coming into force.

Blair’s response was: it’s complicated.

“I wish it was as simple as a yes or no,” he told senators. “Those bylaws … could co-exist with the cannabis act, but they can’t frustrate its purpose. That would be a matter of law to be determined.”

Indigenous communities are given the right to become self-governing under Section 35 of the Constitution Act. Under this governance structure, decision-making power about how to deliver programs and services is put into the hands of Indigenous governments. This is also a right guaranteed to Indigenous peoples under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada is a signatory.

Self-governance includes making decisions on how to educate young people and develop new business partnerships that will create benefits for their citizens, according to the website of now-defunct Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Blair said a ban on cannabis could be possible if Indigenous governments create a regulation that is consistent with the bill’s goal of curbing the “illicit” trade of cannabis that was not produced from a government-licensed facility.

“I’m not inclined to tell them that they cannot do it, but a court could determine that (a ban) did frustrate the act,” he continued.

Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott said most Indigenous communities still exist under federal laws that “put limits around what is possible” when it comes to regulating cannabis. Recent numbers show there are 22 self-government agreements signed across Canada that involve 43 Indigenous communities.

The provinces only have the authority to enforce some rules, such as the age of possession, on Indigenous communities.

As more communities sign treaties to create some level of Indigenous self-governance, Philpott said the government will “continue to be very open” to regulate cannabis.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that openness and having those very active conversations,” Philpott said.

Part of the reason some Indigenous communities could consider an outright ban on cannabis come October 17 is to mitigate the effects of substance abuse in their communities.

A 2017 study from the Canadian Paediatric Society found Indigenous youth are at particular risk of adverse effects from cannabis, with nearly two-thirds of children between the ages of 15-19 Inuit participants reported using cannabis at least once in the last year. Rates are lower for their non-Indigenous counterparts, with only one-third of Canadian youth having tried cannabis in the same age bracket.But to Blair, a total ban on cannabis will not benefit Indigenous communities.“We have seen the failure of prohibition,” he said. “That ban has facilitated billions of dollars in illicit crime and so quite frankly … a total prohibition has not had the effects […]

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