Before he opened the retail brand Legacy 420 in 2015, Tim Barnhart of Ontario’s Mohawk tribe knew his rights. When Canada began drafting the Cannabis Act (Bill C-45) in 2016, he poured over each new iteration. The walls of Legacy 420, the first cannabis shop on the Mohawk reservation, Tyendinaga, were strong. As Bill C-45 became law in 2018, he was ready with a fortress built of land, concrete and paper.
“I knew whatever I built, it needed to supersede whatever Canada and the provinces were doing,” Barnhart said.
For two years, Barnhart’s was the only shop on the reservation. Tribal leaders grumbled about what they saw as a hazy lightning rod drawing in federal and provincial authorities. Their concerns were not unfounded. In 2017, off-reservation police knocked on Barnhart’s door. He handed over everything with one ask—that they go to the federal, not provincial, authorities.
Barnhart knew that according to the Indian Act of 1876, it was the federal authorities with jurisdiction over tribal taxation, commerce and criminal law. If the federal government heard the case, they would only have to determine if the plant was harming Indigenous populations. However, under C-45, provincial governments charged with managing cannabis could decide that without a provincial license the shop was illegal.
Without said license, Barnhart was making a similar gamble as his forefathers. He was relying solely on tribal sovereignty to stake his claim. And, for whatever reason, the powers-at-be acquiesced. The same Canadian government that overtly committed cultural genocide did not cross the line tread upon many times before. Barnhart’s gamble with history paid off. When the authorities returned, saying that tribal sovereignty would be upheld and Legacy 420 could continue to stand, the community took notice.
Today, the Tyendinaga reservation with its 2500 residents holds 47 cannabis shops. Legacy 420 maintains its adherence to tribal sovereignty by being vertically integrated; everything, every gummy and bud and salve is made with First Nations’ products. All 47 locations reside within a legal grey area between federal, provincial and tribal law—an area that has historically favored white colonizers. But, for now, Barnhart feels a lull when his people can gain financial independence from the patriarchal state and heal from the anguish it brought down upon them.
“I fully expect them to take a run at one of us, I’m not sure who it will be for their test,” Barnhart said. “They might just leave us alone because of the state of the economy. That might give us the leeway we need to negotiate. On Tyendinaga, there’s anywhere from 350 to 500 people actively employed through various cannabis entities. So, if you’re laying off 350 to 500 people who are making very good money, that would rain hell down on Tyendinaga and Canada.”
It is this that Barnhart thinks of more—what his fortress protects as opposed to what it keeps out. His big, elaborate edifice of legalese and barbed wire and extensive strain tests proving every cannabis profile is in the service of his community, the people he thinks the plant can support in more ways than one.
Today Legacy 420’s website advertises over 500 products with a chat feature allowing new and returning customers to ask for self-medication support. Barnhart says his sales first began as nearly all THC products, but now are 40% CBD. The shop’s core demographic is 50-75 years of age, many of whom take advantage of Legacy 420’s senior discount program. Barnhart believes this is all proof of the plant’s medicinal benefits.
Addressing Indigenous Peoples' Centuries of Trauma
Barnhart sees cannabis as medicine to heal from centuries of trauma, the trauma that buries itself in the bones of its victims and their children via epigenetics. He points to a study he conducted of 1200 Indigenous participants which questioned the reason for their usage of the plant. The vast majority of respondents, 98% according to Barnhart, pointed to the medical efficacy of the plant. Things like decreased stress and inhibition as the most common responses have made Barnhart believe underground self-medication is taking place; “people who don’t realize this is medical are getting a medical benefit from the plant anyway.”
Barnhart is quick to emphasize that Indigenous trauma is not relegated to years of yore; many living on Tyendinaga today were forced into boarding schools where indignities were myriad. Sexual assault at the hands of the Christian clergy was rampant. Traditional braids were cut. Children were beaten for speaking their mother tongue. Just this year, mass graves were found behind residential schools. Families had passed down stories of their loved ones disappearing or running away while at the state-mandated institutions when, in actuality, they were being slowly starved to death.
As boarding schools were phased out, Indigenous children were pulled from their homes by child welfare in what was called “the ‘60s scoop.” Then followed mandated day schools, now a part of a class-action lawsuit. These children, now in the latter half of life, were kept away from family, tradition and culture until fear created a void between the past and the present. They also happen to be Barnhart’s prime demographic; “a lot of our people are coming in and using cannabis to heal.”
Healing Through Cannabis
There is no solid evidence of the traditional use of cannabis as a medicinal plant in Mohawk territory, but in an oral culture where generations were silenced, encyclopedias of knowledge were lost. Barnhart points to early accounts by European colonizers marking cannabis plants along the St. Lawrence River. He believes that cannabis or hemp was used in a similar way as tobacco.
“There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that we grew [tobacco] but in terms of how it was grown, where it was grown, why it was grown, is void,” he said. “Tobacco was medicine and I think cannabis was as well, or hemp.”
When those within the tribe are still hesitant about cannabis, Barnhart uses his own healing as an example. The plant helped pull him away from heavy drinking in the 1970s. Later it helped him kick a nasty opioid addiction following a hip injury.
As lawsuits against the largest predatory medicinal corporations continue, sales reps still wine and dine hospital reps, doctors write prescriptions and patients slip into the insidious power of opiates. Barnhart saw a quickly widening trap and proposed a buy-back program to the tribal elders and reservation law enforcement after pill-peddling drug companies made fast work of Indigenous populations. His proposal was denied. Instead, he went to the nearby Loyalist College to develop a two-week intensive cannabis training for first responders. In addition to these ancillary programs, he feels the best support for the Mohawk people is his carefully cultivated cannabis.
“Under the Cannabis Act here in Canada, you are regulated to put pesticides, herbicides, fungicides on your plant and radiated in the end,” Barnhart said. “We don’t think that’s medicine. Our people don’t think that’s medicine. That’s poison, and that’s how we’ve always looked at it.”
In protection of the people and the land, Legacy 420 only uses organic, no-till practices. And the more they do, the more the word of cannabis has spread. Their nation-to-nation wholesale has expanded exponentially, tying together First Nations throughout Canada. But an increase in sales denotes a corresponding potential for taxes, leaving Barnhart with one eye on the horizon.
What Challenges Remain in Post-Legalization Canada?
“Canada doesn’t really want to have a medical product, at least, that’s from everything I’m reading,” he said. “They would like to phase out the medical program and have everyone just buy their product at a recreation dispensary. The problem with that is that it’s very costly to go to a dispensary in Canada so affordability is a huge problem. On top of that most of our people don’t have access to transportation off the reservation.”
It is logistical challenges like this that were not considered during the drafting of C-45. Actually, First Nations were not consulted at all in the drafting of the bill despite their unique legal status. Tribes in Canada are governed under the Indian Act of 1876, meaning Barnhart carries a status card that allows him to travel off-reservation but must apply for a Canadian passport to travel abroad. While tribal governments maintain the right to self-govern under section 35 of the 1982 Constitutional Act, this isn’t the same clear-cut sovereignty that separates, say, Thailand and Cambodia. For one, First Nation residents pay some federal and provincial taxes. And to further convolute things—each tribe is different, each tax is different, each dollar is debated. So follows the Cannabis Act.
“There was no consultation for us to get into the act and we are already—us and Black people—the most targeted people for cannabis arrests,” Barnhart said. “Basically, leaving us out of the act, we could be arrested just walking down the street.”
Due to this oversight, questions linger. Many tribes have applied for and acquired provincial licenses. However, in Ontario for example, they must first proceed through a lottery system and then, if chosen, pay a $10,000 application fee. Barnhart estimates that about half a dozen tribes have taken this route while 30% of the over 600 tribes have taken the sovereign path like the Mohawk. Aside from the exorbitant application fee, many First Nations are also deterred by the yet unresolved issues of taxation.
“Absolutely the government would expect a return on their investment in our nation and that’s a huge problem,” Barnhart said. “We don’t have a problem paying a tax to our people, to our own system. That I could support.”
The principle of paying taxes to a government that failed to consult First Nations for C-45 is not the only thing that concerns Barnhart, it’s also the basic needs of the community. A 2020 census revealed that Indigenous people are the least educated ethnic group in Canada with the lowest rate of higher-paying jobs. Indigenous populations have a lifespan of as much as 15 years less than the general population. And while First Nation residents pay Canadian taxes, they do not receive targeted support for issues like substance abuse that directly relate to atrocities including boarding schools. The solution to these issues? As Barnhart sees it—true self-determination.
“It’s always been my wish to see us raising our own revenue, to basically get rid of any responsibility that the province thinks they have over our people,” Barnhart said. “And I think cannabis, tobacco, as well as gas sales could give us the revenue to replace the provincial government.”
As Canada decides its next move, Barnhart isn’t lying in wait. He currently has two lawsuits against the government regarding two of the most volatile issues between the sovereigns—water rights and taxation. The former addresses the pollution of a well on Tyendinaga. In the latter, he claims the government unlawfully taxed him on wholesale cigar purchases, something he sees as a precursor to a potential cannabis battle.
In preparation to defend his legal rights, Barnhart is checking his defenses and keeping up to date with the government’s movements. Between court hearings and deep dives into legal clauses, he’s developing new strains and programs to ease healing for the Mohawk people. And in the midst of healing, he’s sharing the gospel of legal competency. Barnhart is urging not only Indigenous peoples but all residents in Canada and the U.S. to better know their rights, “because you get trampled if you don’t.”
Featured image: Legacy 420's hemp farmland on Tyendinaga. (C) Legacy 420