Soon residents across the Rainy River District won't be solely dependent on ordering cannabis online.
Couchiching was one of eight First Nations to receive a cannabis licence during a selection process that began on July 31 and a storefront is expected to open as early as the end of this year, or at the latest, summer of 2020.
“It might be the start of more commercial activity for Couchiching,” enthused Sara Mainville, former chief of Couchiching, and partner of Othuis Kleer Townshend, who's helping set up the store.
Wasaw Enterprises is the development corporation who will run the cannabis storefront and it's expected to bring several jobs to the east end of the district.
Mainville said for many years there's been an effort increase economic development in Couchiching, akin to the services and outlets available in the west end of Fort Frances.
“This is hopefully the start of making that a real possibility, by having an anchor store, like a cannabis store, that's bringing people specifically to Couchiching for something that's not available anywhere else across the district,” Mainville explained.
After opening, the local storefront will feature the full spectrum of cannabis products. In addition to dried cannabis flower, this will include edibles, extracts, and topical lotions.
These products will gradually be phased into the legal marketplace starting no sooner than mid-December.
“That's one of the considerations as far as any sort of practical deadline for opening,” Mainville noted.
"We want to build the store so it's providing the full range of products, including edibles.
“We're building the store to ensure that there's the refrigeration units that are needed and so that we have all those things in place,” she added.
“Couchiching will want to have best in brand, and everything available on their store shelves that competing stores will have as well.”
Because Wasaw wants to be competitive in the legal marketplace, they are carefully selecting the company they partner with, who will fill their shelves.
All of the cannabis products come from one wholesaler so it will be a race every time Wasaw orders to get the best products on their shelves, according to Mainville.
“I think that's probably the biggest challenge is to find the right fit because most of them in Ontario have been very urban and we're not sure if that urban branding is really going to resonate with American tourists and everyone else,” she explained.
“Finding the right partner right now is the biggest barrier because there's all different types of agreements and arrangements—we have to make sure that we find the best fit for Couchiching.”
Meanwhile, Mainville lauded Couchiching and other First Nations in the region for keeping grey or black market dispensaries out of their communities.
In southern Ontario, non-government regulated storefronts are an issue in many places, particularly the Greater Toronto Area where over 20 dispensaries are selling cannabis without a proper licence.
“I think the Treaty #3 communities have done a really good job of stopping those developments from happening in Treaty #3 territory,” Mainville stressed.
“It's certainly a large challenge for those folks that I work with in southern Ontario to deal with the amount of money that dispensaries are taking in, because they are all cash based businesses.”
Wasaw's cannabis storefront will meet all of the province's regulations, which includes 24/7 security to ensure there is no unauthorized entry or exit of the facility at any time.
“There are some discussions going on with the regulator just to make sure that all the building requirements that they have listed, particularly the ones in the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) rules are relevant to the First Nation on reserve stores,” Mainville explained.
“But definitely we know what requirements are and Couchiching is working with the Tribal Council Engineering Firm to make sure that the building is per the regulations and the rules that apply to them.”
Wasaw is currently working with a management consultant to put together the financial numbers and determine the scale of the store and its feasibility.
The cost to open the cannabis retail outlet is expected to be around $250,000.
Later this month, Wasaw will decide on whether the opening date of their store will be later this year or in 2020.