Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of Canada's Parliament, sponsored the Cannabis Act, also known as Bill C-45. A citizen of the We Wai Kai Nation, Wilson-Raybould is the first Indigenous person and the first Native woman to serve as the Minister of Justice of Canada. Photo: Province of British Columbia

Doug George-Kanentiio: Native people and marijuana in Canada

Canada Legalizes Marijuana October 17: How Will it Affect Native People?
By Doug George-Kanentiio

On October 17th Canada will enter a new phase in its history when the personal possession of marijuana becomes legal.

The enactment of Bill C-45 means an individual over 21 may have in their public possession up to 30 grams (1 ounce) of marijuana which can also be made into food such as cookies.

There may be 4 marijuana plants grown in each household which must be kept away from minors. Driving under the influence of marijuana carries severe penalties ranging from a mandatory $1,000 fine for the first conviction to a month in jail for the second and 120 days for the third.

Also as part of the penalties will be five years in prison for selling marijuana without a license although it may be given to another within the above amounts.

For the police deciding how to determine if a person is driving under the influence of marijuana is mostly guess work since the technology has yet to be developed to accurately set a firm standard.

Signs in Ontario, Canada, point to the United States and the Mohawk territory at Akwesasne. Photo: Michel Rathwell

Crossing the border into the United States will be an issue. While states such as Colorado and Washington have decriminalized personal marijuana use the narcotic remains illegal under federal law. Therein is the problem for Canadians who use marijuana and enter the US.

Border officers may ask a driver if they, or their passengers, have used marijuana. If one has used and denies it they may be subject to further inquiries and charged with a crime if it can determined there has been previous use. A border officer may detain the individual upon reasonable grounds of suspicion and examine not only the vehicle but any electronic device, such as a cell phone, which may indicate marijuana usage. It is a federal crime under code 18 USC 1001 to lie to a customs officer who may either arrest the individual or order them to leave American territory where a permanent ban against re-entry may go into effect.

A person charged for marijuana use and/or possession will have their name entered into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data base which is permanent. They may, upon discretion of the border officers, be denied entry into the US. They may have their names placed of the "no fly" list which includes not only suspected terrorists but possible drug dealers, sex offenders and other "criminals." It is very difficult to have a person removed from the Terrorist Screening Database overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and shared with Canada under the "tuscan" compact.

For Native people who have relied on open passage in accordance with the Jay Treaty and the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act and who may use marijuana this will also be an issue. As it stands a Canadian Native person with a blood quantum of 50% or more has all the rights of an American citizen with the exception of casting ballots in US elections. How Bill C-45 effects that right has yet to be determined.

At Akwesasne there may be arrests and detentions. Since the St. Regis Tribal and Mohawk Council of Akwesasne police agencies are empowered under US and Canadian statutes they will have little choice but to abide by those laws. There are thousands of border crossings at Akwesasne across the international boundary during any given day. The Mohawk population is effectively divided in half by that border which is largely open. There are no customs stations on the Akwesasne territory but there are two large Port of Entry offices on the western edge of the reservation but a highly visible US Border Patrol presence in the area.

To date, no discussions have been initiated as to the movement of marijuana from the southern (US section) of Akwesasne to the northern region (Canadian side). This will inevitably happen since it is anticipated that the demand for recreational and medical marijuana will skyrocket after October 17 and the domestic suppliers in Canada cannot meet the demand.

In short, legalization in Canada presents a serious matter for Natives and particularly for the Mohawks of Akwesasne.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

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