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First Indigenous cannabis licence holder can finally turn the lights on at new dispensary

'The most important thing for me to say is thank you to the Nipissing First Nation community for saying ‘yes’ to allow this. Without that, we definitely would not be here'

Zachary Lacelle, owner of Northern Zen Cannabis wasn’t sure what to expect on the opening weekend of his new business.

The recreational cannabis dispensary is located on Osprey Miikan on Nipissing First Nations, just off Highway 17, west of North Bay.

“It is going pretty good. I just hope that the community supports local business,” said Lacelle.

“I was one of eight to receive a licence when Ontario did a second lottery. I didn’t get to open first here, but I was the first aboriginal licence holder in Ontario. That is something to be proud of. ”

Northern Zen Cannabis is the third such store to open on that stretch of road.

“After the lottery was done and all the names were said, a couple months later the rest of the waiting list of aboriginal people was opened. Hence the other two stores beside me now,” said Lacelle.

“The first to open was Kana Leaf. It already had a building. The other store, Cheerful Charlie’s had a store and gas bar. I was before them in the lottery but I did not have a choice when it came to opening because I had no hydro.”

It took nearly seven months just to get the power connected to his property.

COVID-19 also contributed to the late opening.

“If I hadn’t started building November 6, when I got my licence, I would not have this here. I would not have hydro here. I would be even further behind,” said Lacelle.

“I had a plan and an expectation to get open in April. When COVID came in, I didn’t want to rush and open a store in a pandemic. I didn’t think that was right but I knew eventually I would open.”

He says the market has changed since first getting his licence.

“We here in Nipissing did consultations and I always said not just one person should get to do this. If just one person were allowed to do it, they should give 50 per cent of their profits back to the band office,” said Lacelle.

“In 2014 before legalization and before any of this, I was looking at a plan to grow. In that plan, over time, the store thing came along with legalization. I got scared when I originally started because the rules were very, very strict. It is a lot different today on that side of it if you want to be a craft grower and that was always something I wanted to try and pursue.”

Now that the business is finally open, Lacelle says it is a matter of taking things slow and easy.

“We’re kind of keeping it under control. Now that it has opened up, I can have my craft cannabis facility, much like a brewery, if I’d like to. In the Health Canada licence side of it, it is not called craft it is called micro cultivation. “

Lacelle plans to reassess his business plan in six months.  

”Craft growing or opening more stores. Those are my two options in the next six months. I want to see what the market is doing. Let it turn its wheels a little bit longer,” said Lacelle.

“I do have to speak with the Band Office first because of our laws. Or if I want to pursue more Ontario licences, I can open up to 10 stores right now anywhere in Ontario. I hold an Ontario licence. I can go down to the Toronto area or I could go further up north. I would probably stick around here if I open more stores. The craft thing would create more jobs for us here in Nipissing. It is then my product.  I created it. But I will make those decisions in six months.”

The next few months will focus on growing the business.

“I want to introduce myself to everybody. I hope my store layout attracts people. They will be able to see the product in the future. Right now, I am not opening anything, but things will be opened up so you can see the product. I will have a sensory bar as well,” said Lacelle who expressed his gratitude to those who helped make his dream a reality.

“The most important thing for me to say is 'thank you' to the Nipissing First Nation community for saying ‘yes’ to allow this. Without that we definitely would not be here,” said Lacelle.

“I would like to thank the government because they also were the ones who got us in a market that limited people at first. And the Chief and council because at the end of the day if the Chief and council said no, we would not have this opportunity on Nipissing First Nation. So, without those three things, we would not have any of it.”

He says it will take the support of residents across the district if his business and those of his competitors are to survive.

“To get us into the industry it took Nipissing First Nation and the community here. But to run this business it isn’t just going to be just Nipissing First Nation people. It is going to be the community of North Bay and area. We can’t live off just the First Nation community here to operate this business. It is definitely going to take outside involvement to get us to stay in a competitive market.”

Lacelle welcomes the competition from his neighbouring businesses.

“We’re all buying from the Ontario government OCS (Ontario Cannabis Store). We can all carry the same products. Basically, anything on OCS online we can carry in the store. There is a big catalogue on OCS and those are the only brands we can carry right now,” he explained.

“One of us is not here to drive the price way lower than the other. We’re all going to have similarities. It is really up to the person when they’re coming here. I don’t suggest just coming to my store because if I would have felt that way, I would have been like ‘I should have been the only person to do this.’ I never thought that was the right thing. I never understood why only one would have the ability to do it. And I’m thankful they have opened it up.”




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