Let’s face it: Canada’s legal cannabis industry can certainly benefit from more diversity. Just as our country is diverse, the cannabis business environment is slowly changing to reflect that diversity. We talked to four cannabis companies helmed by Black, Indigenous and women leaders — SESS, Msiku, Fleurish and Eve & Co. — about how they got their start, the challenges they’ve faced in building their businesses and where they’re growing from here.
From Seed to Start
Every Licensed Producer has their own reasons for getting involved in the cannabis industry. For some, it’s about an evolution from the legacy market. For others, it’s a chance to do things a little bit differently.
Michael Montpetit, owner of SESS
“Prior to legalization, the [legacy] market was paving the way for legal cannabis,” says Michael Montpetit, owner of SESS. “The opportunity to produce what we knew was great weed and bring it to the public was a perfect recipe to get into this industry.”
For Melinda Rombouts, founder of Eve & Co., becoming a Producer was a way to spark a transformation within the industry. “At the time [we applied for our license], licensed producers had approximately 94% male leadership,” says Rombouts. “In such a male-dominated industry, we set out to be the ones to ensure we address what women want from their cannabis products.”
While dealing with serious health issues within her own family, Renée Ellison, founder of Fleurish, says she realized she wanted to make a bigger impact on the world. Her experiences of working at The Body Shop, which was founded by a female entrepreneur, and at both the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada spurred her interest in addressing gender-based gaps and inequalities.
Renée Ellison, founder of Fleurish
“I think it’s important that cannabis is an option and is accessible for people who choose it,” Ellison says. “I was at the right place at the right time, working on the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulation. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity led me to become the first woman to incorporate a Licensed Producer company in Canada.”
For the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq owners of Msiku — a brand of AtlantiCann, founded by president Christine Halef — the chance to participate in the emerging cannabis economy is truly transformative.
“It was very important for the Mi’kmaq to be involved in this new industry as a means to create economic opportunity for our communities,” says a representative of the Mi’kmaq ownership group. “For too long, Canada’s First Nations have been left out of the mainstream economy, and we were not going to sit on the sidelines as one more [opportunity] passed us by.”
The journey from idea to getting licensed to first production cycle is one filled with choices, challenges and lots of paperwork for any founder. Along the road to establishing their new businesses, Producers say they faced barriers to getting financing, finding partners and being allowed to flourish on their own terms.
Rombouts says there is certainly a perceived “boys’ club” in the Canadian cannabis business, which takes determination to overcome. “I think it is very difficult for female-led companies to get the same level of financial support,” she says, adding that she was often the only woman in meetings with investors.
The Mi’kmaq First Nations of Nova Scotia were similarly determined to overcome the financial obstacles and disadvantages they say are rooted in history. “The lack of available capital for Canada’s First Nations to participate in opportunities in the mainstream economy is well-documented,” says the representative of the Mi’kmaq ownership group. “Through our desire to participate, we were able to source and secure the financial ability to do so.”
Montpetit also cites obtaining financing as a challenge he faced in getting established, and sees the inequality facing Black, Indigenous and people of colour as a major issue.
“One of the expected outcomes of legalizing cannabis was to get BIPOCs into the industry and allow them to start businesses and help build the legal market,” he says, adding that the racial disparity when it comes to pre-legalization cannabis convictions has not exactly led to an equal playing field, post-legalization. “Don’t expect any easy path in this market.”
Honouring Their Roots
Having worked to establish their businesses within the Canadian cannabis landscape, the owners we talked to have found ways to celebrate their traditions and identities in their work.
Jennifer MacGillivary & Chief Jerry Toney of Mi’kmaq First Nations
At Msiku, the heritage of the Mi’kmaq is celebrated in the inclusion of Mi’kmaq symbols in the logos and even the name of the brand: “msiku” means “grass” in the Mi’kmaq language. “This name reflects the tongue-in-cheek humour of our people,” says the Mi’kmaq ownership representative. “Our identity is who we are. We work to ensure every employee knows they work for a Mi’kmaq organization.”
Montpetit says SESS’s 1Spliff brand is a tribute to his family’s background. “We are originally from the Caribbean and migrated to Canada in 1984, so we decided to use colours that are reflective of a Caribbean vibe.”
Fleurish develops products specifically with women in mind and supports cannabis research that looks into the effects of cannabis for women. At Eve & Co, they celebrate a staff that’s composed mostly of women. “Interestingly, while most license holders have 70% male employees, we are almost the exact opposite, with 70% female employees. We are very proud of this and attribute it to female leadership,” says Rombouts.
Melinda Rombouts, founder of Eve & Co.
Perhaps the most significant way that these Producers are honouring their identities is by becoming leaders within the industry and blazing a trail — ultimately helping advance Canadian cannabis culture and calling attention to inequities, past and present.
“The prevalence of racist colonial views of our people continues to this day. People often place limits on First Nations people, and we are hopeful that by participating in this industry and becoming a quality leader, we can help dismantle some of those stereotypes,” say the Mi’kmaq owners of Msiku, adding that the “disproportionate number of people from BIPOC communities in jail from minor cannabis charges and the high barriers to entry” make the market largely inaccessible for many smaller companies and BIPOC-led companies. “It’s important for us to move the needle forward in our effort to address these disadvantages.”
Canada’s cannabis industry is constantly evolving, as Producers work tirelessly to overcome challenges, push boundaries and improve access.
“I’m hoping within the next seven years we can eliminate the illegal market,” says Montpetit. He cites Health Canada measures such as opening up micro-cultivation licences that will allow smaller startups to compete as a path forward. “The more owner-operated cannabis companies we get in the legal market [the more it] will allow consumers to have better products and pricing, eventually eliminating the illegal market,” he says.
Speaking to women entering the Canadian cannabis industry, Ellison offers this advice: “Never give up on your goals, and you may surprise yourself.” Rombouts agrees: “The industry is always looking for passionate and determined people with a unique perspective — which is exactly what women have and which is needed in this industry.”