For Josh Giesbrecht running a cannabis business in Winnipeg is a source of pride and a way to make a living, but it is also a way for him to hire and employ fellow Indigenous community members and to share and celebrate his culture.
Giesbrecht, 30, of Winnipeg, who is originally from Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, opened the doors to Uncle Sam’s Cannabis, a 1,600 square foot recreational cannabis retail store on Bannatyne Avenue in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, back in late May.
Uncle Sam’s is a retail cannabis franchise with stores throughout Canada and Giesbrecht said he runs his shop as an independent business under the Uncle Sam’s name and brand.
Giesbrecht believes he is the only First Nations person in the province to independently operate a cannabis shop and he actively works to make sure Indigenous people are keeping things running in his store.
“It has always been a core value of mine since I started in business to hire Indigenous employees,” Giesbrecht said. “In my experience with many cannabis businesses in this province I don’t see a lot of Indigenous employees, so it has really been a value from the start that I want to hire Indigenous people.”
He said all six of the employees at his store are of an Indigenous background, while many of them also share something else in common with Giesbrecht.
Giesbrecht said he grew up in a foster home and has actively worked to hire employees that have, like him, been involved with the Child and Family Services (CFS) system in Manitoba.
“About 80% of my employees have been through the CFS system, so that can create a bit of a bond because we have an understanding of what each other have been through in our own lives,” he said.
And right out of Giesbercht’s shop another Indigenous-led business has been able to thrive, as Uncle’s Sam’s employee Nicole Bester, who is also a business owner, entrepreneur and beadwork artist, sells products from her business Memengwaa Beads right in the shop.
Bester, who is originally from Sagkeeng First Nation, said she started the business in January of 2020 with the business’ name Memengwaa meaning butterfly in Ojibwe.
She said she grew up with the effects of the residential school system as both her grandmothers are survivors and uses beadwork as “a form of healing and bringing the culture back into focus.”
Along with hiring Indigenous employees, Giesbrecht said he also tries to make sure Indigenous culture is prominent in his store and a part of the business culture.
“I want Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from all walks of life to walk in here and know what is important to me,” he said.
The store celebrated National Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday by hosting a virtual powwow.
And as recreational cannabis stores continue to pop up all over Manitoba since being legalized in 2018, Giesbrecht said it was a “surprisingly easy” process to get a permit to set up shop.
“Not too long ago it was very difficult in any province, but that has drastically changed lately. In many ways it is easier than getting a liquor permit,” he said.
“We started working on the process, and within six weeks it was complete and we were given the green light.”
Along with the cannabis business, Giesbrecht is also the owner of Exchange PPE, a personal protective equipment business, which runs out of the same location.
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
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Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun