Indigenous values ​​grow in Uncle Sam’s cannabis store

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Dave Baxter reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative 0624Cannabis1 scaled e1624489894165 Uncle Sam’s owner Josh Giesbrecht and employees Kenzie Wilson (center) and Nicole Bester, all of whom are indigenous, can be seen at Uncle Sam’s store in downtown Winnipeg. Dave Baxter / Winnipeg Sun

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For Josh Giesbrecht, running a cannabis business in Winnipeg is a source of pride and a way to make a living, but it’s also a way for him to hire and employ other Indigenous community members and to share and celebrate his culture.

Winnipeg’s Giesbrecht, 30, originally from the 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 the Exchange District of Winnipeg, in late May.

Uncle Sam’s is a cannabis retail franchise with stores across Canada, and Giesbrecht said he operates his store as an independent company under the Uncle Sam name and brand.

Giesbrecht believes he is the only First Nations person in the province who independently runs a cannabis store, and he is actively committed to keeping the Indigenous people running his business.

“It has always been a core value of mine since I’ve been in the business to hire indigenous people,” said Giesbrecht. “In my experience with many cannabis companies in this province, I don’t see many indigenous workers, so it was a value from the start that I wanted to hire indigenous people.”

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All six employees in his shop have an indigenous background, and many of them have something in common with Giesbrecht.

Uncle Sam's associate Nicole Bester, who is also a business owner, entrepreneur, and pearl artist, sells products from her company, Memengwaa Beads, at Uncle Sam's Cannabis in downtown Winnipeg.  Dave Baxter / Winnipeg Sun Uncle Sam’s associate Nicole Bester, who is also a business owner, entrepreneur, and pearl artist, sells products from her company, Memengwaa Beads, at Uncle Sam’s Cannabis in downtown Winnipeg. Dave Baxter / Winnipeg Sun

Giesbrecht said he grew up in a nursing home and actively worked to hire people like him involved in the Manitoba Child and Family Services (CFS) system.

“About 80% of my employees have gone through the CFS system, which can create some bond as we know what the other has been through in our own lives,” he said.

And another indigenous company was able to thrive straight out of Giesbercht’s business, as Uncle’s Sam’s employee Nicole Bester, who is also a business owner, entrepreneur, and pearl artist, sells products from her Memengwaa Beads store directly in the store.

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Bester, who is originally from Sagkeeng First Nation, said she founded the company in January 2020 under the company name Memengwaa, which means butterfly in Ojibwe.

She said she grew up with the effects of the boarding system as her two grandmothers were survivors and used beadwork as “a form of healing and a return to culture”.

In addition to hiring indigenous employees, says Giesbrecht, he also tries to ensure that indigenous culture is in the foreground in his business and as part of the corporate culture.

“I want indigenous and non-indigenous people from all walks of life to come here and know what is important to me,” he said.

The store celebrated National Indigenous Peoples Day with a virtual powwow on Monday.

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And since recreational cannabis stores have continued to pop up across Manitoba since legalization in 2018, Giesbrecht said it was a “surprisingly easy” process to get approval to set up shop.

“Not so long ago it was very difficult in every province, but that has changed dramatically recently. In many ways, it’s easier than getting an alcohol permit, ”he said.

“We started working on the process and within six weeks it was complete and we got the green light.”

In addition to the cannabis business, Giesbrecht also owns Exchange PPE, a personal protective equipment store that operates on the same site.

– Dave Baxter is a reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative based out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Canadian government.

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