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Why Does Equality and Equity in the Cannabis space even matter?

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

We look to our own experiences to find a solution that started with a SEED.

I’m Michael Athill - the COO and Co-founder of HRVSTR Cannabis. We are Canada’s first and only 100% black owned federally legal cultivators and producers in Canada.

In the pic above, beside me, that's Ashley, my sister, my business partner. We are HRVSTR. I'm writing this but all of this comes from us. This comes from how we were raised, who we are as individuals, and who we have working with us. This is a passion project for us and we will see that it does what we have set out for it to do.

HRVSTR, our company is currently a micro-cultivator in Ontario and we specialize in top shelf cultivars - bringing exotic cannabis strains to a market that in our opinion is hungry for premium craft cannabis.

Ashley and I are proud of what we have accomplished as a sibling team. We are also proud to be the first in our community to do it in Canada. We aren’t happy that we are the only cultivators from our community. We are among a very small group of processors and retailers.. and to be frank, the numbers are so small that it bears no correlation to the percentages that reflect our diverse Canadian community.

What does that really mean though? And why does that matter in the cannabis space?

Not so long ago I was asked; “Many of us call ourselves cannabis advocates, but what are our efforts for if they don’t lead to action and change?”

In my opinion, the answer is E for effort - and that’s not a failing mark at all. Let me explain...

I’m sure most of us on the call have posted an emoji or a show of support for any number of incidents that have happened in the recent world events - and I take no issue with that. I fully support spreading the message as much as possible; however, typically that’s where it ends for most people - and that’s OK. By doing that you are earmarking change. We need advocates - but we also need collaborators. Actions. Actions that speak louder than words. We also need people who have so much belief in the cause presented before them that their personal time was used to make a difference. To derive an action. To make a change.

At HRVSTR, we are solutions oriented. Period. Full stop. End of sentence. Ash and I have always said: “We can talk about it or be about it.” I don’t have to tell you which one we chose.

On October 9th of 2020 we received both our cultivation and processing licence and at that very moment we knew our responsibility wasn’t just a dedication to running our company HRVSTR, but also a responsibility to hold the door open and rip it off the hinges if possible for all of the BIPOC and marginalized individuals who have a desire to participate in this industry.

A lot of you may wonder why. We’ve gotten the comments: Isn’t that more competition? There is only so much space. That takes your “uniqueness” away. That last one really struck a nerve with us.

Let me tell you a quick story.

We grew up in Scarborough. The first home to many of Toronto’s immigrants. A suburb where the middle class and poverty blended together seamlessly. Visit Scarborough and you will see that there is a sense of community. A sense of pride that bubbles underneath its hardened exterior that speaks to the resilience of its people - overlooked, undervalued, yet unbothered. We Scarbarians keep it moving no matter what.

Our parents came here from Jamaica and Antigua via England like so many other. Walking through many parts of our neighbourhood, the pungent aroma of high grade was always in the air - always. Who else was always there? Police. Arresting people for small possession, harassing kids on the corner because they must be up to no good, and more in line with this conversation - people self-medicating with cannabis were “drug abusers” and needed to be dealt with accordingly in too many of their eyes. The war on drugs was not only a war on drugs south of the border but also a war on the BIPOC community and its reach did not need a passport to enter Canada.

This isn’t some fabricated confirmation bias. In Toronto, of youth aged 12 - 18 - those detained for small possession - 15% of black youth went through the court system. White kids in the same age bracket - 3.2%. In adults, it improves ever so slightly - 15.2% of black adults went through the court system compared to 6.4% of white adults. All stats pulled from the Toronto Star.

I’ve seen it. We’ve seen it. We’ve lived it. This is Canada folks. No apologies given. People are still in jail right now for small possession. Why? Social inequality leads to injustice. Short statement with a complimented answer.

With all that being said, I’m not here to point fingers. That has been done and the message has not been received. That’s why we are still talking about this.

HRVSTR is here to pave a path to equality and equity - to success. We are here not to only talk about it but to be about it. Frankly, our community is losing on the front lines with cannabis while so many are winning - and profiting at scales that collectively are having an influence on Canada’s GDP. We are here to create infrastructure after the acknowledgement.

So what do we - and I mean WE as in a collective of individuals from all backgrounds do?

I’ll get to that in a moment but I can tell you what HRVSTR is setting out to accomplish.

Since receiving our licence, we have made it a pillar of our organization to leave the proverbial door open for marginalized people to have an entry point into this industry. Why? Because we went through it and we know how hard it was for two kids from Scarborough to accomplish this goal. We also know how good it felt to accomplish this goal, we want to share that amazing feeling with others; and selfishly, we want to know how good it will feel to aid so many others in achieving this goal. We have mentored multiple individuals on how to get licensed, generate ideas on what lane is best for them in this industry, employed BIPOC individuals in the construction of our facility, and simply show that it can be done by allowing people to see black leadership in a space typically reserved for others.

We are proud of that, but one of our biggest accomplishments to date has been in our ongoing discussions with Health Canada - the regulatory body for cannabis licensing in Canada. Our mandate is to generate and inject more diversity into the Canadian cannabis industry, create infrastructure, and as a result, generational wealth for marginalized communities in an industry that is still at its infancy. We knew we needed a larger platform to have more success. We had to build outside of HRVSTR and form a not for profit that allows us to build trust both internally and externally. We had to build a team of experienced professionals that display resilience, compassion, and empathy. We needed to find out how to make a dent from the outside in while making one from the inside out.

The Cannabis SEED Initiative - or the Cannabis Social Equity and Equality Development Initiative is a culmination of our life experiences, our visions as entrepreneurs, and our insight into the current direction of the cannabis industry. Somebody with a platform needed to raise a hand and question the decision makers, mentor those that want it, can create the connections that create the paths to success. The SEED Initiative has a plan set in place that has the potential to help so many from Victoria to St. Johns - on a federal level.

Two of the biggest challenges faced by our community when entering the cannabis are:

  1. Education / mentorship - having a guide - a navigator of sorts.

  2. Funding

So, we got to work. We identified the three pillars that SEED needed to focus on: education, employment, and entrepreneurship. We broke that down into support via partnerships and mentorship / guidance and took it quite a bit further.

Education - We partner with all institutions that offer cannabis related courses as well as trade schools. We believe cannabis extends beyond cultivation. Let's discuss how to get more students into your doors and into the cannabis industry.

Employment - We provide cannabis related business within the regulated market with driven employees combined with a background that includes a support system of mentors and industry experience.

Entrepreneurship - For individuals with existing experience working directly with cannabis or utilizing existing experience and combining that with cannabis - ie Chef or HVAC engineer. We aid in the licensing process, mentorship, and all of the challenges along the way.

The final and largest hurdle for many is the financing aspect. In late 2020, the Government of Canada announced a new initiative called Black Entrepreneurship Program - BEP. The BEP is a partnership between the Government of Canada, Black-led business organizations, and financial institutions. With an investment of up to $298 million over four years, it will help Black Canadian business owners and entrepreneurs grow their businesses and succeed now and well into the future.

This is the creation of a business development program with the mandate of creating and funding opportunities for the BIPOC community in the regulated cannabis sector. The implementation of the Black Entrepreneurship Cannabis Social Equity Program will be a subcategory of the already established Government of Canada Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP).

The three pillars of the financial side will address these:

The first pillar is a mentorship piece. Being able to have a guide from potentially both a governmental licensing perspective and a current license holder on how to approach various situations, as well as managing a business within a regulatory framework, for example is vital to success. Not only does the mentorship allow existing businesses to gain a potential employee but it also allows existing entrepreneurs to learn from within.

The second pillar is funding. Obtaining funds to start a business within the cannabis industry is extremely difficult. Obtaining funds for a cannabis startup while being black is - let’s just say difficult as well. With the proposed $298M in the pipeline, and a maximum of $250K per individual, the opportunity is there to build a business that one can be proud of and start on that path of individual success and generational wealth which in turn builds community.

The third pillar is data - and this will be used to see how the applicants fared, what could be done better in the future, and any other relevant information needed to ensure the program is as successful as possible.

Combining the education, mentorship, and financial assistance, with a team of trusted and industry proven individuals from the same community that is being stigmatized is essential to improving diversity within the Canadian cannabis space on all levels - from entry to c-level.

We plan on seeing multiple benefactors including existing businesses in the sector as well as the applicants. We feel SEED will have a dramatic impact on the diversity issue we are facing in the Canadian cannabis industry.

So what can WE do? By WE I mean all of us together. We need advocates. We need collaborators. Our parents always told us; “you have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” We are standing firm and holding that door open.

Where do you stand? Are you an individual in need of guidance and mentorship or do you represent an organization that has the ability to influence change? Wherever you stand, let's partner and get the cannabis industry moving in the right direction.

We look forward to hearing, helping, and experiencing the necessary change.

Sincerely yours,

The Cannabis Social Equity and Equality Development Initiative

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