AUNDECK OMNI KANING – Matthew Esquimaux operates Buddy’s Smoke Shop, a small cannabis and tobacco retail outlet located in Aundeck Omni Kaning that was raided three years ago, with over $10,000 in stock and cash seized by the UCCM Anishnaabe Police. Last week, all marijuana-related charges against Mr. Esquimaux were dropped.
“I was just informed that the Crown has dropped all charges against me. They told me they didn’t have a case,” Mr. Esquimaux told The Expositor last week as he was returning from Gore Bay with the paperwork. “I got all the money back, not so much the product.”
Mr. Esquimaux has been battling his charges without a lawyer, representing himself in court. If he had engaged a lawyer, the 25 appearances over three years would have amounted to thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Despite his operation being raided and his product seized, Mr. Esquimaux said he was back in business shortly thereafter. “I never did stop,” he said. “I felt my rights were being violated. I fought the charges myself with no lawyer. The rescheduled it 22 to 25 times.”
Mr. Esquimaux noted that Aundeck Omni Kaning was one of the first Indigenous communities to pass a band council resolution (similar to a bylaw in non-Indigenous municipalities) allowing community members to establish outlets following strong support in a community referendum.
Since then, several outlets opened and have flourished in nearby Sheguiandah First Nation, but none of those operations have been raided or charged to date. There are now three or four operations in Aundeck Omni Kaning as well.
Those passing through the reserve might well be unaware of the existence of Buddy’s Smoke Shop and Mr. Esquimaux said that is on purpose. “Out of respect for children and families in the community I haven’t put up signs with cannabis leaves or plants on them,” he said. Instead, he has continued to operate his business in a low-key and low-profile manner.
He has resisted placing signs on the highway directing traffic into the reserve. “I’m not catering to the tourist trade,” he said. “My customers know where I am.”
Mr. Esquimaux displays the charge sheets and appearance notices from his three-year legal battle and shakes his head. “I wasn’t even here when they raided my home,” he said, noting that the address of his shop, while next door to his Maple Crescent home, is not the address of Buddy’s Smoke Shop. “My daughter, who was babysitting my children, was home at the time.”
Mr. Esquimaux said that he makes no claim to being a saint. “I have had brushes with the law in my past, but that is just that, my past,” he said. “I am a different person now.”
He addressed rumours that he sells other drugs from his location.
“No, that is not true,” he said. “I have a money-printing machine here. Why would I risk that? Why would I risk my family and my business? I am not a greedy person.”
Mr. Esquimaux’s small store has undergone several expansions over the past couple of years, moving from a simple shed to a larger location through substantial additions. The expanded space has allowed him to begin selling a wide range of merchandise, including clothing, smoking aids such as bongs and other paraphernalia.
Outside in the yard stand several dilapidated looking cannabis plants of various sizes with most of their leaves stripped. The tree beside the plants have also been stripped bare of leaves—the culprits can be seen chomping on the plants. An arborist’s worst nightmare, tent caterpillars with the munchies.
Mr. Esquimaux’s situation is not unique, as First Nation communities have wrestled with the thorny questions of jurisdiction and sovereignty and an ambivalent view towards cannabis among some community members. A lot of that has changed with the economic opportunities presented by the opportunity to open dispensaries.
Mr. Esquimaux noted that a family member of one of the most vocal opponents of his shop has since opened one themselves.
The shop owner notes that he is not over his legal issues yet, with an outstanding charge of assaulting an officer still before the courts. Mr. Esquimaux disputes that charge as well. “The officer said I spit at him,” he said. “I didn’t.”
Mr. Esquimaux has been featured in a glossy magazine article focused on the Indigenous cannabis trade. Representatives of the magazine are coming to interview him this week, and he has been approached to tell his story by a number of national news outlets.