“I Never Wanted To Be The First” — Weed Pioneer Vivianne Wilson On Canada’s Cannabis Problem
How does the first Black woman to run a cannabis company in Canada reconcile the success of her business with the industry’s systemic racism?
Though the process of opening and closing up shop every morning may seem like a mundane, albeit necessary function of the business day, Vivianne Wilson is aware that every time her doors open, history is being made: she is the first Black woman to run a cannabis company in Canada (this includes being the first Black woman to hold a federal license to import, export, and sell cannabis).
Then again, for Wilson, opening Greenport has always been more than a business venture. Watching the racist overpolicing of Black Canadians, and once cannabis was decriminalized, how white people co-opted a business in which Black entrepreneurs were early adopters, has thrust Wilson into the role of pioneer. “I never wanted to be ‘the first.’ When you’re an athlete in the Olympics, that’s what you want but that was never my intention. There is a moment of yay me! but it’s ultimately disappointing,” she tells R29Unbothered over the phone from her home in Toronto. “If this industry was rolled out the way it should have been, with intentionality and a true commitment to reconciliation, then I would have never been the first. I shouldn’t have been the first.”
Prior to the passing of the Cannabis Act in 2018, which saw the legalization of cannabis in Canada, Black and Indigenous people were more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession; Black people were arrested three times as often in Toronto, where Wilson’s business is also located. Between 2013 and 2017, Black people made up 34% of all cannabis possession charges despite making up only 8.3% of the city’s population. Black women in Toronto also face significantly higher cannabis criminalization rates: they are 2.3 times more likely to be charged for possession than white women and 6.2 times more likely than women from other racial groups. To this day, a disproportionate number of Black and brown people are still incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes (Black people comprise only 2.9% of Canada’s population but represent almost 9.3% of the federal prison population).
"If this industry was rolled out the way it should have been, with intentionality and a true commitment to reconciliation, then I would have never been the first."
And yet, almost three years after the passing of the Cannabis Act, there has been minimal acknowledgement of the failures across the board that have informed the disproportionate negative impacts on racialized communities in Toronto and Canada. It was only in June 2020 that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that systemic racism exists in policing, specifically the RCMP. Additionally, the lack of race-based data collected by the federal government invisibilizes the issues — and the people affected. Wilson’s success makes her a glaring exception in an industry profiting off of the same thing that has imprisoned Black women like her.
Considering the alarming stats about incarceration rates and the fact that Black people were early entrepreneurs in the weed space pre-decriminalization but have now been largely shut out by white people, I ask Wilson why she thinks there isn’t more government support for people from marginalized communities entering the cannabis industry. “The government had an amazing opportunity in 2018 to really get this right. We were the first G8 country to legalize cannabis, but so what?” she says. “It’s great PR but from a social responsibility perspective, it was a huge miss on their part.”
Wilson grew up in Westmoreland, Jamaica, an upbringing that she says directly influenced her eventual career path. She recalls an idyllic, pastoral life very different from the Jamaican citylife that Canadian media of the ‘90s presented to the world. “We picked our own fruit every day as kids. We had mango trees in our backyards and we’d pick coconuts right off the trees. We were really connected to the land in a meaningful way,” Wilson says.
That connection informed how illness was treated in Westmoreland parish, often with cannabis or ganja, as Wilson still calls it. “Contrary to how the media portrayed Jamaicans and ganja, it wasn’t part of our everyday life. It was mostly used to treat ailments or illnesses. It was true bush medicine,” she says.
Wilson immigrated to Canada with her family in 1990 at age seven, a move that was the catalyst for her journey back to her relationship with cannabis. The negative portrayal of cannabis in Canada stood in stark contrast to what she knew of the plant growing up in Jamaica. “Here [in Canada], when you’re sick, you go to the doctor where you get a prescription for a drug. That in itself was novel to me.” Exacerbating this culture shock, the stereotypes of Jamaica and Jamaicans were also really negative, to the point of caricature. “A lot of the diaspora, myself included, started to withdraw from our culture and our understanding of the plant,” Wilson remembers.
It was this disconnect that, years later, inspired Wilson to begin talking to her elders in Jamaica, specifically her grandmother, about ganja and cannabis in her ancestral land. The memories that were shared were revelatory for Wilson. “My grandmother had two ganja plants that she grew. Telling me about it now, she had zero shame attached to it, but for as long as I had been alive, we had never spoken about it. Not once!” she laughs. “My own uncle, my grandmother’s son, didn’t even know she had these plants. That’s how secretive it was. You have this plant that everyone knew could heal and restore, but it still just wasn’t something that was spoken about.”
The secrecy was for good reason. The war on drugs had major impacts on the island. The criminalization of Black people and cannabis use was not foreign to Jamaica. The United States’ intense anti-drug policy of the 70s and 80s began to filter into the small island. As gang violence began to rise, lawmakers began cracking down heavily on ganja cultivation, distribution, and use.
With this fraught history of criminalization and misrepresentation, from both Jamaica and Canada, Wilson saw both a gap and an opportunity in driving the “rebrand” of cannabis in a direction that included people that looked like her and her family. Until recently, the negative branding of cannabis predominantly looked like “the rastaman” whereas the positive rebranding suddenly “looked like young white people doing yoga at the park,” she says. Cannabis has become a class signifier — those who get to use, enjoy, and indeed, sell cannabis with ease look nothing like those who have historically been excluded from, and harmed by, the cannabis industry and its laws. “The truth is, we [Black people] were the biggest influencers in getting the plant out into the world in the first place,” she adds.
"Cannabis has become a class signifier — those who get to use, enjoy, and sell cannabis with ease look nothing like those who have historically been harmed by the cannabis industry."
Wilson is adamant in placing the cannabis industry back in the hands of the communities that have been directly harmed in its PR makeover. “My message to folks is that the rebranding is real, it’s worked. And that’s not on our side,” she says. Mindful hiring practices, health and wellness, and accessibility are principles that are not typically associated with the cannabis industry, and that’s exactly what Wilson wants to change. “We’re making cannabis more accessible, less overwhelming, and more human,” the mission statement for GreenPort reads. In building the company’s values, Wilson focused on key core values like accessibility and inclusivity. The easiest way for Wilson to do this was in the building of her team. She made conscious, intentional efforts to ensure that everyone— from the store greeters and salespeople to her strategy team — looked like the people she grew up with. “I remember those early days meetings, and I’d tell everyone to look around at the people around them. I made sure they knew that they weren’t here by accident. They deserved to be here.” For Wilson, this was the only kind of mission statement that made sense. “It was really important to me that GreenPort created an authentic reflection of what the cannabis world actually looks like.”
Part of that is ensuring more Black women are in positions of power in the business.
In Canada, 84% of cannabis industry leaders are white and 86% are men. It’s no wonder why Wilson has committed to true diverse hiring practices for her own team. Additionally, Wilson and her GreenPort team have started work on a new series called Cannabis Entrepreneurs, an online platform to share the hard-fought lessons they’ve learned in the industry, in an effort to make entering the cannabis industry more accessible and a lot easier to navigate for other people of color. The program is still informal and in beta-phase, but Wilson hopes it will be a tool where she can answer questions, share her knowledge, and offer guidance to those wanting to learn more about the cannabis industry. “I had to do a lot of research and digging on my own when I was getting started and it was really hard and overwhelming for me,” Wilson remembers. “People in the industry weren’t as open and, honestly, a lot of them didn’t know what they were doing either. I don’t want others to go through what I went through.”
Building that kind of community has proven to be even more crucial in the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic. Collaborating with other local businesses has always been integral to GreenPort’s ethos, but during the pandemic, it’s how they’ve survived: “We’re in a city that’s been on lockdown for almost a year. Toronto has been one of the hardest hit regions in the country. Our downtown has really suffered,” she says. “40% of the stores in my neighborhood are for lease. We’ve lost a lot of foot traffic. And you very quickly learn how dependent you are on each other. When restaurants and bars suffer, we suffer.” Through the GreenPort Community page, Wilson and her team are building a platform that will showcase other local businesses through various collaborations and promotions. It is this spirit of co-promotion and support of each other that Wilson says will ensure that “we are in a better position to not just 'survive' these difficult times but thrive.”
Wilson’s story has led her back to her Jamaican roots and a true understanding of the plant she still affectionately calls ganja. “Everything I’ve built into my business has been intentional and with purpose. The plant is about healing, community, history,” she says. “There is a rich, holistic understanding about this plant and so much of that has been lost in its rebranding. We need to get comfortable with doing the right thing and telling the whole story.”