In pictures: NWT’s first cannabis licensed producer opens its doors

Boreal Cultivation's Jordan Harker inspects cannabis plants in a 'clone room' that houses specimens of various strains
Boreal Cultivation's Jordan Harker inspects cannabis plants in a 'clone room' that houses specimens of various strains. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Boreal Cultivation, the NWT’s first licensed cannabis producer, has begun growing its own cannabis strain in an anonymous corner of a Yellowknife industrial district.

The company is the creation of born-and-raised Yellowknifers. Five people occupy an all-but-unmarked brown building that houses a facility designed to meet stringent Health Canada rules.

In a vegetation room, where young plants are first nurtured, Jordan Harker and Damien Healy – two of the company’s founders – inspect the first batch of what will become Gas Banana, the strain they have selected to become Boreal’s grown-in-the-NWT flagship.

“It has quite a gassy profile but it’s also got a bit of sweetness,” Harker said, clarifying for the uninitiated that gassy, in cannabis terms, has more to do with a fuel-like aroma and less to do with flatulence.



“The weed world is pretty strange. There are profiles that you wouldn’t ever associate with a nice experience,” he continued. “Diesel, gas, is an actual taste that has a massive following, and it’s quite a desirable trait.”

Cannabis plants growing at Yellowknife's Boreal Cultivation
Cannabis plants growing at Yellowknife’s Boreal Cultivation. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Pre-rolled joints are inspected at Yellowknife's Boreal Cultivation to ensure they are the correct weight
Pre-rolled joints are inspected to ensure they are the correct weight. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

The idea of a cannabis grow facility in Yellowknife was first made public in 2019.

Since then, a small team has built an estimated $2-million complex, acquired a sales licence, and begun packaging and distributing cannabis grown elsewhere in Canada. When Cabin Radio visited, Alaister McTurk – another Boreal founder – was producing pre-rolled joints of Orange Cookies, a strain from Ontario.

The next step is Gas Banana, the first strain grown by Boreal itself. Once four weeks in the vegetation room have elapsed, the plants will spend nine weeks in a flower room – where mature plants begin forming buds, overseen by grower Rob Dawe – followed by harvesting and drying. In all, a 16-week process is needed before Gas Banana can start to be shipped to stores.



“It might go to Ontario before it goes to the NWT,” said Healy, a former territorial government communications officer who quit to help run the company. (“I dare say it’s harder work than the government,” he observed.)

“Ontario is already planning five months ahead of time, so we know that they want to buy from us a seven-gram pouch of Gas Banana,” Healy continued. “Hopefully the retail stores in Yellowknife start buying more and also hopefully the Inuvik store comes online, which we’ve been eagerly awaiting.”

Boreal already sells products grown elsewhere under its own name in the NWT, Nunavut, Yukon and Saskatchewan (with Manitoba and Ontario coming up). In other instances, it returns the packaged product for other companies to sell.

Gas Banana is the product of more than two years of testing, a process that might sound to some people like a dream.

“We were growing plants there for about two and a half years – selecting, smoking, just whittling down,” said Harker.

“We went through literally thousands of plants. The structure of the plant has to be there, it has to produce a decent yield. It has to be a healthy, vigorous strain that works with the type of growing that we’re doing. It has to look good, it has to taste good.

“I’m not going to sit here and say it was torture, by any means. I smoke every day, I love it. But when there’s a whole bunch of jars in front of you and you’ve got to smoke-test 30 in two days, it becomes work … you see your notes start trailing off at the end of the day.”

Damien Healy, left, and Jordan Harker inside a vegetation room at Boreal Cultivation. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Damien Healy, left, and Jordan Harker inside a vegetation room at Boreal Cultivation. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Cannabis plants growing at Yellowknife's Boreal Cultivation
Cannabis plants growing in the vegetation room. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Gas Banana will come in at 26 to 28 percent THC, the substance primarily responsible for the way cannabis alters your mental state.



“That’s on the high side, for sure. It’s quite a potent strain,” Harker said.

Once Gas Banana is up and running, next in line will be a strain named Lemon Royale, which, as you’d expect, will have more of a citrus twang.

Pressed for more flavour notes, Harker said Lemon Royale “almost smells like BO.” While that may not be the world’s greatest advertisement, he added: “Any predominantly strong smell you can get off the leaf is desired, because it means it’s something. Ninety percent of people may hate it, but 10 percent will love it.”

Boreal Cultivation is not yet making money, but Healy says that’s not far off.

“If we can get more workers and take on more volume, I think we’ll be profitable,” he said. “Right now, we’re close to being break-even. We’re in it for the long haul and we want to be profitable.”

Healy says the ultimate target is a team of 10 to 15 full-time workers running four flower rooms. For the time being, even adding a sixth staff member would help the first one or two flower rooms reach their capacity, allowing Healy to spend more time growing the business than growing individual plants.

“This morning, I was here at 6:30am mopping, cleaning the bathrooms and stuff like that, just because that’s what you’ve got to do when you own a business,” he said.

The Boreal Cultivation building in Yellowknife's Engle Business District
The Boreal Cultivation building in Yellowknife’s Engle Business District. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Boreal Cultivation's Damien Healy
Boreal Cultivation’s Damien Healy. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

That’s especially true in the cannabis industry, where licensed producers must adhere to strict regulations. During a tour of the facility, Boreal made great play of the measures taken to keep each room clean, down to choosing wall materials that can be more readily washed down and installing cameras almost every six feet, in some places, to provide Health Canada with video evidence that everything required is being done.



Running a building like this is trickier in Yellowknife than it might be in southern Canada.

Labour costs are “more of a factor” than elsewhere, Harker said, while heating is a huge overhead, more so than the electricity required to power the grow lights.

Water is not a simple commodity, either. The Engle Business District in which the building resides is on trucked water, meaning a city contractor comes out weekly to fill large tanks that supply the vegetation and flower rooms.

“That’s definitely unique,” said Healy. “When we tell other growers that we’re on trucked water and not piped water, they’re like, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, that’s the reality of the North, right?”

Another reality of the North is that people love a homegrown product. Healy said Boreal – which has a selection of shirts and hoodies in its front office – has studied the likes of the NWT Brewing Company, which turned Yellowknife-brewed beer into the heart of an enduringly popular brewpub.

“We’ve learned from the brewpub that people are enthusiastic to buy local products, so we’re keen on that,” he said. Gas Banana’s packaging will carry a reference to the product being grown in the Northwest Territories, though cannabis labelling is otherwise carefully controlled by Health Canada.

A package of Boreal Cultivation's Big Lake Blueberry, a strain grown elsewhere but packaged in the NWT
A package of Boreal Cultivation’s Big Lake Blueberry, a strain grown elsewhere but packaged in the NWT. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A room at Yellowknife's Boreal Cultivation in which cannabis that can't be sold is destroyed under Health Canada regulations
A room at Boreal Cultivation in which cannabis that can’t be sold is destroyed under Health Canada regulations. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Meanwhile, Boreal is hoping other forms of government control can act in the company’s favour, both at the territorial and federal level.

Boreal wants the GNWT to give it northern manufacturer status – “we manufacture things, we substantially change a plant and transform it into a sellable product,” Healy said – which comes with a series of incentives.



Tweaks to allow more tourism would be welcome, too.

“At some point, it’d be nice to have open-air markets. It’d be nice to have ministerial provisions to allow cannabis lounges [or] the ability to sell directly from your LP to consumers that come in,” Healy said, using the initialism for a licensed producer.

Federally, Healy wants Ottawa and the RCMP to do more to combat illegal growers.

“They need to look at the illegal websites that don’t have the same barriers we do for the licensing requirements, the testing requirements, the labour costs. They can grow and sell illegally and are definitely competition to us,” he said.

Apparently unaware of the pun, he concluded: “Hopefully, the feds and RCMP can nip that in the bud.”