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Liverpool company president sees opportunity

Marijuana
Marijuana

Fish urine is the secret sauce that will allow some 50,000 cannabis plants to thrive in Liverpool.

We’ll get to that momentarily.

Myrna Gillis, founder and president of Aqualitas, reported a few days ago that her company had collected a cool $8.7 million from investors across Canada and the United States.

Three years into the making, and Gillis says Aqualitas has its sights set on a cultivating licence next month, allowing a minimum of 60 people to go to work in a job-starved area that was devastated by the closure of the Bowater newsprint mill in 2012. The Aqualitis plant itself occupies the former Bowater site.

Gillis is embracing the pressure.

“I hope we’re not looked at as the saviour but I do hope that we are looked at as a really good opportunity for good employment,” said Gillis.

“Back in June we went to council with our plans and by the time I got back to Halifax I had 60-plus job applications in my inbox, two hours after the meeting. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really important to this community.’ “In a funny way, it’s the best and the biggest challenge. At the end of the day it’s what motivates you. You’re excited to be that change but at the same time you just want to make sure you deliver.”

Gillis, who is in the last stages of winding down her law practice, has relied on quite a team of experts, including a chemist, engineer, botanist and microbiologist, to finally get to this point.

The operation essentially relies on the bodily waste of roughly 2,000 koi fish in four, 4x10-footfish tanks. Based on an aquaponics cultivation method, the system separates solid and liquid waste produced by the fish, and from there the urine goes through a degassing and filtration process. The urine is broken down into plant edible nitrates and other nutrients are added to the formula. That fertilizer is then pumped into a water table from which the plants feed. It’s a continuous cycle and the water is constantly being recycled and recirculated.

“It’s two-fold — how we get it into the systemand what we do to introduce

into the system. One is a design method and the other is a recipe. Those are the secrets.”

Those secrets have been developed by the company’s subsidiary, Finleaf Technologies.

Through the help of National Research Council of Canada funding, the group has developed an aquaponic system that has garnered national attention and most recently received a Spark Nova Scotia Innovation award for its innovative technology.

The final product, Gillis insists, is that you’re left with a fresher, cleaner kind of cannabis that compared to conventional hydroponic growing doesn’t use chemicals in the cultivation process.

Why would a successful lawyer give up on her Halifax-based practice and pursue an industry, which in Canada at least, is in its infancy? She sees a great business opportunity and hopes to eventually have 300 employees working in cultivation, business management and customer service roles, to name a few. She also has visions of expanding the business into producing cannabis-based oils and edibles.

But in her experience as a disability lawyer, she’s also seen first-hand how cannabis treatment has been a “game changer” for many of her past clients.

“I know and I believe in the benefits of medical cannabis, the evolution of its use from a legal and civil rights point of view. For medical patients, it’s a constitutional right. “I’m very proud of the work that I’m doing. I’m very proud to have represented and advocated for clients to have access to cannabis that did improve their health. I’m very proud to have colleagues that took these challenges through the proper steps, challenging certain things in court and arriving where we’re at now.”

Why choose Liverpool as the site of a multimillion-dollar business venture? Essentially, the town has everything the company requires and needs.

“Especially, we have a highly skilled, job-ready market. About 300 people showed up at our job fair and I was really excited and optimistic about what I saw.”

Purchasing cannabis from Aqualitas will be fairly straightforward. Arriving on location with a doctor’s prescription will do. Gillis said the company will nail down supply contracts once it receives its cultivation licence.

She sees a day not so far into the future when cannabis use will become a normalized part of Canadian culture.

“The next evolution you’re going to have is situations where restaurants will serve cannabis in food and you can order it off the menu. You might have a cannabis chocolate after dinner, cannabis oil on your salad, pairing food like people do with wines now.

“Once you can consume it in a public manner other than smoking it, the stigma will quickly dissipate, but it already has come a long way.”

But for now, Gillis’ objective is ramping up production early in the new year. That means meeting expectations of a community badly in need of a boost.

“We had a construction team working at the facility last summer and a good amount of that crew were laid-off Bowater workers.

“It happened to be the first time they were back in the plant since 2012. They spoke to me about the community, that our company is providing new hope for the area.

“That meant a lot to me then, and it still does.”

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