A new North West Company store in Pelican Narrows is opening Saturday in partnership with Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. The new store will include grocery and pharmacy services, a Tim Hortons coffee shop, quick stop confectionary and a gas bar.
Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Vice Chief Weldon McCallum, of Pelican Narrows, said the community has been without a general store since the old one burned down in a 2015 grass fire. He said the new location will allow residents to shop in their own community and avoid long grocery runs to Flin Flon, Manitoba or Prince Albert amid the pandemic.
“A lot of our people are really anxious and are very happy to see the northern store open again,” McCallum said Friday.
“Especially the elders. The elders were the ones that were the driving force behind the northern store before it burned down, because a lot of our elders have accounts there. There's a Cree name that they have for the store and it's called Kompanik. It means a general store.”
“The elders are very happy. And so, tomorrow, when the store opens, it's going to be a really slow, grand opening. They'll be following social distancing. Elders will be given priority to enter so that they're not out in the lineup. They will be priority and everybody knows that in the community, with our respect for Elders.”
As well as providing safe access to food, the store will take a load off health workers, who are stretched dealing with the pandemic and the community’s medical needs.
“We won't have to rely on our local health center for pharmacy anymore. We've had PBCN health services in partnership with their pharmacy. That way it frees up our registered nurses’ time so that they're not busy handling medication anymore or having to deliver medicine. People will just go to the pharmacy like any other pharmacy in an urban center,” McCallum said.
The pharmacy and fuel aren’t scheduled to open until Dec. 8.
“They'll be holding off on the Tim Hortons for a while just until things settle down,” McCallum said. “We want to try and avoid developing big groups or gatherings.”
The store will also bring much-needed employment to Pelican Narrows.
“With everything from the grocery to the quick stop, to the Tim Hortons, to the gas station, over 40 employment positions were created through the North West Company,” McCallum said.
But the prospect of a Tim Hortons coffee shop in town has people especially excited.
“They're ecstatic… Everybody's been talking about it. Pelican would be the first PBCN community to have a Tim Hortons on our reserve. There’s not even a Tim Hortons in La Ronge. Not even in Flin Flon, Man. So we’ll be ahead in that area,” McCallum said.
North West Company spokesperson Ellen Curtis explained that while a grand opening is usually celebrated with an Elder’s prayer, ribbon-cutting, speeches and presentations, this one will be different.
“This is the first grand opening I can remember where we’ve done everything we can to avoid having a crowd,” Curtis said.
Any activities that could pose a potential risk, especially to Elders, will be deferred to a safer time. Instead, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and Northern are jointly presenting every household in the community with a holiday food hamper to celebrate this milestone event.
“Our goal right now is to make sure people in Pelican Narrows have safe access to food in the community,” Said Rob Thursby, director of sales and operations.
“We’ll have plenty of time to celebrate later.”
The North West Company said development of the store was made possible by working closely with the community of Pelican Narrows and PBCN Chief and Council.
“The community of Pelican Narrows has been underserved,” said Mike Beaulieu, Vice President, Canadian Store Operations.
“We are very excited to have the opportunity to partner with Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation to open a new Northern store. Now more than ever we are reminded of the importance of communities having access to a safe and secure source of healthy food... A lot of effort and hard work through very challenging conditions has brought us to this memorable opening day.”
McCallum said after the store burnt down in 2015, negotiations and talks continued until the spring of 2018 when plans started to become concrete.
The North West Company agreed to return land to the community, which is important because the store has a history that dates back to the time of the Hudson Bay Company.
The North West Company began as a fur trading enterprise in Montreal from 1779 to 1821 and competed violently with the Hudson’s Bay Company until the British Government forced them to merge. Outposts were often built and land appropriated without full and informed consent of the Indigenous communities where they continue to operate.
In 1987 the northern trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company were bought by an employee consortium who brought back The North West Company brand in 1990. It now operates as a grocery chain out of Winnipeg with outlets in northern communities across Canada.
“The relationship between the North West Company and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, Pelican Narrows has been strengthened. There are things that we have agreed upon that help make that relationship stronger. And one area is that the North West Company has agreed to turn over all of their property, their land within our community. That was one of my biggest arguments at the table. I wanted to see their lands given back to the community,” McCallum said.
“It wasn't right that Hudson’s Bay established this store… There's a long history with Hudson’s Bay and some that's not really bright but the future is looking brighter, and the relationship is there, the connection is there. So I'm really happy to see that.”
He said the North West Company has shown that it is committed to Pelican Narrows.
“They've understood both the size and population of our community, and they knew the situation that we were in. They knew how vital their grocery store was before it burnt down,” McCallum said.
“Being a company based out of another province to come in and provide that service and that much-needed help. It really goes a long way. It gives our community a sense of relationship.”
Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Northern Advocate