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Going It Alone

Going It Alone

What happens when a small Northern community takes on an empire
By Elaine Anselmi
Aug 17
2017
From the July/August Issue

Every May before goose break, when hunters would set out to the bush for a few weeks, the Northern Store in Wemindji, Quebec dropped its prices on camp necessities like toilet paper and canned goods. “People look for bargains around here,” says community member William Blackned. “[The Northern] had the money, they could—if they were still here—probably put the community store out of business by lowering their prices down to the floor.”

But the Northern Store is no longer there. In 2012, the Cree community’s band council voted against renewing its lease, after a market study found that, indeed, the smaller community store just couldn’t compete. Council denied the renewal application, along with the North West Company’s proposal to expand, and instead chose to scale up the community store, run by the band’s Tawich Development Corporation.

The Northern Store had, in some form or another, been integral to the community and region for 300 years. By the late 1700s, the Hudson and James Bay regions were littered with trading posts, largely flying the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ensign. The North West Company’s first trading post near Wemindji—a community of about 1,200 at the mouth of the Maquatua River on James Bay—opened in 1804, according to A Visit in Time—Ancient Places, Archaeology, and Stories from the Elders of Wemindji. It closed only a few years later, but reopened in various incarnations over the next 200 years.

By 2012, the Northern Store in Wemindji was bringing in $100,000 a week, according to estimates from Tawich CEO David Bull. The community store—then selling mostly frozen and canned goods—netted around $25,000 to $30,000, in comparison. The council’s decision not to renew the lease in 2012 meant choosing to support its own store over keeping competition—albeit, competition tilted in the North West Company’s favour. “We figured, rather than sending our business to Winnipeg where North West is, we’d go into it on our own,” says Bull, who, in 2012, was the development corporation’s chief operating officer. It was by no means an easy decision. “The pressure was on, but then again if you don’t take that chance you never know.”

The Wemindji Community Store was renovated, expanded and stocked with fresh produce, small kitchen appliances and sporting goods. These days, the store brings in a minimum of $150,000 a week, says Bull. Staffing at the new 10,000-square-foot-store went from eight daily employees on average, to 25 people on the floor on opening day. (Many workers moved over from the Northern Store.)

There’s a fine balance between keeping costs as low as possible, while still offering good, steady employment. “The big challenge we still have is a lot of people figure, because it’s a community store, we’ll be selling stuff at cost,” says Bull.

The price of groceries at the community store is generally lower than at the Northern, Bull maintains. (The North West Company did not return calls or emails.) Wemindji store general manager Richard Robitaille says he tries to keep the prices from fluctuating too much, staying on par with neighbouring communities. But high transportation costs are a reality in Wemindji, near the north end of the 600-kilometre James Bay Road.

When the plan to excise the Northern and expand the community store became public, there was trepidation from the customer base: Would the selection change? Would the business be viable? And would the new store have the beloved suppliers that the North West Company had enlisted—Tim Hortons, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut among them.

“People still demand that kind of stuff. We have a restaurant; we have a coffee shop. We have to explain, ‘Sure, you can get a Tim Hortons but it’s a banner and you operate under their rules,’” says Bull. “There’s a coffee shop in town that’s doing very well… The mom-and-pop coffee shops shut down when Tim Hortons moves in.”

There are some items the Northern sold that people now have to drive out of town for or order online: electronics and clothing in particular. And both Bull and Blackned point out the credit system, where Northern Store shoppers could make purchases on an account to pay back at a later date, is missed by some. “Some people don’t have money, so that came in handy,” says Blackned.

But still in the first five years, Bull says, profits from the community store have been used to supplement the development corporation’s other local businesses like a hotel and internet service provider. And there’s the sense of pride and ownership that come along with it. “To say the store is ours, it’s the community’s, not Northern’s,” says Blackned. “I don’t think we’d want Northern back. At least I don’t.”

 

The story of the empire

Despite the Royal Charter in 1670, which granted the Hudson’s Bay Company a trade monopoly over all the land that drained into Hudson Bay (Rupert’s Land), it still faced competition. French traders posed the biggest threat, with their stronger ties to indigenous peoples and better access to major centres, through both wilderness expertise and occupation of the St. Lawrence River.

The North West Company was born when intrepid French traders formally partnered with Scottish and American merchants in Montreal, following the British conquest of New France. After one failed start, the company realigned in 1779, and pushed inland to seek out trade. As a result, the HBC was forced to abandon its “sleep by the frozen sea” philosophy and move in from the shore of Hudson Bay. The North West Company soon had posts as far north as Great Slave Lake.

The rivalry between the HBC and NWC was brutal. Camp ambushes and kidnappings were customary, and alcohol was widely distributed as a bartering piece. In 1816, the Battle of Seven Oaks—one of several violent encounters during the Pemmican War—pitted the HBC against Métis working alongside the North West Company on the Red River. The HBC lost 21 men, including its local governor; the other side lost only one.

The cost of competition, in lives and dollars, was getting to both companies and they officially joined forces in 1821.

The post-merger Hudson’s Bay Company would take a different form in the late 1800s when cash-based retail moved in. By 1943, the Fur Trade Division was transformed into the Northern Stores Division. In 1987, with 178 stores across the country, HBC investors and 415 employees purchased the Northern Stores Division from HBC. The new company reclaimed the North West Company name and its stake in the North. As of 2016, the company ran 120 Northern stores, 6 NorthMart locations and 15 smaller Quickstop convenience stores throughout the North.