When Norway House Cree Nation Chief Larson Anderson visits rural Manitoba communities, he’s always surprised by their local economies.
Anderson previously worked for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and spent a lot of time driving around Manitoba.
“One particular town struck me as the most surprising,” he said. “Their population was at 3,500, and they had three, four blocks of businesses, independent businesses.”
That community was Carman, in southern Manitoba.
“I equate that to our nation, that has 6,500-plus people living here, we have basically [nothing] because we have a monopolized corporation that’s taken over,” said Anderson.
Like most Manitoba First Nations, the economic hub of Norway House Cree Nation is the Northern Store, a chain of stores owned by the North West Company.
That company has deep roots in Canada. It was established in 1779 in Montreal as a fur-trading company — competing against the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As settlers travelled west, so did the North West Company.
By the late 19th century, the North West Company had stepped into the retail market, and by the end of the Second World War, had established a presence as the leading retailer in remote communities across Canada.
“We’re dealing with … a company that is here to make money for their shareholders, at the expense of anybody and everybody,” said Anderson.
“That includes First Nation people primarily, because that’s where they do most of their business.”
He is now sounding the alarm on the monopoly the company has on economic development in First Nations like his northern community, about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
“They sell every product imaginable, from socks to Skittles to boats to insurance to tax preparation. It’s basically killed any possible economic activity that we as a nation and people could hope for,” the Norway House chief said.
“If you can’t grow an economy like we used to … before the settlers came in, then we can’t succeed.”
In a statement to CBC, the North West Company says it has “engaged in a series of ongoing partnerships with the Norway House Cree Nation for several decades.”
“Our agreements with the community do not preclude the band or its members from operating competitive business enterprises,” a spokesperson said in the written statement.
“We believe that local competition is healthy for both customers and the community economy at large.”
Long-term lease for store
Before the mid-90s, the only Northern store in the community was on Norway House’s treaty land.
Norway House’s current Northern Store opened in 1996, as the anchor of the community’s then new Kistapinanihk Mall.
Anderson says when he was elected chief in 2018, he was “stunned” to find out that in 2013, the North West Company had renewed its lease in the mall for 20 years, with a possibility of a 10-year extension on the lease.
“The new lease had the current store that was in the mall, but they also added the C-store … [which] is adjacent and beside two existing service stations that were owned by band members,” said Anderson.
The C-store is a nickname given to the North West Company brand of convenience stores, which include a gas station and a Tim Hortons.
“There was a lot of disappointment, confusion and questions. Why would you put a competition right next door to your own people?” said Anderson.
The convenience store did prove to be stiff competition for one local gas bar.
“As soon as the C-store came in, I probably lost more than half of the business,” said John Anderson, owner of the now-closed Anderson’s Fuel and Confectionary.
“I’m just a one-show band here, and it’s pretty hard to compete against a multimillion-dollar business.”
John Anderson, who is Chief Larson Anderson’s brother, was a councillor when Norway House Cree Nation agreed to bring in the North West Company’s convenience store. He says he was one of four councillors who were against allowing the store to open in the community.
“Then all of a sudden, everybody started getting mad and pretty soon the [councillors] changed their mind, and they voted again,” said John Anderson.
He says the agreement with the North West Company was signed behind closed doors, and its details were not clear to the rest of the council.
“It was all done behind closed doors, and I don’t think any of the councillors knew about it because it was done through the chief,” said John Anderson.
Anderson’s Fuel and Confectionary had an electrical fire in 2021. Because of the loss of business to his North West Company competitor, John Anderson decided to permanently shutter the store.
In a statement, the North West Company confirms the current agreement with Norway House Cree Nation was signed in 2013, but says a 20-year lease is a “common term length for these agreements.”
“The Band and community raised several priorities included in the agreement, including upgrades to the existing Northern store, adding fuel options, bringing Tim Hortons to the community and increasing local hires,” the company spokesperson wrote.
Opening a local grocer
Now without any local competition in Norway House Cree Nation, the band plans to open a strip mall, which will include a grocery store, convenience store, food court and a recreational centre, says Chief Anderson.
“Our store plan is not just to sell groceries — our store plan is to sell every product, and I would probably equate it more to a Walmart,” the chief said.
Larson Anderson says that one need of his community is more housing, and says the profits from the new grocery store will go to building more houses.
“We want to generate our own money, and so that’s the real goal here — it’s not to go after North West Company by any means,” said the chief.
“The idea is to generate revenues, to build more homes, to create more jobs, to create more programming for recreation and such.”
John Anderson says he too wants to see a more thriving local economy in Norway House.
“I’d like to see local businesses, more local businesses opening up,” he said.
“It’s better to be … people supporting local business than somebody that takes a few million dollars out of here every year.”
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