The Northern Store in Mistissini has approached the Band Council to pay for renovations on its store and help the company expand its operations in the community.
The renovations could cost Mistissini Crees about $1 million. Northern’s plans may include opening a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Without the deal, the company may pull out of the community.
“We’re looking at a way to improve our overall operation in the community,” said John Murphy, the Northwest Company’s managing director of marketing projects in Winnipeg. “The present format isn’t working as well as it could be.”
Asked if Northern may leave Mistissini if it doesn’t get the deal, Murphy said “We certainly would like to stay in Mistissini. That’s not an option we’re looking at at the moment.”
“I don’t think it’s what either party wants,” agreed Marc Menard, Northern’s manager in Mistissini. But Menard acknowledged that pulling out is “a possibility.”
Governments in the south regularly offer companies subsidies and tax breaks as a way of attracting business investment. But this is the first time a large company has approached a Cree community for help on such a scale.
Northwest Company owns 160 Northern Stores across the country. It made a profit of $17 million last year on sales of $549 million.
Northern currently owns the building where the Mistissini store is located. The Band Council charges Northern a user fee for the land. Northern’s lease in the community is expiring, and that’s what prompted the company to seek a new deal with Mistissini.
In April, Northwest officials met with Chief Henry Mianscum to ask the Band Council to buy the building for $1, pay for extensive renovations on it and then rent it back to the company. The company’s proposal was discussed at a council meeting later that month.
Crees at the meeting raised questions about whether the deal was an unfair subsidy to Northern. “It would create an unlevel playing field,” one Cree entrepreneur told The Nation. “Our own businesses are hurting and we don’t get that kind of money from the Band Council.”
Northwest’s John Murphy said the exact cost of the renovations still isn’t clear. “At this point I have no idea at all. We didn’t provide a number because we wanted to see how they perceive this whole thing happening. At this point, everything is in the open.