Kevin Hatt worked at the Northern Store in Whapmagoostui for two years. He saw how Northern works from the inside.
He says management limited the amount of money in the safe so when people brought in their cheques, they couldn’t get cash. All they could get is credit to buy products at the store.
Now, Hatt is watching Northern destroy the business he’s helped Moses Sandy build since 1982. At Sandy’s Corner Store, where Hatt is manager, sales dropped 35 per cent last year due to what Hatt calls ruthless competition from Northern.
Hatt says he’s laid off full-time employees with families to support, profits have withered away, managers voluntarily took pay cuts and other employees took a wage freeze so Sandy’s could struggle through.
Sandy’s, which opened in 1982, is one of the first Native-owned stores to compete with Northern in a Native community in Canada. It’s the kind of competition Northern has worked with determination to prevent, says Hatt One strategy, he says, is to deliberately avoid training or promoting Native employees so they don’t gain the experience to open a rival business.
Northern vehemently denies the charge. “No, no, were you born yesterday? Where would somebody dream up something like that,” said Bernie Delmaire, Northern’s operations manager for Nunavik, who is responsible for Whapmagoostui’s store.
At first, Delmaire refused to say how many of the Northern store’s managers are Native. “I’m not going to start naming names.”
When pressed, he said one out of “four or five” managers is Native. Half of the 15-odd other employees are non-Native. In comparison, Sandy’s employs nine Natives out of a staff of 11.
Northern has another rival in Whapmagoostui, the Co-op Federation (seven employees, all Native). The Co-op is also feeling the noose getting tighter.
“They’re killing us,” said Elijah Petagumskum, general manager at the Coop. “We can’t compete with them (Northern) because they have money to play with. It is hurting our business.”
Northern employees make regular trips to the rival stores to spy out what the competition is doing and monitor any price changes, which are immediately matched. When the Co-op installed a bank machine, so did Northern. When Sandy’s gave money to a charity, Northern did the same thing, plus it threw in a TV for a raffle.
At times, the rivalry took a bizarre twist When Northern heard Sandy’s was paying its employees $10 an hour, Hatt says Northern complained to him. (Northern’s cashiers earn just 30 cents above the minimum wage.) Hatt says Northern also complained when Sandy’s started cashing trappers’ cheques, saying Crees would no longer honour their debts to Northern.
Hatt says he doesn’t mind competition. But unfair competition is another thing.
“In the short-term, people will make gains by saving a dime here, a nickel there. But I think the overall plan is to push Native businesses out of the market and then they’ll charge what they did before.”
Petagumskum agrees. “They’re doing everything to kill us. If the Co-op ever goes bankrupt, they’re going to ‘raise prices way up.”