Wemindji’s branch of the Northern Stores chain will be forced to close permanently by the end of June after the Band Council’s economic association opted to begin a partnership with food retail giant Loblaws.

“Northern Stores won’t be able to operate in the community because their lease was not renewed,” said Wemindji Nation Chief Rodney Mark. “Tawich Development Corporation will have a supply agreement with Loblaws, and they have already opened the door to the 35 Northern Stores grocery employees.”

The store, with its food and retail section, will shut down in two stages. The grocery section will shutter on March 31, while the remaining retail section will close its doors for the last time on June 31. It is one of the last vestiges of both the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company, organizations with links to the Cree of Eeyou Istchee that go back centuries.

Mark Wadden, president of Tawich Development Corporation, said the change was a matter of opportunity and stresses that the end of their association comes without bitterness.

“We are breaking people out of a 300-year-old habit of relying on HBC and Northern to provide […] their needs,” he said. “[The company] also benefited a lot from the Cree people. We thank them for their years of service but it’s time we took our destiny into our own hands. We see this as the beginning of a new era.”

Wadden explained Tawich’s actions as what is best for Wemindji. He said the store’s profits made it hard for other entrepreneurs to compete, so an outside consulting firm called Novic was hired to help plug “a major leak in money” from leaving the community. Of the three firms bidding for the contract, Loblaws was ultimately selected by the community’s economic overseers.

Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaws has 70 stores across Quebec and Ontario. Its owner, George Weston Limited, is the largest food retailer in the country. The price of food will be lower in all likelihood. Furthermore, their flagship President’s Choice-branded Decadent chocolate-chip cookies have been the bane of many a sensible eating plan. However enticing all that may be, resistance in the community is something that has been anticipated by Wadden.

“A lot of people are somewhat aware of what Loblaws can offer but it’s the unknown that worries people,” he said. “Some people just don’t like change, so not everybody will be happy with this decision.”

Among those unhappy would doubtless be certain employees of the store. This prompted the directors at Tawich to make offers to transfer employees from one store to another. As many as 35 people could make the switch. One employee – a butcher – has answered the call. For others, the offer comes as too little, too late.

“One of the current staff members, who’s been working [at Northern] for approximately 30 years, told us that he appreciated our offer,” Wadden said. “But, he would like to retire now from stocking shelves and spend some time in the bush.”

Good feedback from a similar situation in Atikamekw territory helped tip the balance towards a mostly positive outlook for Tawich’s Wadden. Consultants from Novic oversaw a similar deal forged in Obedjiwan, which lead to Loblaws partnering with the local band.

“We’ve heard comments made by some of the people [about the Obedjiwan deal] and one of them said this was probably one of the best decisions they’ve made for their community,” said Wadden. “They had a lot of criticism from their people at the beginning, but it has been a very positive change.”

More details of the deal should be forthcoming in the next little while. In the meantime, the president of Tawich finds his optimism undiminished despite the uncertainty of working with a new economic partner.

“The future is bright for Wemindji,” Wadden said.