Pukatawagan residents celebrate opening of First Nation’s new community-owned grocery store

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Helen Bighetty gleamed with excitement as she shopped in the frozen foods aisle of Pukatawagan’s new grocery store Wednesday.

“This is absolutely wonderful prices. Like for this one here. This is a deal!” she said, holding a package of frozen ribs priced at $16.99.

“If you shop in The Pas, it’s like $25, $30.”

And it’s even more down the street at the Northern Store — until recently, the only place people living in the remote northwestern Manitoba community of Pukatawagan could get food.

“When I try the Northern prices, my hands burn,” said Bighetty.

Shoppers check out the new grocery store in Pukatawagan, which officially opened on Wednesday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The new $5.4-million store, which had its official opening on Wednesday, was made possible through a loan taken out by the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, which includes the community of Pukatawagan. The store is expected to create 12 jobs and turn an annual profit of about $400,000, which will be reinvested in the community of about 2,500.

The store’s opening day was an emotional one for people in Pukatawagan, said Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Chief Lorna Bighetty.

“The people have waited for a very long time to have a store to call … their own, and they don’t have to worry about high prices. We’re gonna keep it as low as we can and they will remain that way.”

Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Chief Lorna Bighetty inside the community’s new grocery store. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

She said most people in Pukatawagan get their groceries shipped in on a train from The Pas — more than 200 kilometres to the south — or buy them locally from the more expensive Northern Store.

Inside that store, owned by the North West Company, a box of frozen Delissio pizza sells for $16.49, a bag of white bread is $6.59 and a large tub of Becel margarine is $14.49.

“Last week we picked up four bags of groceries [at the Northern Store] and it was a little bit over $400, ” said Ralph Caribou, who is in charge of special projects in the community.

“We pick up a cart full today [at the new store] and it’s just a little over $200 — huge difference, and we’re still making money at these prices.”

Caribou said he believes the store’s opening comes years later than it should have, but he’s happy Pukatawagan’s residents will have an alternative to shopping at the Northern Store.

“They take the profits right out of the community.”

Pukatawagan resident Annaliese Dumas smiles as she pays at the till inside the new store. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The North West Company reported consolidated net earnings of $157.5 million last year, according to its 2021 annual report. It has 118 Northern stores in remote communities in Canada, along with operations in Alaska and the Caribbean.

“We congratulate the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation on the successful opening of their new store. We understand that they are offering special pricing as part of their opening, but can’t speculate on their long-term pricing plans,” said North West Company spokesperson Brent Smith when asked why prices in the Northern Store are so high.

“Our focus is on ensuring sustainable everyday prices for our customers, and we remain dedicated to consistently providing the quality products and services they expect,” he added.

Shopper Theresa Bighetty said she’s always wanted to have a band-owned store and plans to shop there from now on.

“I’m happy,” she said. “I feel it in my heart.”

Community members celebrate the new grocery store at a ribbon cutting led by Elder Angus Linklater, centre. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Elder Angus Linklater gave a heartfelt speech before cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of the store on Wednesday.

“I was very honoured to cut that ribbon,” said Linklater.

The grocery store is one of several new projects in the community.

It is also celebrating the opening of a new band office, tiny homes for single people and an eight-unit complex for elders.

The store’s opening comes as the community rebuilds from a wildfire this past summer that left residents displaced in Winnipeg and knocked out power for the First Nation.

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