Indigenous business owners in Fort Providence not letting COVID-19 slow them down

The old Aurora Market grocery store is dimly lit, with worn-in fake-wood paneling of yesteryears and an old-school cash register at the entrance.

The ambience has been the same for decades, but change is soon on the horizon.

New business owners Michael and Rose Vandell hope to update more than just the building’s esthetics, they’re aiming to transform the grocery store into a hub that serves the community’s needs.

“A whole wall is going to come out and this part will be opened up and eventually this will be hardware and meat cutting and on this side will be all new electronics, new age equipment and clothing,” said Michael Vandell.

Michael is Dehcho dene from Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation in Fort Providence and Rose is Inuvialuit originally from the Beauford Delta, N.W.T. but has lived in Providence since she was in her 20s.

When the couple took ownership in November 2020, it was the first time the grocery store had changed hands in over 30 years.

Now it’s the only Indigenous grocery store in the small community of Fort Providence, a three hour drive east of Yellowknife, nestled along the banks of the Mackenzie river in the Northwest Territories.

The husband and wife duo rebranded the store M&R Grocery.

Rose said she was nervous to buy the business during the COVID-19 pandemic, but her worries subsided as support began to pour in from outlying dene and Métis communities.

“I think they [Indigenous northerners] enjoy it because after they heard we purchased the store my husband did receive a lot of calls from other communities asking if we purchased it and they said “we’re coming down to shop their now,” Rose said.

In the roughly 700-person hamlet of Fort Providence, both shopping and employment opportunities are limited.

The Vandells kept on all the same staff – including long-time employees like Darrel Tanche who has been working at the store for the last 26 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up. I like serving customers and am a people person,” Tanche said adding that he was happy to be an essential workout throughout the pandemic.

Indigenous business owners
Michael and Rose Vandell of Fort Providence, Northwest Territories are determined to succeed in their new business venture of M&R Grocery, the only Indigenous-operated grocery store in town. Photo courtesy: Rose Vandell.

Unlike M&R who employee full-time workers, the Northern Store hires part-time cashiers after their hours of operation have been reduced in recent years.

Rose said she doesn’t see M&R in direct competition with anyone in Fort Providence and while she’s new to owning a business, she remembers her humble beginnings working her first job as a teenager at NorthMart Store in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Despite the economic hit in 2020, Denny Rodgers, a chairperson with the Business Development and Investment Corporation, N.W.T. praises (NWTBDIC) small businesses in their effort to support each other and foster local partnerships.

“It’s the shopping local buying local, keeping what we can within the territory. Finding creative ways to get work done to grow your business in the territory,” Rodgers said.

He said businesses in the NWT have taken advantage of grants and loan deferrals helping them pivot and set their sights on new business ventures such as consulting firms.

“Whether you are doing a strat planning (strategic planning) session or whether you are looking at another initiative or adding something to your business, having that expertise that we have within the territory to do that I think is important,” he said.

As the Vandell’s iron out the kinks of taking over a business, and get their orders down pat, they already have plans to expand.

“We want to increase hours with full days, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and by the springtime be open seven days a week. We will be like a big grocery store down south or like in Yellowknife or Hay River,” Michael said.

Read More: 

APTN News coverage of COVID-19

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