M’Chigeeng Freshmart third grocery store in Anishinabek territory

Dignitaries and youth cut the ribbon at the official grand opening ceremonies for the M’Chigeeng business development centre. The new centre features a Freshmart as an anchor store. photo by Michael Erskine

M’CHIGEENG – The journey to the grand opening of the new grocery store in M’Chigeeng covered several decades and encompassed the hard work, determination and persistence of literally generations of leaders, but the bright smiles evident as the ribbon was cut in front of the new business development centre, of which the grocery store forms the anchor, made clear those efforts were appreciated by the community.

M’Chigeeng entrepreneur, teacher and band member Lisa Corbiere-Addison is the president of the HIAH Corp. Economic Development board of directors and acted as master of ceremonies for the grand opening. 

The grand opening ceremonies were opened with a prayer and smudge conducted by elder Alma Jean Migwans. Ms. Migwans gave thanks to all of the spirits that helped in bringing the new development to fruition. She noted that in Anishinaabe spirituality prayers are always about thanksgiving. “We have so much to be thankful for,” she said.

The Lakeview School Grade 2 hand drum group then sang the songs ‘To All Our Relations’ and ‘Water Song.’ 

“Today we celebrate the grand opening of the M’Chigeeng First Nation Business Development Centre and the M’Chigeeng Freshmart grocery store,” said Ms. Corbiere-Addison. “Both ventures have been in the works for years.”

M’Chigeeng First Nation Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige acknowledged the youth and thanked them for their songs. “You are why we do what we do,” she said.

Ogimaa Debassige noted that the grand opening marked the culmination of the efforts of many successive chief and councils and was “a huge accomplishment.” 

“The vision goes back 40 years when having our own grocery store in the community was talked about,” she said. Ogimaa Debassige particularly lauded former chief Joe Hare and his leadership council for moving the effort forward, but also cited other chiefs and councils, the M’Chigeeng community and the HIAH board for their efforts.

She also cited the contributions of Waubetek Business Development Corporation, Indigenous Services Canada, FedNor (and in particular Initiatives Officer Arik Theijsmeijer) and the Bank of Montreal.

Former chief Joe Hare, who held several terms of office and under whose auspices the initial concept of the grocery store was developed, acknowledged the M’Chigeeng First Nation symbol of the Thunderbird as he took the podium. “The Thunderbird watches over our community,” he said. “We should always be mindful if we have concerns.” Mr. Hare also acknowledged local elder Leo Bebonang who performed an impromptu dance during the Lakeview hand drum group’s songs.

“Thank you, appreciation goes to chief and council for giving us this day, at long last, a really modern grocery store,” said Mr. Hare, although, he lamented to laughter from the audience, that the store seemed short on his two favourites, bologna and salt pork.

Mr. Hare recalled with appreciation that it was then councillor Hazel Recollet that first moved the motion to proceed with the grocery store, seconded by then councillor Henry Panamick.

“It’s important that decisions are made,” he said, “don’t just talk about things and do nothing. Thank you for making that push for all of us.”

Mr. Hare noted that every band survey conducted has listed the grocery store as a prime ask by the community. As always though, his eye remains on the future as he touted a student residence for the Kenjegewin Teg educational institute located in the community.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare, himself a previous chief of M’Chigeeng, spoke at length in Anishinaabemowin before making comments in English. “Miigwetch (thank you) to our community and to our non-Native friends,” he said. “This is for all of us, not just our own community.” He noted that of the 40 members of his alliance, only three have a major grocery chain store in their community: Kettle and Stoney Point, Wiikwemkoong and now, M’Chigeeng. “This is awesome,” he said. “I will use the same language as Doug Ford, ‘we are open for business’.”

Grand Council Chief Hare said that he had recently received a message from shipping magnate and former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin. “He told me he wants to open a dialogue on how to employ more First Nations youth in his big ships,” he said. 

Mr. Theisjmeijer brought greetings on behalf of FedNor, the federal Crown agency that provided capital funding for the business development centre. “I am very happy ot be here,” he said. “I bring congratulations to M’Chigeeng. FedNor provided $700,000 to the building that will help business to flourish in the community.” Mr. Theisjmeijer thanked Grant Taibossigai (HIAH general manager) for his hard work on the project.

Waubetek General Manager Dawn Madahbee-Leach, whose organization provided the community infrastructure funding for the grocery store said that she was “happy to be here on this special day” and she lauded the efforts of the community leadership and the efforts of “the longest serving economic development officer in Ontario, Grant Taibossigai.”

Ms. Madahbee-Leach also cited the contributions of the late Lewis Debassige.  “I know he saw it before he took his journey to the spirit world,” she said.

Ms. Madahbee-Leach remarked on the warmth of spirit and atmosphere exhibited by the staff of the grocery store and how pleased she was to see a grocery store that offered Anishinaabe staples such as corn soup. She cited the important role that the store will play in providing local food security.

Sunil Bajaj of Indigenous Services Canada provided the costs for the feasibility study and soft costs for the project. “We worked closely with the chief and council on this development,” he said. “We are really excited for your community. Indigenous Services Canada is pleased to support this new Freshmart, which will allow for jobs to come back to the community.”

Ky Waddell, district manager for Loblaws was cited as a “tremendous help in the arrangement of the Loblaws franchise for the grocery store. 

“I am excited to be here,” she said while offering thanks for being allowed to be part of the project.

Steve Dimarco, vice president of business banking with BMO (Bank of Montreal), the financial institution that provided long term construction financing for the project acknowledged the hard work that went into building the business case for the project. “Analysis and more analysis,” he quipped. “Thank you for allowing us to be a part.”

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes sent her regrets for not being able to join the celebration, noting that the House is still in session and her duties prevented her from being able to attend.

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha was on hand, however, and he referenced the atmosphere of hope that these economic developments bring to a community. “Reap the benefits,” he said. “You have it, it is open, it is not going anywhere.”

Penny Roy Corbiere, president of the M’Chigeeng Freshmart board of directors expressed congratulatory remarks “on this National Indigenous People’s Day” and said that she was “so excited and blessed that it is a reality.”

As part of the festivities two $250 shopping sprees were drawn. The winners were Joanie Shields and Tyler Greery and Cheryl Young. There was no time limit on the spree, but there was an undeniable spirit of urgency in the two teams as they filled their carts.

Ms. Shields and her partner made a stop at the pet food shelves to load up on supplies they intend to donate to Pet Save Manitoulin.

Outside musical entertainment provided a great backdrop to the long lineups at the barbecue tables and a celebratory cake filled in the corners.

Sherri Brant won the four tickets to a Toronto Blue Jays vs Seattle Mariners in September.

Established in 2012, HIAH is the holding company that oversees the economic interests of the M’Chigeeng First Nation and includes an energy division, a financial investments division, a workforce development division, a property management division and a business investment division.

“HIAH is a non-profit corporation whose vision is to act as a catalyst in the development of a viable community and economy for the band members of M’Chigeeng,” said Ms. Corbiere Addison. “HIAH works to foster and manage economic development initiatives and serves as a potential umbrella corporation for M’Chigeeng owned businesses and investment projects.”