Neechi Commons creating opportunities in North End

Winnipeg store bringing hope and opportunity to inner-city

By Bill Burfoot

It may be located in one of Winnipeg’s poorest areas, but one neighborhood business is bucking the trend by surviving the difficult times when others weren’t able to do so.

Neechi Commons (Neechi meaning friend/sister/brother in Cree and Ojibwa) is a full-range neighbourhood supermarket which also has a produce courtyard, restaurant, bakery, catering services, specialty foods, Aboriginal books, arts, crafts, music and clothing, as well as a seasonal farmers’ market. Yes, it has a bit of everything.

Opening at their current location in 2013, Neechi Commons is run by an aboriginal worker co-op. It is housed in a 30,000-square-foot, fully renovated building located at 865 Main St. with north Point Douglas on the east and Lord Selkirk Park on the west. Neechi Commons has been a staple in the North End for over 27 years, employing young aboriginals and other neighbourhood residents while giving the community a place to call their own. With close to 45 employees, the staff-owned and -operated business has taken it upon themselves to try and bring positive change in Winnipeg’s North End.

“We strongly believe in the economic development of this area and wanted to open a business that served the area with prices that were affordable for families in the community,” says president of Neechi Commons, Louise Champagne, who spearheaded the idea with other Aboriginal inner-city organizers in the late 1980s.

Starting out as a small, 3,500-square-foot corner store on Dufferin Avenue back in 1990, Neechi Commons has managed to continue to grow in a very competitive industry. In an industry as old as grocery, innovation is paramount to continued success. Champagne says it was important for them to offer something that the bigger chains weren’t able to.

Neechi Commons features groceries, a restaurant, bakery and a local community art centre.

“We are well-known for our oven-fresh bannock, fresh and frozen wild blueberries, wild rice and local fruits and vegetables,” adds Champagne. “Manitoba-caught fish, specialty jams, hand-crafted moccasins, Aboriginal artwork and children’s books, all these things that, together, make us really unique in the city.”

When you pull up, you’re greeted with a large parking area on the 50,000 square foot lot. As you walk through the doors of Neechi Commons, you enter into what is known as the Three Sisters courtyard. A colourful array of fruits and vegetables are the first things you see, which was a design feature that was purposely done to promote more of a healthy lifestyle, says Champagne.

“They’re really colourful and people have to walk through this to find anything else,” adds Champagne. “Usually the first thing you see when you go into other grocery stores is that the produce, the meat, the bakery, they’re all on the outside, and we wanted more people to see the healthier options first.”

Turning to the left is Kookum’s Bakery where the aroma of fresh, homemade bannock, fry bread, and even some bannock pizza will guide you right up to the counter to order some of your favourites.

At the back of the courtyard is a beautiful wall painting that symbolizes the spirit of Three Sisters Fruit & Vegetables Courtyard. Three Sisters refers to the classic indigenous vegetables, corn, beans and squash, which grew only in the Americas before European contact. The painting was done as a gift to the Neechi Commons by renowned artist, Jackie Traverse.

With barbecue season about to be upon us, you’ll be hard pressed to find lower-priced, quality meats than in their meat department. From bison to burgers, and made-to-order meat packs, butcher Gilbert Kohlman takes great pride in making sure you’re getting the highest quality meat.

“The bison we get is 100% from Manitoba, and 99% of all the meat we bring in is all Manitoba-based meat,” says Kohlman. “We’re Manitobans, supporting Manitobans and that’s something we take great pride in.”

Champagne says that when non-indigenous folks shop at Neechi Commons “genuine reconciliation” occurs. This is because both the customers and the staff are involved in mutually beneficial economic exchange that fosters cross-cultural respect.

After you’ve finished all your grocery shopping, there’s a spiral staircase planted in the middle of the courtyard that will bring you up to the BisonBerry Restaurant. An elevator is available if you are unable to use the staircase so that nobody will miss out. The restaurant, which seats 60 people, features large bright windows looking out towards downtown Winnipeg and some historic Main Street buildings. The menu is filled with a variety of authentic indigenous cuisine, plus many other favourites to appease even the pickiest eaters. Whether it’s a small gathering for lunch, or a full banquet-style dinner, Neechi Commons has got you covered.

“Something many people may not know is we also do catering, and can cater events of close to 100 people, such as full course Christmas dinners, which we have done in the past,” Champagne says. “We do in-house catering, but can also cater events outside of Neechi Commons as well.”

After your meal, you can head over to Neechi Niche Arts and Cultural Centre also on the upper-level. The store features Aboriginal, Metis, Inuit and local community-based contemporary art. The space is part gallery and part shop where you will also find art and craft supplies, a book shop, and Northern Star blanket makers. What’s even more unique is that most of the art in the store is featured by people who live within a 14-block radius of Neechi Commons – something very important to Champagne.

“The amount of talent in our community is really amazing,” says Champagne. “Our goal is to support and promote established and emerging Aboriginal, Metis, Inuit and community based artists by enriching appreciation of our culture and inspire creation. We want the Neechi Niche to be a hub for artists, art makers, and art appreciators.”

Neechi Commons is increasingly drawing customers from other areas of the city and out of town. This includes shipping to remote northern indigenous communities. With the assistance of the Nutrition North Canada program, they are helping to lower the price of meats, produce, dairy products and other healthy foods in the north, while expanding its sales to Winnipeg restaurants and other institutions.

It’s been over 27 years since Neechi Foods Co-Op first opened its old corner store. Today’s Neechi Commons is a hidden gem that continues to create jobs and opportunities for people in the North End. The next time you’re downtown, take the five-minute drive down Main Street just under the CPR tracks to Neechi Commons. You’ll be very happy you did.