The north­ern Saskatchew­an gro­cery store keep­ing old tra­di­tions alive

How a north­ern Saskatchew­an gro­cery store is help­ing to keep tra­di­tion alive

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Alexan­dra Pope

ROBERT­SON TRAD­ING CO. in the town of La Ronge, Sask., might be the only gro­cery store in Canada where a good por­tion of the in­ven­tory is not for sale. Sure, res­i­dents and vis­i­tors pass­ing through on their way to hunt and fish the province’s bo­real wilder­ness can stop in to pick up dry goods, camp­ing sup­plies and some of in-house butcher Guthrie Winn’s sausage (for­mer prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper is a fan), and trap­pers can still sell raw furs or trade for gro­ceries. But it’s the stuff mounted on the walls and hang­ing from the ceil­ing — taxi­der­mied wildlife, buck­skin jack­ets, wood and bone carv­ings, air­brushed drums, birch­bark ca­noes — that makes Robert­son truly spe­cial, a sort of liv­ing mu­seum to a way of life that is at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing. “A lot of the things you see are not for sale, they’re part of his col­lec­tion, or we re­ally love them and don’t want to part with them,” says Diane Robert­son. She’s re­fer­ring to her late father-in-law, Alex, who left a decades-long ca­reer as a fur buyer with Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany to pur­chase the La Ronge Gro­cery Store in 1967. In the 1970s, global de­mand for high-qual­ity furs fu­elled a Cana­dian ex­port in­dus­try worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally, and, in spite of com­pe­ti­tion from HBC, within seven years the Robert­sons were able to build a big­ger store be­side the orig­i­nal build­ing, at which point they changed the name to Robert­son Trad­ing Co. They would ren­o­vate twice more over the years to ex­pand the busi­ness, which to­day is run by Alex’s son Scott. Robert­son at­tributes Alex’s suc­cess to the re­la­tion­ships he forged with trap­pers in the area and their fam­i­lies. She says he had “a real love” of In­dige­nous hand­i­crafts, and would buy buck­skin jack­ets if some­one needed the money — or just be­cause he liked them. The store still sells moc­casins made of tanned moose hide, beaded by hand and trimmed with ot­ter fur by lo­cal Cree artist Cathy Clin­ton Ratt, a mem­ber of the Lac La Ronge In­dian Band. A small of­fice above the shop floor houses sur­plus goods and the things too pre­cious to be dis­played, in­clud­ing birch­bark bas­kets and binders full of del­i­cate birch­bark bit­ing, which tra­di­tion­ally were used as sten­cils for bead­ing but are also elab­o­rate art­works in their own right. A paint­ing of Alex hold­ing up two wolver­ine pelts by lo­cal Métis artist Roger Jerome has pride of place in the creaky stair­well. These days, the price of fur is fash­ion-de­pen­dent, but the in­dus­try is tick­ing along. “The only thing that’s go­ing ex­tinct are the trap­pers,” Robert­son says. The ad­vent of the dig­i­tal age and the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma of res­i­den­tial schools have cre­ated a tra­di­tional knowl­edge gap that Cree El­ders are work­ing to bridge. “They’re try­ing to keep it in the schools and teach kids hand­i­crafts and trap­ping,” says Robert­son. “We just have to see whether or not some­body will take it on.” See more pho­tos of Robert­son Trad­ing Co.’s past and present at can­geo.ca/ma19/robert­son.

Among the trea­sured para­pher­na­lia lin­ing the walls and ceil­ing of Robert­son Trad­ing Co. ( left) is a paint­ing of Alex Robert­son, the store’s first owner ( above).

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