Farewell to Neechi Commons

by Kaye Grant, Kenzie Love and Hazel Corcoran
After spending much of the past year hoping for a solution to Neechi Commons’ challenges, it was forced to close on June 30th.  Neechi Food Co-op members rallied and identified many different options to turn their operation around but, sadly, were not successful in doing this.  There are currently plans to turn it into a “safe space” and thrift shop.
Winnipeg is home to Canada’s largest urban aboriginal population: nearly 80,000 people, more than 10 percent of Winnipeg’s population. The community economic development (CED) community recognized Neechi’s many contributions to this population over its nearly 30 years of existence.  What began as a small dream in January 1990 became a growing social enterprise for the North End, based on the principle that economic healing is needed to sustain personal and social healing for many among the indigenous population of Winnipeg.  In the words of co-founder Louise Champagne, ” Neechi Foods emerged out of a re-awakening of Aboriginal identity and a desire for renewed self-determination within the Aboriginal community”.
During the 1990s, unemployment, abandoned housing, drug dealing, prostitution and other gang activities were rife in Neechi’s immediate neighbourhood. Despite this, the worker-owned cooperative managed to stay afloat without any operating subsidies in its original location. Part of the reason lay in Neechi’s enduring commitment and connection to its broader community, hence its name, which means “sister/brother/friend” in Cree and Ojibwa.  Most of Neechi’s roughly 45 most recent employees, as well as many past employees are aboriginal, the most of any retail operation in Canada, with many of them living in the area. Their dedication helped the Co-op survive some tough early years, with employees taking pay cuts at times to keep the business running.
In 2013, Neechi moved from its small corner location on Dufferin Street to a much larger 30,000-square-foot space on Main Street. While the move allowed room to open a small restaurant, an art gallery, and meeting space, redevelopment costs far exceeded the original estimates due to unexpected structural problems. The result was a significant level of debt, a problem magnified by too little working capital.
As a worker co-op, Neechi provided employment, training and collective business ownership to inner-city residents, and perhaps most importantly, it provided hope. But all that wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of supports and opportunities available to enterprises such as Neechi. Its closure will leave a big gap in the North End, but it wasn’t due to a lack of persistence or perseverance.
The fact remains that Neechi was a groundbreaker. It opened up in an area all but abandoned by the big grocery chains, and sought to fill that food desert with healthy food, particularly fresh produce and meat and of course its famous bannock. It also provided an inexpensive “fruit basket” for children and never sold cigarettes.  These were principled decisions that probably cost Neechi in terms of profits but allowed it to retain its honour.
In Neechi’s early days, the members drew up a list of CED principles.  These principles have formed the basis of the Manitoba government’s CED framework.  The Neechi Principles are:
  1. Use Of Locally Produced Goods And Services
  2. Production Of Goods And Services For Local Use
  3. Local Re-investment Of Profits
  4. Long-term Employment Of Local Residents
  5. Local Skill Development
  6. Local Decision-making
  7. Public Health
  8. Physical Environment
  9. Neighbourhood Stability
  10. Human Dignity
  11. Support For Other CED Initiatives
For nearly 30 years, Neechi Foods Co-op has been a beacon in the North End of Winnipeg.  Although we are sad to see the closure of Neechi, the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation has enormous respect for all that Neechi has achieved.  Neechi Co-op did not choose an easy path focused only on commercial viability. It chose to blaze a trail to be a transformative venture in the same spirit as other co-operative pioneers.  Through the inspiration provided by its accomplishments, and through the Neechi Principles, its legacy lives on – whether or not it succeeds in its current drive to revitalize itself. Migwech, Neechi.