Two years ago, Coun. Joe Kootenay says he was a week into his new job on band council with Alexander First Nation and “already sick of managing poverty.”
“Business is what would take us forward,” he said he determined at the time, and he had his eye on one business in particular: the reserve’s lone gas station, which had been run by non-band members for over 20 years.
“I, as well as other people had often thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we took over our store?’”
Two years and a lot of work later, that cool idea has become a reality.
About 80 people were at the gas station in Alexander Monday for the grand opening of the newly renovated Alexander Gas Bar. The station is now for the first time since 1996 wholly owned and operated by Alexander residents.
This new store should inspire younger generations and show them First Nations don’t have to rely on other people to come in and provide services, Kootenay said.
“We’re able to do things on our own.”
The old station
Alexander’s gas station was originally built as a mechanic shop/trade school in 1984 by then-chief Stanley Arcand, said R.J. Arcand, marketing co-ordinator for Alexander Business Centre Inc. (the arms-length group that manages the band’s businesses, including the Alexander Gas Bar). The school folded and became a convenience store run by Victoria Arcand (Alexander's first female chief) until 1994. Since 1996, the station has been run under lease by non-band members.
Kootenay said he crunched the numbers and realized the band was missing out economically through that lease.
“There’s nothing (else) between Westlock and Acheson as far as a store goes,” he said, and a community-run store could provide many jobs.
The old station was also pretty run down, with graffiti on its walls, rotting wood, busted lights and a gravel pad that turned to mud when it rained, R.J. said.
“It was an eyesore.”
Knowing the station’s lease was up for renewal, Kootenay said he approached R.J. and asked him to draw up a business case for a band-run gas bar. The idea soon won support from council, the community and the province, the latter of which agreed to back it with some $725,000.
The new face
Crews spent the last year gutting the station’s store building, reinforcing walls, building a kitchen, pouring a concrete pad, burying an overhead power line that otherwise would have run into the station’s new canopy and removing thousands of cubic metres of contaminated soil, R.J. said.
“This whole part here was basically a big hole,” he said, indicating the current site of the station.
The new full-service station features six Esso gas pumps that will run 24/7, with attendants on site from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., R.J. said. In addition to the usual chips and snacks, the store now features bread, eggs, juice, dairy, frozen foods and other groceries. Guests can also order soup and sandwiches made on-site at Kokum’s (“Grandmother’s” in Cree) Deli, which features many tables around which people can sit and chat over coffee.
“We have a lot of community members that do suffer from diabetes,” R.J. said of the deli. “Having that healthy food option, that fresh food option is good for everybody.”
This gas station will be the cornerstone of the community, as it’s the one place everyone goes when they visit Alexander, Kootenay said.
“It’s essentially the face of our nation. This is our front door.”
Sixteen of the station’s 18 employees are from Alexander, and all profits from it will go into a trust fund to support community initiatives, Kootenay said.
The gas bar is on Hwy. 642 on the east side of Alexander. Visit www.afnbc.ca/alexander-gas-bar for details.