People & Culture

Inside the Saskatchewan grocery store that still trades furs

Robertson Trading Co. in La Ronge is a living museum to northern Saskatchewan’s storied past
  • Jan 22, 2019
  • 775 words
  • 4 minutes
Interior view of Robertson Trading Co. in La Ronge, Saskatchewan showing a variety of items for sale, including raw furs Expand Image

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.

The original La Ronge grocery store, purchased by Alex Robertson in 1967 Expand Image
The original La Ronge Grocery Store, purchased by Alex Robertson in 1967. (Photo courtesy Robertson Trading Co.)

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.”

An undated photo, but probably from the 1970s, showing the current home of Robertson Trading Co. in La Ronge, Sask. Expand Image
The building that houses Robertson Trading Co. today is shown in an undated photo, likely from the early 1970s. The store was expanded twice over the years. (Photo courtesy Robertson Trading Co.)
Exterior photo of Robertson Trading Co. in La Ronge, Sask. in 2018 Expand Image
The exterior of Robertson Trading Co. today. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic) 
Diane Robertson displays some of the raw furs for sale at Robertson Trading Co. in La Ronge, Sask. Expand Image
Diane Robertson displays some of the raw furs for sale at Robertson Trading Co. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic) 
A customer browses the in-house butcher shop at Robertson Trading Co. Expand Image
A customer browses the in-house butcher shop at Robertson Trading Co. Butcher Guthrie Winn’s sausage has won awards and is a favourite of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic)
Diane Robertson holds out a binder containing birchbark bitings Expand Image
Diane Robertson holds out a binder containing birchbark bitings. These intricate designs, punched into thin strips of birchbark using the front teeth, were traditionally used by the local Woodland Cree as stencils for beading. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic)
A close-up of a birchbark biting done by Rosie McLeod in Stanley Mission, Sask. Expand Image
A closeup of a birchbark biting done by Rosie McLeod in Stanley Mission, Sask., 80 kilometres northeast of La Ronge. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic) 
Every inch of available wall space inside Robertson Trading Co. is taken up by photos of trappers and customers Expand Image
Every inch of available wall space inside Robertson Trading Co. is taken up by photos and memorabilia documenting the history of La Ronge and the characters who have left their mark on the store over the past 50 years. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic)
A painting of Alex Robertson with wolverine pelts by Roger Jerome Expand Image
A painting of Alex Robertson holding up two wolverine pelts by local Métis artist Roger Jerome. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic) 

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