After running its own pharmacy for a little more than a year, the Manitoba Metis Federation is embarking on an ambitious expansion campaign to open more stores on reserves in partnership with First Nations.
An enthusiastic David Chartrand, president of the MMF, said the project "will be a real change-maker."
For its first on-reserve location, the MMF has teamed up with Norway House Cree Nation and hopes to open the first of what will become a chain of MEDO Care pharmacies this winter.
An agreement is also in place to open another store this year on Sagkeeng First Nation.
Chartrand made the announcement flanked by Ron Evans, chief of Norway House, and Donavan Fontaine, chief of Sagkeeng.
As well as a potential "game-changer" on the economic-development front, the partnership between Métis and First Nations will also break some new ground on the political front.
"What we are talking here is amassing our wealth and showcasing our ability to empower our governments and turn our ideas into wealth for our citizens," Chartrand said.
Through its Metis Economic Development Organization (MEDO), the MMF has been operating its own pharmacy, MEDO Care at its headquarters on Henry Street in Winnipeg for a year.
That store features a large prescription dispensary along with general and health-care products.
It may not have the glitzy look of the national chains, but the store has exceeded expectations, grossing more than $1 million in its first year.
"If we look at the market in Manitoba alone, this is a $160-million market (annual prescription drug spending among First Nation and Métis people)," Chartrand said.
Revisions to the provincial pharmacy regulations open up the possibility of pharmacies offering broader services in the community such as immunization and diabetes care.
The thinking is loyalty programs -- in the form of an already-established MEDO affinity card as well as potential store-profit dividends to First Nation members -- will compel community members to patronize the stores.
"We will have to win customers," Fontaine said. "You can have a great model and great partnership... but the people have to get the message out that we own it and we'll get something back."
Chartrand said that's the way they can compete with the chains, because the stores will be community-owned and the profits will be kept in the community.
"The price of the drugs is set, they (the large national chains) can't change that," Chartrand said. "They may beat us on shampoo but what we have they will never have -- giving the dividends back to the people."
The MMF has started an optical care program for Métis seniors with some of the profits from its first store.
Evans said Norway House already has a dividend-sharing program through another of its band-owned enterprises. He said the hope is the pharmacy will contribute to that.
"We have already told our people this was coming and how it will be to our advantage to support MEDO," Evans said.
All parties believe there is a substantial amount of business at stake. Chartrand said the first three stores -- Henry Street, Norway House and Sagkeeng -- could generate as much as $60 million in revenue over a 10-year period.
And they are already talking to aboriginal groups across Canada and the U.S. about further expansion.
Blake Russell, president of MEDO, said it undertook a substantial feasibility study in the expansion project, retaining experts in aboriginal health and retail, who confirmed there is a significant market opportunity.
He said MEDO invested about $450,000 to start its first store and has also spent about $1 million developing the MEDO affinity card. Users of the card can collect points at a growing list of retailers and service providers including national brands such as Holiday Inn, Hallmark and Comfort Inn, which are redeemable for merchandise.