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Remote Oxford House lands a Tim Hortons

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FLIN FLON -- As they line up for doughnuts and double-doubles, residents of Canada's first fly-in reserve to boast a Tim Hortons may be on the cusp of a broader economic trend.

Oxford House welcomed the restaurant -- in the form of a self-serve kiosk at the new Northern Store -- in October, bringing a Canadian icon to its most remote outpost yet.

"Hopefully this signals the beginning of increased partnerships between major brands and First Nations communities," says Wab Kinew, director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, and himself aboriginal.

Oxford House, located 160 kilometres southeast of Thompson, has a modest population of 2,600 people and no year-round roads. Yet what's surprising is not that it warrants a Timmie's, but that it took this long to get one.

At the risk of sounding crass, northern Manitoba's 50,000-plus on-reserve population represents a captive market. Mass welfare dependence, while tragic and an ingredient in social ills, also makes many reserves largely immune to recessions and other economic hiccups.

With the food and retail market on reserves dominated by Northern Stores and individual entrepreneurs, the arrival of a superstar like Tim Hortons is unlikely to go unnoticed among other growth-hungry chains.

"It's a positive sign, a small part of a much larger move from Canadian businesses to devote more resources and attention toward cultivating business relationships with aboriginal communities," says Kinew, whose mandate is to help the aboriginal community connect with the mainstream economy.

The Oxford House Tim Hortons is rare in that it is run not by a private franchisee, but by Winnipeg-based North West Company, which owns the Northern Store chain of general stores.

It's not the first such arrangement. Two years ago, Timmie's opened three kiosks at a general store and two convenience stores owned by North West in Iqaluit.

"The kiosks are doing well, so North West approached us with the opportunity in Oxford House," says Alexandra Cygal, manager of public affairs for Tim Hortons.

Cygal could not comment on potential further opportunities on reserves, but said the kiosks certainly represent "a new and growing sector."

Kinew, a friendly-faced 30-year-old whose closely cropped hair escalates into a mound of curly black atop his head, won't be surprised by future Timmie's expansions into First Nations.

"Generally speaking, Tim Hortons is considered the 'holy grail' of First Nations economic development, as almost every community that I speak to is trying to land a franchise," he says.

Noting Opaskwayak Cree Nation beside The Pas already has a privately owned Timmie's, Kinew says "another Tim Hortons 'on the rez' will likely encourage other entrepreneurs to pursue franchising."

Kinew adds "there is a growing aptitude for business among aboriginal people" as the national aboriginal economic development board found the rate of entrepreneurship in aboriginal communities is growing 21/2 times faster than the Canadian average.

Of course when it comes to business, reserves have factors working against them. Transportation is a huge cost, particularly throughout most of the year when there are no winter roads. There are also well-documented social troubles.

Kinew is largely undeterred.

"Remoteness is a big impact on the bottom line," says Kinew, who grew up in an Ontario First Nation. "While it's true that there are some social problems on-reserve, if the bottom line is attractive, I'm sure business people would proceed in spite of them."

Wally Daudrich, a Churchill lodge owner who has travelled to many northern reserves, sees other challenges for business, namely a "labyrinth of red tape that presently prohibits most mainstream Canadian businesses from setting up shop on reserve lands."

But the fact remains reserves are growing far too rapidly to continue to be ignored by the major players in business. The residents themselves are increasingly yearning for more services within their communities, not to mention the associated jobs.

A Tim Hortons in Oxford House is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2012 A14

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