Steep Hill Food Co-op: A grocery store that feels like home

In anticipation of the road ahead, we took the short drive from the office to Steep Hill Food Co-op on Broadway Ave. in Saskatoon. There we were greeted by Gerry and her daughter Andrée, two of the full-time employees at the whole food co-op. Gerry helped to open the co-op in 1978.

Gerry and Andée stand behind the counter at Steep Hill Food Co-op.

While Steep Hill may seem like many other stores trying to get their piece of the organic/whole food grocer pie, a lot sets them apart. Carrying your usual array of health and lifestyle foods, Steep Hill also goes out of its way to work with as many local producers as it can.

I began grocery shopping in my mind as Gerry showed me around the shop. When she pointed out their locally produced honey, I added it to my mental grocery list.

Eventually, mental grocery shopping became actual grocery shopping and I found myself – somehow automatically – building a basket of honey, organic mac and cheese that I remembered from my childhood, and some lactose-free alternatives that I hadn’t seen in other stores before.

As I shopped I discovered Steep Hill’s most standout quality — the breadth of the staff’s knowledge. As I placed the honey into my basket I knew that the person who made it been bringing his honey to the co-op since the seventh grade, and as soon as I had mentioned my lactose intolerance Gerry and Andrée were quick to point out the lactose free ice cream, various milk alternatives, and others.

It was this hospitality that really stood out to me. It truly felt as if this power duo wanted me to leave their store with everything I needed. At one point Gerry mentioned that she will let members make special orders of products they don’t normally carry. It was so interesting to be in a grocery store that wants its customers’ involvement and interaction perhaps just slightly more than they want your money.

Steep Hill’s commitment to members is also apparent in the way it prices its goods.  Itoffers three tiers of pricing: non-members pay the price on the shelf plus 25 per cent; non-working members pay shelf price plus 10 per cent. Working members — who volunteer at least two hours a month — pay the shelf price for their products.

Steep Hill isn’t just a great place for shoppers. As my tour reached the back half of the narrow shop, Gerry mentioned their sink and informed me that anyone can come in for a glass of water — a fact I tucked in the back of my mind for those long hot days on Broadway.I will definitely be returning to Steep Hill – in fact I’ve already been back since the first visit to show my mom their array of gluten-free products, and introduce her to the shop that showed me you can in fact have a favourite grocery store.

I explore some of the bulk goods that Steep Hill has to offer.

How the Bridge City Bicycle Co-op gets their community cycling

During our time exploring the co-ops of Saskatoon, Tanner and I visited the Bridge City Bicycle Co-op (BCBC). This co-op shares space with the Core Neighborhood Youth Co-op (CNYC) — another great Saskatoon organization that offers a wide variety of youth programming and education. This partnership began because of the success of CNYC’s original bicycle program, which grew to the point where they needed to bring on the BCBC to manage it.

I wheeled my bike over to BCBC in search of someone who could help me.

This partnership was a turning point for the BCBC, which had been operating as an enthusiasts’ club before becoming the community service co-op they are today. It allowed the members to spread their love of cycling to the wider community.

It was easy to tell how much the BCBC has embraced its role. Each of the volunteer mechanics looked happy to be there, and more than one told me that their favourite part of volunteering was helping kids learn how to maintain and repair their bikes.

It wasn’t just the mechanics who were enthusiastic. When we arrived just before opening, a lineup had already formed at the gate. People who needed new tires and other bike parts got in line alongside children and their parents. It was hard to tell who was the most anxious to get riding.

That was when I got a sense of how vital this co-operative is. Watching children not only receive a bicycle but also learn how to care for it was one of the most wholesome sights I’d ever seen. This feel-good notion only got better when I had the thought that, for many who use the BCBC, their bicycle isn’t just a source of fun but also a necessary means of transportation and ultimately central aspect of life.

We were greeted by the BCBC’s Stan Yu, one of the founding members of the co-op, who showed me around their space. It’s made up of an outdoor working area, a small portion of the indoor shop that also houses CNYC’s woodworking area, and an attic full of bicycles and parts.

Stan and I chat as he shows me the attic of the CNYC building.

As Stan helped me pump up my tires and give the bike a bit of an inspection, we chatted about the BCBC and the work that they do. While I learned how to adjust my brake lines I also began to learn about the amazing work this shop makes possible.

I learned that the children who I watched receive bikes would pay only the membership fee, and that the adults only pay a small charge.

BCBC is able to do this through donations, and a partnership with the City of Saskatoon that allows them to collect and fix up bikes from the landfill. This set up essentially means that, for bikes at least, all roads lead to the BCBC.

BCBC’s sign advertising their rates.

Not only does the BCBC break down financial barriers to cycling, but also social barriers. At all times the shop is a judgement-free place that encourages developing new skills and the shop also offers special Women & Queer Programming, illustrating their dedication to getting everyone they can on a bike. 

Ukrainian Co-op (Video)

The Ukrainian Co-op has been creating a unique experience and welcoming space for over 80 years. Best known for their meats and imported goods, the store is more than simply a supermarket. Check out what makes this one of the longest running co-ops in Saskatchewan.

Brought to you by Co-operatives First.

Stanley Mission

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Sisan taking in the Missinipi.

In June, we had the great pleasure of being hosted by members of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band on Treaty 10 territory for The Backroad Diaries project.

Early morning start.

While visiting the area, Sisan had the opportunity to catch walleye on the great Missinipi, visit the Nation’s impressive Amachewespemawin Co-operative store and eat at the famous Chester’s Chicken.

A quiet, welcoming and proud group of Woodland Cree manages this amazingly beautiful area. Without question, this is their land and we are very obviously out of our depths here. To illustrate, Sisan asks what tackle is and John, our guide, has his young nephew teach Sisan how to attach jig to lead.

John filleting the walleye for our shore lunch.

Thankfully we’re after walleye, so there’s a reduced risk of making the wall of fame in La Ronge hospital where newcomers end up after having a hook removed from one’s fleshier parts. More importantly perhaps, thanks to this young man’s skill and the uncanny awareness of John for spots with fish, Sisan manages to catch us lunch.

While we sit on the edge of the Missinipi, water, rocks, trees and the unsettled winds of an oncoming cold front mingle in an amazingly bright aroma. Next to us, the gentle murmuring of ‘níhithawak’ is punctuated by the distant almost ethereal call of a loon and, in the distance, the decidedly ancient grace of a pelican gliding impossibly close to the deep blue waters of Nistowiak Lake. This is a place as beautiful as it is dangerous and worthy of respect.

Nistowiak Falls

We wander up to Nistowiak Falls, the tallest falls in Saskatchewan. While resting just above Nistowiak, Sisan does his best to teach me how to skip stones. Before I get the camera on him, he manages to do pretty well. But check out what happens when the camera’s on him.

After re-hydrating at Jim’s Camp below the falls, we head out for a shore lunch. John knows the Missinipi the way you know your own hand. It’s a part of him and he recognizes every current, hidden rock and underwater pool where fish collect. He picks a spot where he offhandedly mentions we won’t be smashed against the rocks.

Parked on a rock island in the Missinipi.

We “park” on a large rock with a few pine trees and a fire pit to light a fire and enjoy walleye with fried potatoes. The rock juts out of the middle of this astonishingly large and humbling river, but is protected from the wind in a way that allows John to expertly dock the boat on the rock without puncturing the vessel’s tin bottom.

John’s nephew cuts potatoes for a shore lunch.

As we look for dry kindling, clouds build up above us and John weights the value of lunch against the building storm, and wisely decides to navigate the rapids back up the river – before we make lunch.

As we make our way back, bouncing over rough waters at an almost alarmingly high speed, Sisan and I witness the majestic sight of two storm systems join forces. The two systems form a deep, dark monster reaching far into the atmosphere with bright light tentacles reaching towards earth every few seconds.

Just after going up the rapids as we race from a storm building over the Missinipi.

Later, once we’ve slowed the spine jarring race away from this threat, John quietly suggests we would have been “sitting ducks” if we stayed, and so Sisan and I are more than happy to opt for Chester Chicken over the shore lunch.

Hiy hiy to John, Lena and everyone at Amachewespemawin for the hospitality and for keeping us above water. A special thank you to the budding young níhithawak community leader who showed Sisan how to create his own lead and attach a jig.

You can follow Sisan’s journey on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries). Or the blog right here at TheBackroadDiaries.ca

Meet Sisan!

This summer, we’re gathering camera and curiosity and hitting the highway to capture the unique story of 8 rural and Indigenous communities across western Canada. Each of these communities has a co-op at the centre of it, and we’ll be sharing the story of how these co-ops have played a role in the community and local economy.

To help us do this, we’ve hired Sisan Fregene, a budding young YouTube personality and all around great person. Sisan comes to us from Edmonton, thanks in part to the Canada Summer Jobs program, and is in the middle of studying to become a x-ray tech. (So, he’s practical too!)

Starting in July, you can follow Sisan’s journey on Facebook (@TheBackroadDiaries), Twitter (@TheBackRDiaries) and Instagram (@TheBackroadDiaries).