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Alex Robertson

LA RONGE - Alex Robertson bristles when asked whether tourism accounts for a significant piece of the business at Robertson Trading Company Ltd.

"This place might look like it's built for the tourist trade but it's not,'' declares Robertson, 72-year-old patriarch of the family business. "My goodness, we're a modern grocery store and we're on the computer like everybody else.''

Tourists come in and "they 'oooh' and 'ahhh' and they love it", he says, adding the store's goal is to send everyone home smiling. But it wasn't designed with tourists in mind.

Which makes Robertson Trading Company all the more interesting.

You see, to say Robertson's is a modern grocery store is like saying Napoleon was a short French guy; there's just a wee bit more to it than that. When was the last time, for instance, that you took a break from browsing the vegetable "medleys" in the frozen food section at Safeway to check out the ermine pelts at the back of the store? Or to listen to a trapper expound the tricks of the trade? These are legitimate options at Robertson's. . .

"Animals have certain paths they've been using for hundreds and hundreds of years,'' says trapper Richard McKay, who's enjoying a smoke from his perch on a couple of inverted milk crates in the back of the store. "In some places, I've seen where (these paths) are worn down two feet into the tundra.''

McKay, also a summertime fishing guide with a business card listing skills ranging from wolf tamer and bear fighter to explorer and lover, says a good spot to set traps is where one of these well-travelled paths connects adjacent peninsulas across a short stretch of frozen lake.

Aboriginal art, like these drum paintings by Roger Jerome, can be seen
throughout Robertson's

. . . Robertson Trading Company is a modern grocery store, to be sure. But it's also a fur-trading post and an expediting service that trucks or flies supplies to northern bush camps. It's a craft shop, an art gallery and a museum, too. And all this in addition to the store's role as the repository for stuffed animal heads (and assorted other wildlife trophies) that have threatened matrimonial harmony in homes across the North.

"See that set of moose horns up there?'' Robertson says as we roam the store. "That's a trophy set that used to belong to the postmaster. But his wife wouldn't let him keep them in the house so he brought them down to me.

"That big caribou head you see? That's the northern caribou. The chief up at Fond-du-Lac, well, her husband Jimmy brought that home and he got the same treatment: 'Jimmy, get that down to Alex!'. And the elk horns? Eric Partridge's. His wife wouldn't let him keep them, either.''

What does Robertson's wife Phyllis think of all these stuffed beans and antler racks hanging all over the walls?

"She won't let me put them in our house, either,'' he says. But the store, well, "it's kind of like my rumpus room''.

Add rumpus room to the list.

- courtesy Diane Robertson
Part of Alex's rumpus room -- the furs hang just inside the doorway and to the right.

Robertson's background as a former Hudson Bay Company fur buyer goes a long way towards explaining the store's unique character. And Robertson's, too. He was trained in Montreal in the art of grading furs and he spent 20 years working for the Bay, including summer relief work at company stores across northern Canada.

"I often say the Hudson Bay Company didn't train me, the Indians did. I didn't know anything about a store and they took me under their wing and showed me how to run the damn thing.

"Stony Rapids, Dillon, La Loche - I'd go in for summer relief and then the kids would start coming along, too. That's why the (three) boys are such good canoeists; they've been all over that country.''

Robertson was one the company's top-notch buyers when he quit his Prince Albert posting in 1967 and moved to La Ronge with his wife and four children. He wasn't anxious to leave his good job at the Bay, but the future of the fur business looked grim. Besides, his family loved the area (in geographic terms, La Ronge is just north of the centre of Saskatchewan).

- courtesy Diane Robertson
Mementos of a life in the fur trade.

It all served to make the then-tiny grocery store in La Ronge look like an attractive proposition. But he hasn't been able to shake his attachment to the fur trade in spite of the fact that, in many years, he's been lucky to break even.

The fur trade now accounts for a small portion of Robertson's business, but still a big chunk of his life.

"We used to get $1,000 to $1,500 apiece for these,'' he says, deftly stroking one of the luxurious lynx furs hanging at the back of the store. "We sold some the other day in Toronto. Sixty dollars. Average.''

Robertson is convinced the prices will rebound once people in places like Russia and Korea have the money to buy the furs they so dearly love. After all, "nothing in the world looks better on a woman than a fur coat. . . I don't give a damn what they say.''

But he realizes he may not be around to see the comeback. In the meantime, he stays involved in the trade in spite of the low prices. Tourists occasionally buy furs, as well.

And speaking of tourists: Robertson allows that the carved horns are good sellers with them, too. So are some of the arts and crafts. But much of what you see here, he stresses, is not for sale.

- courtesy Diane Robertson
The tag says 'Not for Sale'.

"All those moccasins hanging up there, they're not for sale. The hell with it.'' Then, motioning towards a row of garments spanning the width of the store: "And this is probably the largest collection of beaded buckskin jackets in the country. Not for sale.''

Nor, as one might have guessed at this point, is the authentic birch-bark canoe hanging from the ceiling.

"That one was made up in Dillon, up by Buffalo Narrows. The guy's father and grandfather were makers of canoes for the Hudson Bay Company. When he retired, he made that one.''

What becomes clear during Robertson's entertaining tour of the store is that each of his artifacts tells a story. Together, they help tell the tale of a man who spent a lifetime on the cusp of an old world and a new one.

To mistake them for tourist fare is to do a disservice to the people who are writing the last chapter of the old-time fur trade in Saskatchewan. People like Alex Robertson.

Alex Robertson passed away in 2010. Rest in peace, Alex.

Robertson Trading Company Ltd. is located on the main lakeside road in The Town of La Ronge, located at beautiful Lac La Ronge Provincial Park

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