Sudden sale of Rankin Inlet pharmacy still rankles Kivalliq residents
“I liked the idea of supporting an Inuit-owned company.… I would like to know why they sold out to Northern”
The sale of Inuit-owned Sakku Pharmacy in Rankin Inlet in February to the North West Co. happened so quickly and amid such secrecy that many residents are still asking questions.
But Sakku Investments Corp., the economic development arm of the Kivalliq Inuit Association that had majority ownership of the company, remains tight-lipped about the sale.
“As an Inuk beneficiary, we haven’t seen financial statements or the reasoning behind the sale. There’s something going on here that we don’t know about,” said Cathy Towtongie, MLA for Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet.
“It was all done in top confidence. Only when [Sakku Pharmacy] was closing and started to move over to the Northern did we find out.”
That occurred in late January, residents say. By February, the new pharmacy opened across the street inside Rankin Inlet’s Northern Store.
“I liked the idea of supporting an Inuit-owned company. I liked Sakku Drugs. Why did they sell out? I wish it didn’t happen. I would like to know why they sold out to Northern,” one resident said.
“I hope people shake their heads and realize, Sakku sold it to Northern because it was an easy way to make a quick buck,” said another resident.
Sakku Investments did not respond to multiple requests over email and phone for information or comment.
According to their website, the Inuit company’s mission is “to invest in viable business enterprises to the betterment of the Inuit of the Kivalliq Region.”
Sakku Pharmacy, which had its day-to-day operations managed by the Super Thrifty Pharmacy in Manitoba, is widely believed to have been a profitable business serving the entire region.
Nunatsiaq News received information that suggests the pharmacy regularly pulled in over $200,000 in sales each month.
Sakku Investments’ website says its guiding principles include transparency and decision by consensus. The corporation does not make its financial statements publicly available.
Their website also lists Inuit empowerment and employment through training, mentoring and learning as guiding principles.
But while the pharmacy regularly saw high turnover among most of its staff, its one long-time Inuk staff member told Nunatsiaq News that Sakku Investments never offered her an opportunity for greater training, education or advancement.
Nunatsiaq News has agreed to not publish the name of the former employee at her request.
And after more than 20 years of service, the former employee, a cashier who regularly provided interpretation service for elders, said she also did not receive any severance pay from Sakku Investments or Super Thrifty.
“We’re not giving any comments and don’t wish to participate in your story,” a spokesperson from Super Thrifty’s head office said.
The former Inuk employee said she was offered a new job by the Northern Store as a cashier, but she was not comfortable taking that job.
“At Sakku I also helped the pharmacist and technicians with the elders when they needed my help interpreting … I can do more than just being a cashier,” she said.
Towtongie agreed: “I wish she had been rehired with the Northern because she knows the customers, the clientele, she’s very reliable and service is needed in both Inuktitut and English.”
The North West Co. addressed some local concerns on Facebook about English-Inuktut interpretation.
Staff at the Northern who have signed pledges of confidentiality can provide translation when requested, Tim Smith, director of pharmacy operations for the company, said on Facebook.
“Should we look to hire additional pharmacy staff in the future, we would consider Inuktut fluency a significant asset.”
But some residents found that response not good enough.
“To use an ordinary person for an interpreter for a project like yours sounds like you’re unaware of the professionalism of your capacity,” one resident replied.
“Please do not rely on cashiers and stock boys to help you,” posted another resident who identified himself as a longtime interpreter.
When asked why the former employee of Sakku with more than 20 years of experience was not hired to interpret for elders, NWC spokesperson Derek Reimer said store employees are providing translation services similar to what Sakku provided.
“I don’t see a difference,” Reimer said.
Other concerns raised by Rankin Inlet residents to Nunatsiaq News included privacy concerns: the new pharmacy is in a small space and one resident said she easily overheard another person’s prescription.
Another resident questioned whether patient consent is needed to transfer sensitive health information from Sakku Pharmacy to a private company.
“As per privacy regulations, our pharmacy and staff members are regulated by the Personal Health Information Act which protects the privacy and personal information of patients,” Reimer said in a statement.
The NWC also acquired the Kitnuna Pharmacy in Cambridge Bay in late 2018. That pharmacy, also a profitable business, was a joint venture between the Kitikmeot Inuit Association’s business development arm and Super Thrifty.
“This was a business decision based on the outlook of this particular business,” wrote Tim Zehr in an email. Zehr is the president of the Kitnuna Group of Companies, a subsidiary of KitIA.
Residents in both Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay complained their new pharmacies offer a smaller selection of crucial items such as baby formula and feminine hygiene products at a higher cost.
“We work with certain suppliers and try to retain a good assortment of products for our customers,” Reimer said. “We can’t always replicate the assortment they previously had.”
Reimer said the two acquisitions are part of the company’s mission to increase health access in under-served communities.
“North West brings considerable experience and expertise providing pharmacy services to over 80 Inuit, First Nations and Metis communities across northern Canada.”
Thomas Rohner is a freelance investigative reporter based in Iqaluit, where he has lived for the past five years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thomas_rohner.