Walk down the aisles of Northmart – and many other grocery, convenience or drug stores across Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut – and you’ll increasingly find shelves stocked with products bearing the Spirit Healthcare Group logo.
With three banners under its name, this Manitoba-based company sells medical supplies and equipment and other health care products, as well as facilitates fast medication delivery to people in rural and remote communities. It offers health benefit plans to corporations. It provides diabetes education.
The Indigenous-owned company is dedicated to enhancing the quality of health care for Indigenous customers while scaling the business to compete with corporations that have had a decades-long head start.
“We’re not trying to be a Shopper’s Drug Mart – we’re trying to fill gaps in care,” says Heather Berthelette, CEO of Spirit Healthcare Group.
Berthelette, who is Red River Métis, has been with Spirit from the start. She originally worked for Precambrian Wholesale Ltd., a company that delivered food to remote communities, which was bought by Tribal Council Investment Group (TCIG), a corporation representing over 50 First Nation communities, a decade ago.
In 2015, the whole outfit pivoted to focus on building a health care business based on Indigenous worldviews.
Spirit restructured with the intention of taking up space in the multi-billion-dollar health care industry, which Indigenous people have historically been shut out of, Berthelette explains.
Now, the goal is to be Canada’s default choice for health care products and stock all Canadian hospitals and health care centres by 2025. By then, Berthelette hopes to have more than 500 Spirit-branded products on the roster.
The Spirit Meter, a diabetes blood glucose tester, was the company’s first product.
In Canada, Indigenous people face higher rates of diabetes than the general population. They are also more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age, have more severe symptoms, face higher rates of complications, and experience poorer treatment outcomes, according to Diabetes Canada.
This is compounded by a lack of culturally appropriate care, high health care staff turnover, and chronic underfunding of health services for Indigenous communities, the organization says.
Taking a holistic approach to addressing these needs, Spirit doesn’t just sell the meters, but also offers diabetes education. Clients can access live weekly programming in a group or one-on-one setting to learn about blood sugar testing, insulin and how to manage the disease.
Since launching the Spirit Meter in 2016, the company has released an additional 50 or so branded products, including medical tape, sponges and incontinence pads.
Its fully compostable face mask, released in partnership with PADM Medical, is an example of the collaborations Spirit seeks, and the ethos with which it operates. The masks are made from plant-based by-products from farms in Alberta, Ontario and elsewhere in North America.
“[Average] masks will spend 450 years in a landfill. These take three months to decompose,” Berthelette says.
She wants Spirit to have a role in the massive pharmaceutical economy in Canada while operating in alignment with Indigenous worldviews.
“Indigenous people have been a large contributor to the massive economy of health care products, but have never been allowed to participate and benefit from the economy itself,” she says.
Spirit needs to be part of that economy in big ways, “not small procurement opportunities, not little one-offs,” Berthelette adds.
The North West Company – which owns Northmart, as well as Giant Tiger and other banners – selling Spirit-branded products in its stores is a prime example of a corporation supporting economic reconciliation, she says.
With work to get its products into hospitals as well as stores ongoing, Spirit offers other services, like its SpiritRx program, to address immediate community needs.
The company ships prescriptions to remote communities through Canada Post to help ease the overwhelming demand at nursing stations. Residents taking regular medication like birth control can have their prescriptions filled remotely by a pharmacist in Winnipeg and pick it up in their mailbox. This also gives customers a more discrete option for prescription pick-up.
While TCIG owns for-profit corporations, Dennis Meeches, vice-president of business relations at TCIG, says community work is a pillar of the organization. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, TCIG donated family safety kits filled with items such as face masks, a thermometer and hand sanitizer to First Nation communities.
Meeches, former Chief of Long Plains First Nation in Manitoba, says Manitoba’s recent provincial election makes him optimistic about Spirit’s growth potential.
Wab Kinew became Manitoba’s first Anishinaabe premier in October 2023, and had visited Spirit’s Winnipeg facility before the election.
“There’s lots of excitement in the province … I call it the Wab effect,” Meeches laughs.
He explains that support from the provincial government bodes well for Indigenous companies, and is, in turn, good for the mainstream economy.
It has been a challenge at times to work with provincial and federal governments to get contracts to supply products to health facilities, Meeches says.
“Economic reconciliation has been highlighted in recent years, but governments have to fully embrace [that idea], and help rebuild the Indigenous economies that have been shattered under colonial governments,” he says.
Meeches says he looks forward to seeing how the new Manitoba government could accelerate economic reconciliation.
“A window of opportunity that was closed before, fortunately, has opened up.”