Inuvik's 'fruit man' says he was forced to stop selling produce

For about 35 years, Bill 'the fruit man' Rutherford has been bringing produce and other essential grocery items up from British Columbia to the N.W.T. — but says he was abruptly forced to stop selling over the long weekend after he was initially told it was OK.

Bill Rutherford says he was given OK to operate, but then officials went back on their decision

Some of the produce and other food items Bill Rutherford picks up from B.C. to sell in Inuvik from a truck. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

For about 35 years, Bill "the fruit man" Rutherford has been bringing produce and other essential grocery items up from British Columbia to the N.W.T. — but says he was abruptly forced to stop selling over the long weekend and asked to self-isolate.

He arrived in Inuvik, N.W.T., last week with items from his final trip down South, before settling down in his home in Inuvik.

Rutherford said he stopped at the public health centre in town, and asked what would need to be done to run his business safely.

"And they said, 'Well, you wouldn't be able to sell the way you normally do,'" said Rutherford. "They said, 'You would have to have hand sanitizer, an available mask and gloves,' and all this kind of stuff."

Rutherford said he complied by those rules. He also had a tarp up and down the truck, had markings indicating appropriate physical distancing and only allowed four customers inside at a time. Before he started selling on Friday, the truck was inspected and approved by the health inspector in town.

Bill 'the fruit man' Rutherford installed this sign on the front of his pickup truck, where he sells produce he collects from B.C. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

"I was under the impression that I'd be able to sell, and they let me sell for a day," said Rutherford.

But that didn't last.

"I got a call at home Saturday afternoon right from enforcement in Yellowknife and I was told that I couldn't."

The Government of the Northwest Territories confirmed to CBC that an initial risk assessment was made when he first set up his truck.

Trista Haugland, a spokesperson, wrote in an email that "on subsequent assessment, it was determined that the operation was not in line with the intent of the order for residents coming into the N.W.T. to self-isolate."

"We are sympathetic to the fact that our public health orders have impacts on businesses — and in this case, [they have] affected a tradition important to folks in Inuvik," wrote Haugland.

Under an order from chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, everyone travelling back into the N.W.T. is required to self-isolate for 14 days. However, there are exceptions for essential workers like long-haul truckers.

Haugland wrote that Rutherford ceases to be a trucker once he opens the retail aspect of the business, "which doesn't fit the category of essential in this case."

Inuvik's Bill 'the fruit man' Rutherford installed signs on his truck, where he sells produce from British Columbia, to communicate new measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

There weren't necessarily formal complaints about the business opening up, but the government was aware of some conversations on social media, she said.

Haugland wrote that Rutherford was not shut down. She said he was provided options on how to safely operate. One of those was to have someone else sell the products from his truck.

'Fruit man' says that's not possible

Rutherford said he didn't believe it was feasible.

"You couldn't just take somebody and just plunk them in there, and have them do what I've been doing for 35 years," said Rutherford. "It would be nice if you could do that, and not have to worry about if things are being done right."

Rutherford, who runs Fruit Man Ltd., started his business back in the mid-1980s with a "glorified pickup," and also used to sell in the smaller Mackenzie Delta communities.

It was kind of a not-nice situation to get the OK to sell in the first place.- Bill Rutherford, produce vendor

He's not just picking up and dropping off loads of groceries. He remains in Inuvik until he sells his load and spends time at his home.

He loads his products from Kamloops and Richmond, B.C. During the summer, he also gets fresh fruits and vegetables from Keremeos, near the Okanagan in B.C.

Rutherford said he brings enough product up to hit the vehicle weight limit, which is 46,500 kilograms. He said he doesn't just sell to the public, he wholesales and retails. 

"People appreciate it. If you are there the first day I'm in town, it's usually packed full," Rutherford said.

Selling off products after self-isolation

Rutherford said he will not leave Inuvik until the pandemic is over.

After being restricted over the weekend, Rutherford ended up selling the produce and other products to Stanton's grocery store in Inuvik.

He said this is all happening right before river breakup, when Inuvik becomes a fly-in only community and people tend to stock up on products.

"I definitely won't be making the revenue I would've if I was selling directly myself but it's just the way it is," said Rutherford. "It was kind of a not-nice situation to get the OK to sell in the first place, and then they come along and jerk it out from underneath my feet."

He will have to put the rest of the products that he brought, like pickles, flour, sugar, rice and more, into his warehouse.

He will be self-isolating in his home in Inuvik and plans to sell the rest of his items once his 14 days are up.


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