Erin Brillon, the owner of a fashion and home decor business, says there is a question she keeps getting from customers: Is it okay for a non-Indigenous person to wear the clothing she sells, which is covered in designs inspired by Indigenous culture?
“We basically just have to keep reinforcing the fact that, if we’re making it for the public, it’s for everybody,” she said. “It’s not just for Indigeneous people.”
Ms. Brillon, who is Haida and Cree, is expecting a lot more of these questions soon, because her company, Totem Design House, recently signed a deal to sell its products on the Shopping Channel. It’s a major new market for the small business, which operates out of the K’ómoks First Nation on Vancouver Island.
Totem isn’t the only Indigenous-owned business having an exceptionally successful year. Many Indigenous entrepreneurs, and organizations that support them, say 2021 has brought a wave of interest and dollars from customers who want to do more to support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples – a national project that gained new urgency over the summer, when several First Nations announced they had discovered unmarked graves near former residential schools.
“We definitely have seen a growth in support and people wanting to support Indigenous entrepreneurs and Indigenous business,” said Vanessa Lesperance, a leader of the Indigenous Lift Collective, a non-profit that runs programs for Indigenous female entrepreneurs.
“People are starting to wake up to the importance and the meaning of economic reconciliation.”
Another recent deal between an Indigenous-owned business and a large partner was Cheekbone Beauty’s launch of cosmetic products on Sephora’s website. Cheekbone was founded by Jenn Harper in St. Catharine’s, Ont., in 2016.
Keith Henry, president of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, said he has seen increased interest this year from travellers. Bookings with Indigenous-led tourism businesses, he said, can offer economic stability to overlooked communities. “Reconciliation is creating a new opportunity for the future,” he said in an e-mail.
Shannon Loutitt, chief executive officer of the Saskatoon-based International Indigenous Speakers Bureau, said her firm’s revenue is nearly triple what it was before the pandemic, even though it can no longer run in-person events. The bureau helps schools and companies book Indigenous guest speakers and build connections with Indigenous communities. Its recent clients include IBM.
“That’s really our primary goal here – to build relations,” she said.
Al Little, general manager of Nuu-chah-nulth Economic Development Corporation in Port Alberni, B.C., said that in his 30 years of working with the organization he has seen significant growth in the number and size of Indigenous-led companies. Where once they might have gone to his agency for help securing $50,000 loans, they are now looking for millions of dollars in funding. “There’s more opportunities to take part in the economy than there had been previously,” he said.
But ambitious Indigenous entrepreneurs who want to scale up can still face barriers in accessing capital, said Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association. NACCA, a network of 50 Indigenous financial institutions, recently launched a $150-million investment fund that raised money from the federal government, the Business Development Bank of Canada, Export Development Canada and Farm Credit Canada.
Mr. Metatawabin said financial services institutions should look at their own policies and processes to see how they can help fund more Indigenous entrepreneurs. “Everybody has a role to play,” he said.
For people looking to support economic reconciliation with money from their own wallets, Ms. Brillon said, it’s important to make sure that any purchases of Indigenous products support companies that are owned by Indigenous people.
As part of her deal with the Shopping Channel, which is owned by Rogers, Ms. Brillon and the owners of two other Indigenous companies are educating the network’s staff on Indigenous issues. While that work can be exhausting, she said, she thinks it is important.
“The education piece needs to happen, and the cool thing is now we’re in a place where people are willing to have it happen,” she said.
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