For Sean McCormick, The Gatherer is his favourite mukluk. The founder and president of Winnipeg-based Manitobah Mukluks says the boot has been around for over 15 years and stays in style thanks to its traditional look and functionality.
“We’ve added a lot of products over the years, and a lot of it has changed over time. [The Gatherer] hasn’t changed, and I kind of have a connection to it,” he says.
The Gatherer is a classic mukluk, tall with soft grain leather and a sheepskin lining. Its style is borrowed from historic Indigenous fur traders, who trudged through packed snow to collect furs from their traps.
Manitobah Mukluks brings together function and history. Coming from a family of Métis and non-Indigenous ancestry, Mr. McCormick says Indigenous sovereignty and social issues were always a priority in his house. He grew up knowing that whatever his family did, it was their responsibility to make a difference in the world. This culture of community and reciprocity, rather than individualism, is a long-established way of life for many Indigenous people and Manitobah Mukluks continues to advocate for it.
“The more we grow, the more social impact we make. And at the same time, the more social impact we make, the more we grow,” he says. “It really resonates with consumers. People demand nowadays that the brands and companies they choose to work with, and support, are actually trying to do something good.”
Mr. McCormick got his start in the industry as a teenager when he worked in a tannery processing leather and fur. There his entrepreneurial spark ignited, inspiring him to set up a trading post in the tannery. He started by trading leather and furs for handcrafted moccasins made by Indigenous artists to sell to other businesses.
He saw first-hand the rising demand for the authentic Indigenous footwear, so he enrolled in the Manitoba Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Training Program at the local Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development.
Through that program, Mr. McCormick developed the business plan that would become the framework for one of the fastest growing footwear brands in Canada. Manitobah Mukluks is 448th on The Globe and Mail’s Top Growing Companies list for 2021, with three-year revenue growth of 50 per cent. The company now has 375 employees.
Though the size and scope of the business has evolved dramatically over the last two decades, the integrity of the brand has stayed the same.
“The vision for [the business] to start with in some ways is very similar. We’re heavily involved in our community, we work with other indigenous companies and artists,” Mr. McCormick says. Since the company’s founding in 1997 when Mr. McCormick was 23, social impact and Indigenous sovereignty has been “baked right into the brand,” he says.
Community-based cultural teachings are the foundation of Indigenous knowledge, and Mr. McCormick’s vision for his business honours this.
The social impact framework and timeless style of Manitobah Mukluks’ products have led to constant growth for the company, which has already expanded into other countries, including the U.S., across Europe, Australia and Greenland and continues to grow in Canada. Manitobah Mukluks are sold across the country at retailers ranging from independent shoe stores to The Shoe Company, Sporting Life, Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW), Gravity Pope, and other boutique shops.
Before the pandemic hit, the company was setting up pop-up shops in Ontario cities like Newmarket and Barrie. Mr. McCormick is eager to start that up again, as early as next year – pandemic permitting.
Staff at Manitobah Mukluks are passionate about uplifting Indigenous knowledge by supporting elders and artisans through the Storyboot Project. The program is offered to Indigenous people interested in learning, or re-learning, the craft of mukluk and moccasin making with the opportunity to sell their work on the Manitobah Mukluk website. All proceeds from Storyboot sales go back to the artists, promoting entrepreneurship and economic prosperity.
Though the global popularity of mukluks is part of Mr. McCormick’s legacy, he stresses that the design of Indigenous footwear belongs to Indigenous communities, rather than a specific person.
“We do owe a debt to the entire indigenous community because they are the owners and the creators of this product that we work with,” he says.
The respect of communal knowledge and tradition is crucial in Indigenous communities and is an enlightening perspective that Mr. McCormick brings to the mainstream business world.
“We need to be adaptable and lead and try to set examples of the ways things have to be,” Mr. McCormick says. “In order to thrive and survive, we need to get educated. We need economic sovereignty; we need our cultural and spiritual health.”
In that vein, Mr. McCormick is working with the Manitobah Mukluk team to further develop artisan training for Indigenous artists.
“One thing I’m really excited about is that we’re working on digital archives for the Storyboot School and online curriculum,” he says. By switching the format of the Storyboot School from in-person to online could make learning more accessible for Indigenous artists. Mr. McCormick says the online format would also contribute to the calls to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
“Ideally, one day, I’d like to see [Storyboot School] in every public school. I think it’s an amazing tool for truth and reconciliation,” Mr. McCormick says.
He paints a beautiful picture of the future: children from every background, not only learning but experiencing Indigenous culture, many of them for the first time.
There’s a unique feeling when you slip a foot inside an authentic moccasin with its mixture of tradition and comfort, one that Indigenous people offer to everyone. This openness has given people across the globe the opportunity to wear the beautiful footwear of Indigenous peoples in the North. As Manitobah Mukluk continues to expand its reach and its mission, Mr. McCormick hopes more people will learn about this sacred, traditional art.