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Scott Jonathan Iserhoff, owner of catering company Pei Pei Chei Ow and his partner, Svitlana Kravchuk, in their home in Edmonton on Feb. 10, 2021.

Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Kanatan Health Solutions hand sanitizer was born, like many inventions, out of necessity.

Leah Redcrow, founder and director of products and innovation at Kanatan Health Solutions, created their miyahkasikan (good smudge) sanitizer sprays after shortages of soap and sanitizers had left her worried for the health and safety of her home community of Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta.

“I wanted to make something that the elders would feel comfortable using, and something that they would want to use all the time” Ms. Redcrow says. Scented with traditional botanicals – sweetgrass, cedar, sage and sweet tobacco – and labelled in Nehiyawak (Plains Cree) syllabics, the sanitizers fill a need for culturally relevant health products.

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“A lot of the older people are still very spiritual, very fluent in the Cree language,” Ms. Redcrow says. “So, when they can actually read something and they can understand it, I think it kind of breaks that barrier for them to be more trusting.”

While Ms. Redcrow and her family have found success in starting a business during the pandemic, Rocky Sinclair, president of Aksis, an Indigenous business and professional association in Edmonton, says that others are struggling as existing barriers are magnified by the pandemic, and COVID-19 restrictions have a disproportionate impact on sectors where Indigenous-owned businesses are concentrated.

“There has been a lot of hurt on Indigenous business within Alberta, both with the downturn in the economy as well as the pandemic,” says Mr. Sinclair, who is also CEO of Alberta Indian Investment Corporation, an Aboriginal Financial Institution (AFI). “But, in the Indigenous community, it’s not our first rodeo in terms of perilous times. So, we’re resilient, and we will come out the other side.”

According to the latest annual report of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA), Indigenous people in Canada are the fastest growing population of entrepreneurs. Despite the additional pressures and challenges of the COVID-19 economy, Indigenous entrepreneurs are finding creative ways to help themselves, and their communities, through the pandemic.

“I incorporate my language, stories and culture into everything that I do because it is a part of who I am,” Mushkego Cree chef Scott Iserhoff says. “It’s an honour to be Indigenous, and I think my story, as well as just talking about Indigenous culture, is very important.”

Mr. Iserhoff owns a catering company, Pei Pei Chei Ow, and teaches Indigenous cooking classes in Edmonton, using traditional and Western ingredients. He incorporates storytelling into his classes and his products as a way of exploring the history and politics of contemporary Indigenous food and culture.

Restaurants have been some of the businesses hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions. When catering income dried up, Mr. Iserhoff pivoted to delivery, offering themed ready-to-eat meal packages, and he moved his cooking classes online.

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But he and his wife wanted to do more, and they partnered with the Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre (IKWC) in November on the Indigenous Feast Box initiative. Led by the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations (ICAN), the program provided work for Indigenous chefs by having them prepare meal kits for Indigenous families facing food insecurity.

The feast boxes were designed to teach families how to cook using local ingredients and Mr. Iserhoff’s kits include recipes for a three-course meal, including Nohtawey’s shepherd’s pie and Kookum’s blueberry cheesecake, favourites from his time growing up between Porcupine, Ont., and Attawapiskat First Nation. In the first two runs, Mr. Iserhoff supplied food for more 375 people. With IKWC and ATB Financial donating additional funds, Mr. Iserhoff is organizing another run independent of ICAN.

“Having people eat culturally appropriate food, I think that food memory in our DNA will start flickering again. We’ll start relearning how we eat, how we were intended to eat,” Mr. Iserhoff says. “If we could teach our children to eat healthier like this, I think it’s like a ripple effect: breaking down walls of colonization and decolonizing the diet.”

Decolonization is a common theme for Mr. Iserhoff, and he says that building strong communities and supporting other businesses is an important part of the process. “The stronger we are as a community, the stronger we are as entrepreneurs. That’s what we need right now,” he says.

Gerry Huebner, chief strategy officer for the NACCA, says that a healthy Indigenous economy is key to improving conditions for Indigenous communities in Canada.

While the NACCA and AFI’s such as Mr. Sinclair’s look to increase access to opportunities by offering more accessible funding, Mr. Huebner says governments need to allocate more capital to developing the Indigenous economy.

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Data from the National Indigenous Economic Development Board have shown that increasing Indigenous people’s access to economic opportunities, such as capital or support to start a business, would contribute an estimated $6.9-billion annually in employment income across the country. Yet, government funding to support access to capital for Indigenous small businesses has decreased by 170 per cent since the 1990s, Mr. Huebner says.

“If we continue down that path, we’ll continue to pour money into social services,” he says. “You have to provide capacity of Indigenous communities to define their own future.

“When Indigenous businesses and communities succeed, that contributes greatly to the success of the Canadian economy as a whole.”

In recent years, Indigenous business has flourished in the tourism sector. A 2020 report by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) shows Indigenous tourism outpacing overall tourism in Canada in both employment and GDP. But the tourism industry, more than any other sector, is struggling amid the continuing disruptions and restrictions of the pandemic.

Matricia Bauer is a Nehiyawak performer from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation; she has been operating as an Indigenous tourism vendor in Jasper, Alta., for eight years. Calling herself an “info-tainer,” Ms. Bauer has a company, Warrior Women, that offers performances, workshops, tours and guided experiences, using singing and drumming to share the Indigenous history of the region. Because of the pandemic she’s currently focusing on heritage crafting workshops online.

“I immediately pivoted to making mitts and moccasins, and that doesn’t sound like tourism, but it’s still sharing the story,” Ms. Bauer says. “Having people on Zoom for two hours, I have their undivided attention and that’s a great time to share information.”

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While she previously catered to a largely international audience, Ms. Bauer says she was shocked to see a sizeable local demand. She says the move online has been positive for Warrior Women and other Indigenous tourism vendors in Alberta, as they reach a wider local audience.

“We’re not just telling international visitors our stories; we’re telling our stories to our own nation. And by educating people about our culture, that raises their awareness which allows for reconciliation,” she says.

Businesses such as Ms. Bauer’s, which combine culture and commerce, are rare, says Mr. Sinclair. He and Terry Coyes, Aksis second vice-president, warn against assuming all Indigenous business owners are artists or artisans. But, while these businesses may not be the norm, they may offer additional social benefits.

For Kanatan Health Solutions, using elements of Cree culture has helped popularize the use of hand sanitizer in the community, and Kanatan donates it to elders, says Tasha Power, Ms. Redcrow’s sister and the company’s director of marketing and branding.

“People can use it and it can have the same significance as the plants ... like for protection and finding comfort,” she says. “A lot of elders really took to it, and they’re really proud of it, and they’re really proud to use it.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Kanatan supplies hand sanitizer free to anyone who needs it. This version has been corrected.

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