In a normal year, Amy Willier would teach about 50 people Indigenous traditions such as beading between Labour Day and Christmas. Small groups of pupils would gather in Moonstone Creation, an Indigenous gallery and gift shop in Calgary, for a few hours on a weekend, or others would perhaps participate in a corporate lunch-and-learn session under her tutelage.
This year, with the pandemic halting group gatherings, Ms. Willier reckons she taught 1,000 people about Indigenous art and culture in the same time frame.
The coronavirus forced entrepreneurs to revamp their businesses to stay afloat. For Ms. Willier and her mother, Yvonne Jobin, the adjustments resulted in an expansion of their business and cultural reach. They started making masks in March, and have since turned out thousands of face coverings and hired people to sew for them.
Then, during the fall, Moonstone revived classes for projects such as beading and dream catchers by mailing component kits, along with password-protected links to instructional videos, to customers. Class participation grew by a factor of 20.
“Knowledge without sharing is worthless,” said Ms. Willier, who has Sucker Creek First Nation roots. She shipped kits to as far away as Nova Scotia and Michigan. “If you’re not passing on the knowledge, then you’re not keeping the culture alive. So that is so huge in our day-to-day business.”
In September, Bow Valley College in Calgary purchased beading kits for Orange Shirt Day pins. People in Imperial Oil’s orbit learned how to make dream catchers, after Ms. Willier sent out 400 kits containing willow hoops. In October, Ms. Willier released kits for beaded poppies, in honour of Remembrance Day the following month. And in November, she made kits for baby moccasins, just in time for COVID-19 babies to arrive.
There were 22,245 Indigenous female entrepreneurs in Canada in 2016, according to the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, citing the national census. Indigenous-owned businesses, particularly those led by women, are experienced in navigating barriers and this gave them an advantage in redesigning their business strategy as COVID-19 swept the globe, according to the owner of Many Chief Tours.
“We are used to being problem-solvers and being incredibly resilient,” said Tarra Wright Many Chief, who is from Kainai Nation (also known as the Blood Tribe) and lives in Calgary. “I’ve seen so many businesses that are doing well in spite of the pandemic that are Indigenous because they are so used to having to pivot.”
Many Chief Tours launched this past summer, which meant changes to the business plan before guiding its first group in Calgary. The company, for example, expected overseas travellers to make up 20 per cent to 30 per cent of its customers, with 70 per cent coming from domestic tourists and the United States. But with tourists staying home, Ms. Wright Many Chief had to redirect marketing toward locals. She also started selling gift boxes, a change of plans that generated cash and allowed her to support local Indigenous artists.
Indigenous female entrepreneurs supporting other Indigenous female entrepreneurs has been a key ingredient in surviving the pandemic, according to April Mitchell-Boudreau, a Turtle clan Mohawk with roots at Six Nations in Ontario.
She owns Lofttan, which creates and distributes jewellery. Prior to the pandemic, Lofttan was a wholesaler to boutiques. When shops shuttered, she needed to erect an online retail business.
She is part of the Indigenous LIFT Collective’s network, which helped her through the transition. The group this winter launched LIFT Circle, where Indigenous women meet online for an hour every Sunday afternoon. They lend each other expertise and swap potential solutions to problems facing their businesses.
“That has been a beautiful gift of COVID,” Ms. Mitchell-Boudreau said. Lofttan, which operates out of St. Catharines, Ont., successfully morphed into an online retailer and sales increased.
“I’m a bit gobsmacked,” Ms. Mitchell-Boudreau said. “Survival – it lights a little fire under your behind.”
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