Bernice Clarke introduces herself and Uasau Soap to a business reception and networking event hosted by EntrepreNorth during the first cohort gathering in Yellowknife, September 19, 2018. © Pat Kane

Creating business opportunities

The middle of the floor is covered with a thick mat of balsam fir boughs, bushy and soft to the touch. Misty Ireland, owner of Dene Roots, is standing on top — and around her, in a circle, entrepreneurs from across the North are holding boughs of their own. They brush her down with the needles, in a ceremony intended to prepare her for the challenges of the coming day. Every member of the cohort takes their turn in the centre of the circle, then the facilitators.

It’s not the beginning one would expect for a business-focused gathering.

The group of nine mostly Indigenous women and men have had personalized coaching and group learning to bring their businesses to the next level — whatever that may mean for them. To help them get there, EntrepreNorth brought in experts in everything from sales and marketing to finance and venture capital.

Dene Roots Owner Misty Ireland blends cultural teachings and life experiences to create handmade products and wildcrafted goods. The company’s flagship line is a series of essential oil sprays that include “Sweet Grass,” a spray for smudging. © Minke Design

Throughout the morning, a business coach speaks to the gathered entrepreneurs about silencing their “inner critic,” the little voice inside their heads that tells them they aren’t good enough, that they don’t deserve success. Ireland nods her head knowingly, but there is no shortage of external factors hemming her and the others in as well.

EntrepreNorth brought the entrepreneurs together to help them overcome a set of persistent barriers to building a successful business in the North: costs are high, markets are small, mentors are rare, the digital divide is ever-growing, and most local northern economies are primarily dependent on one or two big sectors like government and mining.

Those factors and others stacked against them haven’t stopped these entrepreneurs from getting started. But they have stopped a larger community of small businesses from flourishing across the region — and for project director Benjamin Scott, that was an intriguing challenge.

“Building more local business opportunities and developing a more local economy, I think, is good for the North,” Scott says. “It’s really about supporting people to create opportunity for themselves and for their communities.”

EntrepreNorth wants to empower Indi­ge­nous and community-based entrepreneurs to build sustainable businesses and livelihoods across Northern Canada. The first cohort is themed around early-stage ventures that sell land and marine-based products and incorporate local sustainable resources into their supply chain. It’s operating on the theory that this type of business growth will help strengthen northern culture and self-determined ways of life.

When Bernice Clarke started Uasau Soap in Iqaluit, Nunavut, incorporating bowhead whale oil into her soap at an elder’s suggestion, she found a way to honour and celebrate Inuit culture using traditional healing for the skin. “I’m falling more and more in love with my culture,” Clarke says. “Having this business has helped me really focus in on that.”

Aurora Heat Owner Brenda Dragon designs and creates original hand, foot and body warmers, products that promote the use and wearing of fur and supports local harvesters, which enables the continuation of the vibrant tradition of northern fur trapping. © Slave River Journal

Brenda Dragon and her son, Joel Dragon Smith, feel the same sense of cultural empowerment through their business, Aurora Heat. When they brought their beaver fur hand warmers to market, they were participating in a long line of sustainable fur harvesting.

But cultural pride alone couldn’t provide all the tools she needed to help her company grow in a small northern community.

“Entrepreneurship is a risky business, and we shoulder that privately for the most part,” Dragon says. She found a like-minded community through EntrepreNorth.

“It’s a very safe, free place where everybody is getting the space to not only share their fears but their confidence in what they’re doing.”

Aurora Heat is now set to be sold in the Hudson Bay Company’s flagship store in Winnipeg, Manitoba. EntrepreNorth is engaging the help of the established business community to develop a Northern Impact Fund that could help the entrepreneurs access investment. And another cohort is already being planned, which will focus on tourism businesses.

Call to Action 92(ii) of the Truth and Reconciliation report put the onus on the corporate sector to bring long-term and sustainable benefits to Indigenous communities, and to make training available to bring Indigenous people into the business world. These entrepreneurs are the first cohort of a program aiming to exceed that call, giving them the skills and networks they need to build their success in any mold they choose.

Jimmy Thomson is a freelance journalist based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. EntrepreNorth, a Project on Tides Canada’s Shared Platform, funded Thomson’s work on this story.