Canada’s North can be a difficult place to live, and a much harder place to make a living as a business owner.
The odds are stacked against small businesses here: costs are high beyond anything most Canadians can imagine, for everything from rent, food and heat to internet and basic supplies. Skilled labour is snapped up by lucrative government and mining jobs. Venture capital is absent. Markets are tiny, so even a great, affordable product may have a hard time finding its audience.
It’s no wonder that most northerners choose to work for someone else.
Small businesses account for a smaller share of the economy in the territories than anywhere else in the country, according to Industry Canada. The same agency found that there are just 61 exporters of goods — mines, mostly — throughout all three territories.
Yet this year I have had the privilege of meeting an ambitious cohort of Indigenous business owners who are beating those odds.
It’s been eight months since I filmed the first interviews that would become the basis for the videos that will be released starting this week. It was a chilly September afternoon at a retreat centre outside Yellowknife. Since that day, these videos have taken me to all three territories, with visits to Whitehorse, Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Yellowknife, Mayo, Keno, Hay River and Arviat.
The project has been a golden ticket into more kitchens than I can count (to be treated to musk ox lasagna, moose sausage, narwhal soup, raw beluga and caribou, and some spectacular coffee) and, more importantly, into the minds and workshops of these entrepreneurs.
The stories of how their businesses began are often challenging in the ways that many stories of modern Indigenous life are challenging. There are stories of rediscovering, reasserting and protecting identity; of struggling with modernity, history and tradition; of slow internet and fast changes; of standing up to colonial attitudes about art and craft.
These businesses are making soap, jewelry, scents, clothing and more, using materials and inspiration from the land. That in turn is reinforcing their appreciation for the unique environments of northern Canada. Whether it’s bowhead whale oil in a body butter from Uasau Soap, a caribou antler earring from Hinaani Design, beadwork embedded in a soap bar from Yukon Soaps, spruce oil in a Dene Roots spray or musk ox horn brought front and centre on a piece from Tania Larsson, these businesses are elevating northern materials to products that celebrate the best of their environment.
And now, they have help. This series came about because these entrepreneurs have been part of a program called EntrepreNorth, which is supporting them in ways not often available to northern businesses. The business owners have access to mentors, workshops, networking and other resources designed to lessen some of the obstacles they face in starting a business in such a harsh environment.
EntrepreNorth invited The Narwhal to come along for the ride, and so I packed my bags and spent much of the long northern winter on the road.
We hope you’ll come along as well.
This series was made possible with the support of EntrepreNorth; however, the organization did not have editorial input into the videos or articles published on The Narwhal.
And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).
As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists over the past year.
Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,900 members.
The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.
We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.
We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.
If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.