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Indigenous businesses striving for Truth and Reconciliation

Shopping for something to wear on Orange Shirt Day? Here’s what you need to know
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Jaymie Campbell has been running her beading and quilling business for over five years. It’s a money-making venture but for her, it is about more than income.

“It’s so much about cultural reclamation and expression,” said Campbell, the owner of White Otter Design Co. in British Columbia.

“A really unique thing about Indigenous businesses is that so many of us are grounded in the community even when we’re confined within capitalism,” said Campbell, who is from Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario, about 170 kilometres northeast of Toronto.

Campbell’s handmade jewelry business reflects the Anishnaabe culture she grew up in. It offers a way to educate non-Indigenous audiences on things such as the material she uses, how it is procured and the importance of traditions and teachings reflected in her work.

Customers should be aware of where their money is going, and how it is supporting Indigenous communities or businesses, said Carol Anne Hilton, CEO of Indigenomics Institute, a consultancy that offers business services designed with an Indigenous lens.

She said transparency in how money is supporting an Indigenous community is missing when shopping with larger stores.

“Contribution, support and visibility are all important aspects in a purchase.”

Shopping for local Indigenous goods not only helps the business owner but by extension, the whole community, said Jacob Crane, the Indigenous entrepreneurship program manager at United College, a University of Waterloo affiliate.

“It has a huge impact,” he said. “If I see my friend succeeding in a business, I (may) want to start a business because people are finally buying Indigenous items.”

Crane said a lot of Indigenous entrepreneurs are anxious about starting a business because they don’t get enough support in areas that can range from funding to mentorship.

“They (Indigenous entrepreneurs) don’t want to open a business because they’re scared that nobody will shop there.”

A success story could change that, he said. To have a model of an Indigenous company, “it influences a lot of people.”

Besides the financial support and investments, Crane said Indigenous curriculum and tools for business literacy play a strong role in supporting Indigenous small businesses in their entrepreneurial endeavours.

He added customers could also pledge to shop for Indigenous-made items and understanding the history and policies that have affected Indigenous communities would eventually break down systematic barriers — and support local businesses.

Crane said it starts with asking the right questions, such as: “Why are things the way they are in Canada? And how do we move away from excluding certain demographics?”

Rob Schulz, founder of the online marketplace ShopFirstNations, said shopping for local Indigenous items is one of the tangible steps toward economic reconciliation.

“As we think of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, people often think about what the government is doing,” said Schulz, whose online platform hosts at least 150 Indigenous businesses.

“But as a consumer, choosing to buy an Indigenous (item) is a tangible step you can take.”

Those hoping to support Indigenous communities for Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30 could shop with vendors pledging the proceeds back to the Orange Shirt Society or other groups supporting Indian residential school survivors, Schulz said.

For those shopping online, many local Indigenous vendors have started to find themselves a spot in the digital world, gradually closing the long-persisting online gap.

Biskane, an online platform connecting remote Indigenous artists to retailers and shoppers, has built a custom verification process for hosting authentic Indigenous artists and vendors, helping them earn for what they create.

“People do want to support the authentic experience,” said Chad Solomon, founder of Biskane.com. “But where do you find that in the online space, with different people coming out with fraudulent experiences?”

Solomon said Biskane was built with the idea of restoring trust within markets and connecting products from rural areas with mainstream, urban cities where people are willing to support authentic products.

“We’re looking to build trust so that money actually goes to authenticated artists who need it,” said Solomon, who is also an Indigenous children’s books author. “So many of our committee members are talented, but getting opportunities to get the top dollar for your art is not always the easiest.”

Solomon, who launched the platform in December, said Biskane — which means “to light the fire” in Aanishinaabe — not only provides authentic artists with an online space but helps with a tax reporting system for Indigenous business owners who were unable to get sales tax deductions based on their status card.

For customers doubting their Indigenous item’s authenticity, Crane suggested a simple five-minute internet search could help confirm whether the purchase is authentic or not. An Indigenous-made item would generally say where it was made on the artist or company’s website.

Most Indigenous business owners are also communicative, so customers should feel encouraged to ask them about the products and sourcing of material.

Schulz agrees. He said people visiting Indigenous markets — an ideal place to interact with vendors — could learn about the culture as well as the product.

“If you feel uncomfortable buying a piece of clothing and don’t know if you can wear it or not as a non-Indigenous person, just ask questions,” he said.

“Engage with the entrepreneurs,” Schulz said. “Because you’re not only learning but also helping them build their business.”

Every dollar spent on an orange T-shirt for Truth and Reconciliation Day should be a conscious effort to uplift an Indigenous business or community, Schulz and other experts say.

For anyone unsure how to find those businesses, here are some tips:

Shop Indigenous

Pledging to purchase items from Indigenous vendors not only supports their business, it serves the whole community. Indigenous businesses bring resources back into their communities, said Jacob Crane, the Indigenous entrepreneurship program manager at United College in Waterloo, Ont.

Know where the money goes

Experts say it is important to understand who benefits. Does the purchase price of the item goes back to the artist, vendor or community rather than the company who owns a chain store? Indigenous businesses usually make that information clear, said Carol Anne Hilton, CEO of the Indigenous economic advisory group Indigenomics Institute.

Support verified groups

Look for Indigenous vendors that pledge to donate the proceeds from sales of orange T-shirts to groups that raise awareness about the residential school survivors such as the Orange Shirt Society — which also lists official retailers on its website — or Indian Residential School Survivors’ Society.

Take an extra step to research

A simple internet search or stopping to ask the right questions can help you spot a counterfeit item passing for Indigenous art. While most Indigenous products, including orange T-shirts, come with a label, customers should feel encouraged to ask the business owners about the products, sourcing of materials and traditions involved in making the item.

Find online businesses

Growing online marketplaces for Indigenous art and products are helping connect rural vendors with urban markets. Spend some more time checking the sites offering authentic Indigenous work and T-shirts, and don’t forget to ask questions about where it is coming from and where the dollar is going.

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