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Opportunities for Indigenous Businesses in Canada Better than Ever, Shifting to Mainstream Outlets [Interview]

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For EJ Kwandibens, also known as Anikay-Keesic Mishkwandibence, his philosophy is quite simple.

EJ Kwandibens

“Life is a precious gift given to us from the creator. The physical form of life is merely an instrument or a vessel that we must nurture and protect as this is our individual sacred lodge. The key is to unite the physical and spiritual aspects of the self which creates a balanced holistic self,” says the Indigenous cultural educator, facilitator and artist, based in Toronto.

“This process requires time, patience and understanding of the unique kinship one has with the land and all its spiritual entities. It is through this reclamation of the self, true happiness and heightened consciousness manifests itself.”

As he reflects on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation (Friday September 30), Kwandibens will be thinking about some of the horrifying issues the Indigenous community has experienced for a very long time but also how for some entrepreneurs and business owners there’s more opportunities today to succeed than there were years ago.

“The Every Child Matters movement and the need to reflect on that day I think for me is a little personal because my family, all my aunts and uncles, have all been in residential schools. So it’s a day for reflection. It reminds me of those who have passed that have not had their voices heard,” he said.

Image: EJ Kwandibens

“It’s an opportunity for society to truly pause and reflect on what has happened, what has transpired and what can society do in terms of moving forward because I think we need to move away from pointing the finger of blame and I think we need to start looking at solutions and how can we create alliances and relationships to educate one another, to understand the history. 

“And this is what it’s all about. It’s really about getting society to truly understand truth, the history as it happened through the storytelling of the Indigenous population. A lot of people are becoming tired of hearing this. It’s unfortunate that’s the mindset of some people but the Indigenous population is in the place where we get to speak truth and get to speak about the experiences of which they were never told before in the way they are today. That’s a great, beautiful opportunity for both the Indigenous population and Canadian society to come together and learn together and embrace what was and how do we move forward to what is in a good way.”

What really bothers Kwandibens is that when Canada first got wind of the 215 children burials on a Kamloops residential school property, it really shook the country, and also the world, but now he said we’re at 10,000 and we hear nothing. That bothers him.

“It’s not about the number. One child’s death is one child’s death too much,” he said.

Image: EJ Kwandibens

Kwandibens is a member of the Loon Clan and is of Northern Woodland Anishiinaabe (Ojibway) of the Waahbiidaahgaah (Whitesand) First Nation community which is a part of the Robinson Superior 1850 Treaty region located 21 hours north of Toronto.

EJ has over two decades of work experience for cultural awareness development in healthy living. He has worked across many sectors such as, Educational Institutions, Correctional Services, Social Services, Child Welfare and Mental Health. He advocates the power of change through Indigenous Cultural Modalities.

The values and principles guiding his Indigenous ways of knowing and being stems from intergenerational knowledge transfer. Oral traditions form the foundation of Aboriginal societies, connecting speaker and listener in communal experience and uniting past and present in memory. The philosophy of “Miino Biimaahdizewin: Balanced Good Life” is a reclamation of the self and one’s ability to be interconnected through a holistic cultural lens, he says on his website.

For the Indigenous community, people live with the truths of the past every day. He said Canadian society should continue to educate itself throughout the year on how we can all do better to create more understanding and compassion for one another. 

“Because we still have the mindset in society that the Indigenous population is viewed as lesser than and that’s unfortunate. Not everyone shares that view but there’s a great amount of population that does and we have to start shifting that mindset,” he said. 

“Now I realize we can’t change everybody’s minds. There’s going to be the minds that are never going to be able to move forward and progressive but those who are willing to learn and understand and be open, those are the ones we have to engage with and educate with.”

Manitobah (Image: Lindsay Rowan)

Kwandibens believes the environment today is better than it was years ago for Indigenous businesses and business owners to grow and succeed.

“There’s definitely progress and a shift and change to include and support Indigenous businesses in mainstream, whether it be small businesses, self-employed businesses, there is a shift to support those initiatives now more so than ever before,” he said.

“And how that’s being supported through the various different funding grants and proposals and sponsorships from different banks and institutions that are putting in place these different resources and financial incentives to support small Indigenous businesses. And there is a segment of the population that is utilizing that and accessing that which is wonderful.

“Now we’re seeing these Indigenous designs and apparel, different clothing and artifacts that are now shifting into mainstream outlets. A perfect example is Manitobah Mukluks. They support local Indigenous artisans who specialize in beadwork and instead of mass producing beadwork from China they’re utilizing localized artists who create the beadwork on say moccasins, mukluks and mitts and hats. So Manitobah Mukluks is a perfect example of how it’s reaching mainstream and the Indigenous population is right behind them, supporting them.

“Even five, 10 years ago we didn’t see as much support or visibility of Indigenous businesses as we see now. So there is progress, there is change, there is a shift to see more of these types of ventures go mainstream.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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