Notable Indigenous Entrepreneurs in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Notable Indigenous Entrepreneurs in Canada

Indigenous economies thrived long before Europeans arrived in North America and, due to hard work and ingenuity, a growing number of Indigenous entrepreneurs are enjoying success today. Many are demonstrating a blending of traditional values and an Indigenous world view with financial success. The following are but a few of a long list of remarkable Indigenous entrepreneurs running thriving businesses in Canada. (See also Economic Conditions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

1. Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow (Ojibwe)

In 2018, entrepreneur Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow brought his background in Indigenous law, business and education to the founding of the Birch Bark Coffee Company on Birch Island in the District of Manitoulin Island. The company offers organic, fair trade, and small-producers-certified coffee. He is bringing sustainable revenue and a more secure future to his community with a larger goal of improving Indigenous lives across Canada. He has pledged, for instance, to devote a portion of company profits to purchase certified water purifiers for those on every reserve without access to clean drinking water. Through his example and speaking engagements, Mark seeks to inspire young Indigenous people to respect tradition and, possibly through entrepreneurship of their own, build a better future for themselves and their communities.

2. Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt (Inuk), Nooks (Keenan) Lindell (Inuk), Lori Tagoona (Inuk) and Emma Kreuger (non-Indigenous)

These young artists, designers and creators from the Kivalliq region of Nunavut made a positive impact on their community with the founding of Hinaani Design. It is based on the long-standing Inuit tradition of taking pride in clothing and fashion. Their unique designs reflect Inuit history and the evolving northern culture and climate. They allow those who wear their clothing to demonstrate a sense of pride in community and tradition. Hinaani Design believes in ethical entrepreneurship. It therefore sources northern and Canadian materials while ensuring environmentally sustainable supply and practices. The business gives back to the community by supporting a range of organizations and initiatives.

3. Michael Whetung (Ojibwe)

In the early 1900s, Michael Whetung’s great-great-grandfather opened a fishing lodge at what is now the Curve Lake First Nation, north of Peterborough, Ontario. The business evolved to offer boat cruises and fishing expeditions and then a grocery store. In the 1940s, his mother Eleanor Whetung began selling locally made Ojibwe crafts and fishing tackle. The popularity of that venture led to today’s large and thriving Whetung Ojibwa Centre, which offers an impressive range of clothing, footwear and crafts created by Indigenous artisans both locally and from across Canada. It also boasts a gallery of fine art from respected Indigenous artists. The small museum tells the long and proud story of the Curve Lake First Nation. Visitors leave the Whetung Gallery with a deeper respect for Indigenous pride, history and culture.

4. Jeff Ward (Ojibwe, Métis)

In the 1990s, Jeff Ward left his community in Manitoba to work in Silicon Valley’s tech sector. He returned to Canada in 2003 to start a tech company called Animikii, in the Songhees territory and Esquimalt First Nation in British Columbia. He uses technology to create partnerships between Indigenous entrepreneurs and like-minded Canadians as a way to foster reconciliation. Ward works with Indigenous communities and businesses, health organizations, educational institutions, and non-profits. In all his company does, Ward intentionally respects and promotes Indigenous traditions and culture. Animikii supports the explosion of new Indigenous entrepreneurs in the belief that technology’s ability to connect Indigenous communities allows ambitious young people to seek success while working remotely and thereby contributing to the health and wealth of their communities.

5. Jenn Harper (Anishinaabe)

When completing a questionnaire at the marketing company at which she was working Jenn Harper indicated that her dream job was to be the CEO of a major cosmetic brand. Having written the answer, she felt inspired to take the courageous leap to make it happen. Cheekbone Beauty, based in St. Catharines, Ontario, was launched in 2016. It is now a successful and growing company offering lip gloss, makeup and more. Harper is dedicated to giving back to her community and donates 10 per cent of profits to support Indigenous causes and non-profit initiatives in North America such as Shannen’s Dream (see Shannen Koostachin) and the Navajo Water Project. The company is also environmentally and socially responsible, with Harper never using animal testing and always seeking more sustainable ways of creating, packaging and shipping her product.

6. Lesley Hampton (Anishinaabe)

Lesley Hampton grew up in the Temagami First Nation in Ontario, the Arctic, New Caledonia, Australia, England and Indonesia. In 2016, her desire to respect her diverse influences while reconnecting with her Anishinaabe roots led to the establishment of Lesley Hampton, a Toronto-based clothing and accessory brand. She is among the industry’s leaders in bringing diverse and authentic representations of beauty to her designs and marketing. When named the First Nation youth recipient for the 2021 Indspire Award, Hampton said she felt reassured that Indigenous youth can “make our own path for change and we don't need to follow the stereotypical mould laid out for us by the mainstream industry we want to shift."

7. Kylik Kisoun Taylor (Inuvialuit, Dinjii Zhuh/Gwich’in)

Kylik Kisoun Taylor grew up in Ontario, where he hunted and trapped with his father, before moving to Inuvik in 2003, where he learned more about traditional ways from his grandfather and uncles. He established Tundra North Tours in 2006. Depending on the time of their visit, guests visit a whaling camp, sleep in self-made igloos, herd reindeer, or drive an ice road to the Arctic Ocean. Taylor’s goal is not just to provide employment and greater financial stability to his community but also to provide guests with authentic experiences that build their understanding of Inuit beliefs and traditions and the need to sustain the northern culture and environment. In 2019, Taylor received the 2019 Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Young Aboriginal Entrepreneur Award.

8. Laura Milliken (Anishinaabe)

In 1999, Laura Milliken and her partner, Jennifer Podemski, formed Big Soul Productions with the goal of being content producers of Indigenous stories for large and diverse audiences. They developed many successful television series, such as the popular Moccasin Flats, I’m Not the Indian You Had In Mind, and the animated comedy By the Rapids. They also produce movies of the week, music videos, promotional films, and documentaries. Milliken assumed sole leadership of the Toronto-based company and remained dedicated to providing spaces for Indigenous voices while promoting Indigenous talent. Among Milliken’s many awards has been the 2003 Southern First Nations Secretariat Female Entrepreneur of the Year, two Sundance Producers Fellowships, and the 2007 Canadian Film and Television Production Association Mentor of the Year.

9. Lynn-Marie Angus and Melissa-Rae Angus (Gitxaala, Nisga'a and Métis)

In 2018, Lynn-Marie Angus was experiencing racism and sexual harassment in a toxic workplace, while her sister Melissa-Rae Angus was pregnant with her first child and on the verge of homelessness. They decided to start their business to make positive changes in their lives both spiritually and financially. Vancouver-based Sisters Sage makes handcrafted wellness and self-care products with traditional Indigenous ingredients. Their sweetgrass and tobacco leaf smokeless smudge spray, for instance, allows customers to better understand the importance of smudging while offering a safe, indoor experience. Besides promoting traditional knowledge, the partners also work to encourage and support other young Indigenous entrepreneurs and Indigenous causes. In 2021, the BC Achievement Foundation named Sisters Sage the Business of the Year.

10. Martha Kyak (Inuk)

Originally from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut, Martha Kyak is an artist and fashion designer. After moving to Ottawa, she began sewing to make some extra money while working a full-time job. Her seamstress work later translated into InukChic, her fashion and jewellery brand. Kyak combines traditional Inuit and contemporary designs to create pieces that have been displayed in various exhibitions and fashion shows. In addition to her artistic career, Kyak is an educator and illustrator of children’s books. A member of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, she has also advocated for the Inuit Women in Business Network and stressed the importance of women helping other women in matters of business.