This Stó:lō social enterprise is tackling unemployment with a factory for Indigenous art

Nations Creations helps people take control of their careers while creating opportunities for Indigenous artists.

Nations Creations helps people take control of their careers and create opportunities for Indigenous artists

Chris McIntyre was unemployed for two-and-a-half years before going through the Nations Creations warehouse training program. (Nations Creations)

As rewarding as being a stay-at-home dad can be, Chris McIntyre of the Skawahlook First Nations was anxious to get a job after spending two and a half years at home and unemployed. With him out of work, his family no longer had the two incomes necessary to support and provide for his kids.

"I say I only work here to collect the pay cheque to support my hunting," jokes McIntyre.

"But having dual income is beneficial. It gives you the ability to buy fresh produce on a weekly basis. It keeps [my family] healthy."

His path to full-time employment came courtesy of a unique Indigenous organization in Chilliwack, B.C. helping people take control of their unemployment while creating ethical opportunities for Indigenous artists.

After six months of training — where McIntyre learned how to operate a forklift, scissor lift and a UV printer — he was hired full-time by Nations Creations.

Since starting in 2016, Nations Creations has offered a warehousing training program to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Indigenous artists create designs and then workers manufacture souvenir items like mugs and t-shirts, which are sold in gift shops and used as corporate swag. They have signed more than 25 artists and trained about 38 folks who were on unemployment insurance.

Mouse pads are the newest addition to Nations Creations’ inventory. (Nations Creations)

What is this for? (Sta:mel tè'í ?)

The idea for the enterprise came to Coast Salish artist Bonny Graham (B.wyse) while she was working at the Stó:lō Gift Shop. She observed Indigenous artists receiving one-time payments for their artwork, while manufacturing companies raked in the profits.

Graham wanted to create a way for artists to get exposure and fair compensation for their art — so she formulated a plan that would allow for 25 per cent of each Nations Creations item sold to go back to the artist who created the design.

"If that percentage was broken down so that every single time [an item] was produced, the company would still be able to make money and thrive. But then, the artist would still get that percentage on an ongoing basis," says Graham.

She successfully applied for an innovation grant from the provincial Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, and Nations Creations was formed in 2016. The training component invites community members who qualify for unemployment insurance to learn technical skills that can be transferred to other warehouse jobs.

Others business such as Native Northwest, which works with Indigenous artists to produce local works, are also helping to keep Indigenous artwork and production local, rather than outsourcing it overseas.

McIntyre was initially attracted by the opportunity to gain Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) certification and to learn how to operate warehouse equipment.

"I wanted paid training because I wanted to see the light at the end of the program. What sold me was the certificates."

McIntyre was so successful in his cohort that he often taught his classmates how to use warehousing equipment. At the end of the six-month program, he was offered an opportunity to stay on as an employee.

Jason Roberts (Sxwoxil) explains how designs created by Indigenous artists such as himself are digitized before being printed onto souvenir items. (Nations Creations)

The people who made this work (Ye Mestíyexw kw'es e tháyem te'í syó:ys)

Jason Roberts (Sxwoxil) is a Stó:lō artist who also became a permanent employee after completing the first training program in October 2016. Before working with Nations Creations, Roberts says he wasn't always paid fairly for his artwork when he would agree to sell them to manufacturing companies — recalling, in particular, a blanket design he designed for a local business.

"Although I'd seen the mass exposure I got from that, my little payday sure didn't compensate at all. That's where this changes here — where I know if it's Nations Creations, I got some sort of percentage out of that," he says.

Nations Creations helps protect Indigenous artwork by advocating for the artists to prevent any violation to their creative property. Roberts recalls an instance when they mediated a compensation deal between schools and artist Jason Deck of the Tzeachten (Chi'iyaqtel) First Nation.

"He did the design for orange residential school shirts," says Roberts. "Schools in the local area wanted to make that a huge mural for all their schools. He was going to allow them to do it, but he was contracted here through the design."

"[Nations Creations] took care of him, and said, 'Yeah, we can do that but we're going to make sure you get compensated fairly for that.'"

Sts’ailes artist Rocky LaRock has started drawing again after seeing one of his designs printed on a Nations Creations t-shirt. (Nations Creations )

Determined to do it (x̱asélmet)

Artists like Sts'ailes (ʃəˈheɪlɪs) artist Rocky LaRock say they draw joy and inspiration from seeing their artwork reproduced on commercial products by Nations Creations.

LaRock had almost given up on drawing after unsuccessfully entering art contests for 40 years. The repeated rejections left him discouraged. He continued carving, but stopped drawing and sketching.

Earlier this year, Roberts digitized a salmon design LaRock had sketched on a drum and printed it on a t-shirt. Seeing his design on a t-shirt helped LaRock regain his artistic confidence.

"It's like they put me back on track and put in the right frame of mind to pursue, to follow my dream, and don't let a couple of closed doors end your journey or put doubt in your head," he says. "Because that's what it did for years."

LaRock is back drawing again and now teaches his children to draw as well.

"It's opened up a whole new avenue for myself."

The Renew series about Indigenous Innovation is produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

In 'Renew: Stories of Indigenous innovation,' hosts Duncan McCue and Jamuna Galay-Tamang introduce you to people and projects that are changing the way Indigenous people live, work and play.