Indigenous face mask company starts making kokum scarves in support of Ukraine

An idea to help people access facemasks in remote First Nations communities is now evolving to show support for Ukraine.

Company raising money for Red Cross

A company that makes masks to sell and donate to remote First Nation communities has started making kokum scarves, in support of Ukraine. (Submitted by Heidi Manitowabi)

An idea to help people access face masks in remote First Nations communities is now evolving to show support for Ukraine.

About a year and half ago, Tyson Wesley of Kachechewan First Nation, started a company called Indigenous Face Masks.

"We originally started off with a goal of 600, to give 200 masks to Fort Albany, 200 to Kashechewan and 200 to Attawapiskat," he said.

"We got big and we started to get more people interested."

The company has sold more than 45,000 masks during the pandemic and has donated another 45,000 masks to different Indigenous communities across the country.

Now, the company is starting to make kokum scarves, which feature a traditional floral design.

Wesley said the scarves stem back when people from Ukraine immigrated to Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many people from Ukraine settled in the Prairies and developed relationships with local Indigenous people.

Ukraine is currently under attack by Russia. The foreign ministers from Ukraine and Russia have engaged in peace talks, but no deal was reached. The two sides have agreed to keep talks going.

Precise death tolls are impossible to verify but the United Nations' human rights office said earlier this week that it has verified 1,207 civilian casualties, including 406 killed and 801 injured. But that true number is likely much higher.

Tyson Wesley started the Indigenous Face Masks initiative as a way to give back to his home community, and other remote First Nations. (Submitted by Tyson Wesley)

Wesley said considering the current situation in Ukraine, they decided to start making kokum scarves.

"We want to acknowledge the connection and we wanted to see where we could help out," he said.

"Instead of face masks, we put scarves on our website and started selling them."

Wesley said so far, he's sold 12,000 scarves, raising more than $6,300 for the Red Cross.

"It's our way of being part of the effort to support Ukraine," he said.

"Our goal is to help as much as we can and see how much we can raise to help out."

'Showing our solidarity'

Wesley added the feedback he's received has been positive.

"I think a lot of people before didn't really understand the history and the connection between the early Ukrainian settlers when they came over and the history of the scarf," he said.

"We're showing our solidarity and sending our prayers to Ukraine by wearing our scarves."

Other Indigenous people have shared stories about wearing the scarves in support of Ukraine.

Heidi Manitowabi, an Anishnaabe woman living in Sudbury who lived in Ukraine for a period of time after high school, told CBC wearing the scarf is personal for her.

"This is very, very close to my heart," she said.

"Not only do I have a personal relationship with Ukraine, but I also wanted to make that reminder, have that reminder for our people of our relationship with Ukraine."

With files from Sarah MacMillan