Thunder Bay

How Indigenous businesses are paving their way in northwestern Ontario

Owning a business is no walk in the park, but that is not deterring Indigenous entrepreneurs in northwestern Ontario from jumping in head first into the true definition of "being your own boss".

Local Indigenous businesses are creating names for themselves in Northwestern Ontario, and beyond

An Indigenous woman stands at a table within her business, "Sister Bear Designs".
Kathleen Sawdo takes pride in providing her customers with authentic, quality goods from other Indigenous business owners and artisans like herself. (Submitted by Kathleen Sawdo)

As a surge of Indigenous entrepreneurs take the leap to being their own boss, they are finding that it does not come without obstacles and say they hope for more support as they take on the challenge. 

Last year, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business reported there are roughly 60,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada,  while Statisics Canada found Indigenous businesses contributed almost $50 billion to the Canadian economy in 2020. 

Heart and Soul Candle Co. is based out of Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay. The business is being run out of Michelle Elliot's home, but she is already finding that she is having a hard time keeping up with the demand. 

Elliot began the project after she found that a lot of candle scents affected her during her pregnancy with her daughter and wanted to create scents that pregnant women like herself at the time, could enjoy.

 As an Indigenous woman and mother from Fort William First Nation, she said she hopes that she can be an inspiration that you can do anything you set your mind to, especially to her daughter.  She wants to lead by example that Indigenous peoples can be successful business owners. 

"I really hope she has a great understanding in her mind that she can strive to do whatever and anything in her life," Elliot said. 

She said she is grateful for the support from the Thunder Bay community for their taking to the product. But she has noticed that there is not a lot of flexibility in the criteria that needs to be met for grant options for business owners who are in those early stages like herself, she said. 

WATCH | Learn more about Indigenous-owned businesses across Canada: 

'Powerful explosion' of Indigenous entrepreneurship in Canada

8 months ago
Duration 2:03
There are more than 60,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada that contributed almost $50 billion to the economy in 2020, and that number is expected to grow rapidly in the years to come.

Sister Bear Designs is currently located at the Goods & Co Market in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but Kathleen Sawdo of Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation has been working on her vision of being an Indigenous retail store from her early years of selling beadwork at craft fairs and the Thunder Bay Country Market. 

Sawdo and her sister have been beading off and on after being taught by their grandmother when they were little. Sawdo had to do some convincing to get her sister on board to sell their beadwork, which eventually led to the creation of Sister Bear Designs. 

In her early years of selling her beadwork, she noticed a lot of hesitation from non-Indigenous customers to purchase and wear beaded creations. 

"There was a lack of understanding of what appropriation was so we did a lot of explaining, every day, multiple times… It's supporting us, it's raising our voices by wearing our work," Sawdo said. 

Although she has been successful in receiving grants and funding, she thinks there can always be room for improvement. A push for options is a big one for Indigenous business owners like Kathleen who are juggling numerous jobs and projects. 

Two men pictured together in portrait style wearing button up long sleeved shirts
Bejamin Feagin Jr. (right) and his partner, Fabian Prince Velez, who is also the master grower at AgriTech North. (Submitted By Benjamin Feagin Jr.)

A lot of first time business owners do not have the luxury of leaving their full time jobs to focus solely on their new ventures, she said. 

"If I can't get in during a lunch hour to meet with someone, I am not going to get that support… Unless it is offered on weekend or in the evening and that's a struggle," Sawdo said. 

She hopes flexibility is offered as more individuals step foot into the entrepreneurial world. 

Breaking down barriers 

Benjamin Feagin Jr. is the CEO of AgriTech North. The company focuses on vertical farming, a concept that is still new in northwestern Ontario. His company recently won on Bear's Lair on APTN and he aims to provide the option of year round produce to help contribute to food security nationally. 

AgriTech North is based out of Dryden, Ontario. The Métis business owner takes pride in serving first nation communities, but has found that this narrative created barriers to broaden his clientele, Benjamin said. 

"Some of the dialogue that we experienced when we were starting and continues to be pervasive today is that because we prioritize or serve rural and remote Indigenous communities, that's all we sell to," he said. "All the food we produce is dedicated to Canadian citizens."

AgriTech North will continue to work to break down barriers to provide Canadian consumers, especially those located in rural communities, a better quality produce option. Feagin Jr. hopes they can see more support for all innovators wanting to change the status quo.


Sara Kae


Sara Kae is an Ojibway/Cree reporter of Lake Helen First Nation based in Thunder Bay, Ont. She covers stories that highlight Indigenous voices with a special focus on arts and culture.