'Our people have lost considerable income': Almonte Indigenous business urges support for virtual marketplace

·3 min read

This story is part of a series, Diverse Voices, to highlight business owners in our community who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour as part of our commitment to improve diversity in the content we produce.

As with most business startups, Karen Bisson, founder of Turtle Lodge Trading Post, simply found a need and filled it.

In business since 2006, Bisson, who has Métis, Mi’kmaq and Wendat ancestors, said she “was approached by several elders looking for a more affordable source of white sage. People said, ‘can you find a smudge bundle,’ or this, or that. Over time, (the business) evolved,” she said.

Bisson does not profess to be an expert on herbs, but she has amassed enough knowledge after an apprenticeship with an elder, who was a German herbalist. “A lot of what I learned, I learned from her,” she said.

These days, the home-based business occupies the entire lower level of Bisson’s Almonte residence, with more inventory stored in various storage units. Bisson is currently working on “the next level” of the business, although she cannot confirm yet if that means opening a storefront.

Turtle Lodge Trading Post carries unique items such as bear grease (to treat skin conditions and moisturize hair), liquid smudge, hand-milled beeswax soaps, dried herbs, Indigenous artwork, beaded jewelry, greeting cards, tote bags, books and ingredients for ceremonial medicine.

Bisson said they had just revamped their website through a women’s entrepreneurship grant when the pandemic hit in March. “Our old website was antiquated.”

A staunch supporter of the annual Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival held in Ottawa’s Vincent Massey Park, Bisson was able to participate virtually this summer when the festival moved online due to COVID-19.

The festival offered Indigenous artisans from Ontario an opportunity to sell their work during its typical four-day June run in Ottawa.

Bisson described past Summer Solstice festivals as “the biggest Indigenous festival in the area. There were vendors, a stage for performances, birch bark making, powwows, a kids’ section with bouncy castle, performers on stilts, live birds of prey, amazing food.”

“It’s an opportunity to reconnect. We’re all missing it,” she added, although she gives the organizers of the festival credit for the effort they made going virtual this year.

“They pulled out all the stops, tried to do everything live on a virtual setting. They had elders doing ceremony, air performers, contests, various concerts and performers, all done virtually,” Bisson continued.

According to a press release, research done by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) estimated that at least 714 Indigenous businesses (out of 1,699) could be at serious risk of closure in 2020-2021.

Festival executive director Trina Mather-Simard said “Canadian Indigenous artisans rely on festivals and events to sell their crafts. With many of these shut down this past year, our people have lost considerable income.”

As a way to help Indigenous businesses, the Summer Solstice Indigenous Marketplace has reopened from Nov. 1 until June 30, 2021, for visitors looking for unique seasonal gifts so that they “can continue supporting artists in the Indigenous community,” said Mather-Simard.

“They’ve invited vendors to set up a little store, like a mini-virtual replica of what was happening live,” Bisson added. “Of course, there’s no comparison — you can’t see, smell, touch. But I’m really proud and honoured that we are one of the vendors on the site, part of the marketplace.”

More than 30 vendors on the virtual marketplace sell items such as soy candles, soaps, bath bombs, wooden art, handmade jewelry and artwork.

Bisson urged everyone to “shop in our store — everything you buy from our store supports our community.”

For more information, call 613-256-9229 or visit turtlelodgetradingpost.ca/ and ssif-virtual-marketplace.myshopify.com/

Yona Harvey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Smiths Falls Record News