Indigenous

The Campbell River store owner spotlighting other Indigenous businesses

Launched during the pandemic, Wildflowers & Co. emphasizes Indigenous artists and artisans

By Marissa Tiel
April 28, 2021
Indigenous

The Campbell River store owner spotlighting other Indigenous businesses

Launched during the pandemic, Wildflowers & Co. emphasizes Indigenous artists and artisans

By Marissa Tiel
Apr 28, 2021
Marissa Tiel / Capital Daily
Indigenous

The Campbell River store owner spotlighting other Indigenous businesses

Launched during the pandemic, Wildflowers & Co. emphasizes Indigenous artists and artisans

By Marissa Tiel
April 28, 2021
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The Campbell River store owner spotlighting other Indigenous businesses
Marissa Tiel / Capital Daily

Growing up, Alissa Assu didn’t see many female entrepreneurs.

Today the Wet'suwet'en woman is uncomfortable calling herself a business owner, despite the success of her new Campbell River store.

Wildflowers & Co. began with humble roots this past fall, selling clothes, jewelry, art, and other products commonly found in a one-of-a-kind shop, while shining a light on Indigenous artists and their work. It soon grew into a fully fledged brick and mortar store—during a pandemic. 

Assu set out to create a destination for authentic Indigenous artists and their products and, in doing that, has created a community. The shop’s growth and success has been a message for Assu: Indigenous artists no longer need non-Indigenous businesses to thrive. They can stand on their own. 

The journey to business-ownership hasn’t been straight for Assu. She spent her early 20s as an Aboriginal community liaison officer with the Correctional Service of Canada. Through the position, she discovered that she couldn’t support Indigenous people with trauma, so she made a switch to working with Indigenous youth in sport. A passionate athlete who represented BC in badminton at the North American Indigenous Games, Assu soared in her new career.

If it weren’t for COVID-19, she says she probably would never have left. The career would have set her up for life. But when the pandemic hit, Assu saw how her community was affected. 

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“My immediate concern was local families and, more specifically, the local families who rely on farmers’ markets and community markets for their livelihood and for their income,” she says. She worried about what Campbell River would become without the vibrant fabric of family-owned businesses that dot the coastal resource community. 

“Those events are kind of what makes community, right? It’s not Walmart and Costco, it’s not. It’s the little boutiques, it’s the coffee shops, the family-owned restaurants, and not the chains that really give the character and the vibrancy of communities.”

So she took a step—rather a largely uncomfortable leap—and left her well-paying job to start Westcoast Wildflowers & Co.

Assu had a few ideas on where to start. Step one: make a business. Step two: set up social media accounts. Step three: well, that’s where she faltered. So, looking for help, Assu approached some of the community’s female business owners for mentorship. She asked the former owner of a clothing boutique how to get products into her shop and shared her dream and vision with fellow Indigenous business owner Valerie Lamirande of Ravensong Soaps.

Despite not having any experience mentoring, Lamirande agreed to help. “She just had so much enthusiasm,” she says. “I was endeared to her right away.”

When Assu first began Wildflowers & Co. in the fall, she ran it out of her family’s garage on the Quinsam reserve in Campbell River. Then, just before Christmas, she held a successful pop-up shop. In February, she opened the first brick-and-mortar location in the heart of downtown Campbell River and a second location is in the works. 

“It’s really a shock to have this store when I open my business every morning,” she says. “Anyone can work hard to get this, but I feel like it really has to be fuelled with passion, and if you don’t have that passion, then I think you’re in trouble, because then you’re just selling stuff.”

Among the business advice Assu received was not to ruffle feathers. She’d made a successful online platform, one of the most popular online identities for Campbell River businesses, but was being told not to use it to affect political or social change. She refused.

While the Instagram grid is predominantly about new products for the store, there’s a handful of personal squares. On Feb. 2, she made a post about an area of the store—both online and in-person—that highlights Indigenous makers, aptly called the Indigenous Collection. On this “Truthful Tuesday,” Assu announced she was removing a brand from her Indigenous Collection because it is not authentically Indigenous.

“Truthfully, it’s owned and operated by a non-Indigenous family that pays artists a small royalty fee,” she wrote. “It’s dominated the market for decades.” While she said she would still carry the brand at her store, it would no longer be featured in the collection.

“I want to be a place that people, they just know that they can trust me when I bring in authentic products, that they’re supporting fair pay, fair wages; that they’re supporting authentic Indigenous, that they’re not culturally appropriating,” she says.

Indigenous artists have faced an uphill battle in sharing their authentic art with the world, but the success of Wildflowers & Co. is signalling a path forward. 

When the pandemic hit, artist Salina Morse knew people would need self-care. So, she designed a line of environmentally friendly candles, under the brand Alice and Sage, with the power to transport people. Her bestseller, Respect Your Elderberries, combines a creamy-sweet mix of blackberry, raspberry, vanilla, and vetiver. Pouring the candles, Morse, who grew up on Lake St. Martin First Nation in Manitoba, is transported back to her childhood, picking berries in her grandmother’s garden and enjoying them over vanilla ice cream. Scent is one of our strongest connections to memory, and she likes to share the memory of her childhood with customers.

It wasn’t long after Morse launched that she was contacted by Assu, and her new brand Alice and Sage soon joined the shop’s ranks of Indigenous-made products.

There’s always been a demand for Northwest Coast art, says Erin Brillon, founder of Totem Design House in the Comox Valley. Today, a shift is happening in consumers who don’t just want the cheapest product; they’re willing to pay for authentic art created by an artist.

“Our art books have been exploited by non-Indigenous people for decades,” she says. “Over 100 years, our art forms have been basically stolen from us and used to make other people wealthy.” Designs were lifted from books, slapped onto T-shirts, manufactured in factories overseas, and shipped back.

“Consumers are definitely shifting from looking at tags and going like, where [is it] being made and who is the company behind it, and they’re wanting to support Indigenous makers directly more.”

Brillon’s own designs were among the first Assu brought to her store. And her quest to educate consumers inspired Assu to begin the Indigenous Collection.

Where their art is sold is important to makers. Sooke-based Indigenous artist Jamie Gentry makes custom moccasins. She says it can be intimidating to put art out into the world. “As an Indigenous artist, to know that our art is in a safe space where it can be authentically represented is also important,” she says, “which is why having Indigenous women-run businesses is so empowering.”

“We’ve outgrown BC Ferries. We’ve outgrown tacky tourist shops. We’ve outgrown gas stations,” Assu says. Indigenous art deserves to be elevated, not relegated.

Assu and her younger sister, the only staff, will continue to elevate Indigenous artists alongside makers of all backgrounds in their authentic way.

Correction at 3 pm on April 28: This article has been updated to reflect that Erin Brillon is the founder, not co-founder, of Totem Design House.

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