The Bright Side of Business: Indigenous tourism operators ready to ride economic recovery

Makatew Workshops
Some of the products created by Makatew Workshops.
Editor's Note

Star Motors

The Bright Side of Business bimonthly column is presented by Star Motors.

A cohort of local Indigenous tourism operators is hoping that a specialized training program will position them to be at the forefront of their industry’s expected rebound in 2021.

For the past 10 weeks, Algonquin College and Ottawa Tourism have been running the federally funded Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training program. Created for Indigenous learners by Indigenous entrepreneurs and subject-matter experts, this free program shares the fundamentals of business planning and development.

Launch of the Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training
The launch of the Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training program

One of the program participants was Marc Forgette, founder of Makatew Workshops, which offers Indigenous crafts workshops to corporate and not-for-profit organizations. He says his business is likely to benefit from the expected rise in domestic tourism over the coming year.

“There's a lot of great Indigenous tourism ideas out there,” Forgette says. “I think we're going to see more Canadians staying within our borders, which will be amazing.”

Taking the plunge

Forgette, who is of French and Algonquin descent, founded Makatew in June 2019 after spending a dozen years working in business development and sales.

In those roles, he regularly attended trade shows and noticed a lack of locally-sourced items, and Indigenous products in particular. It’s a gap he says goes back decades.

“Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, there was not very not much shared about our culture,” he says. “About three, four years ago, I decided to really start exploring my culture and where we came from.”

The name Makatew was inspired by his great-grandmother’s last name, loosely translating to “Black” in Anishinaabemowin. All of Forgette’s products are made of locally-sourced leather, with one of the most popular being Makatew bookmarks.

Leather bookmarks

“They sell over and over because they're easy to produce, they're a sustainable product, and you can brand them with your logo,” he says.

Within two weeks of leaving his corporate job, Forgette secured his first gig: running a booth at an event for 300 international travel writers.

“I had to teach myself how to use the sewing machine, sew 150 medicine bags, and treat (them) within five weeks,” Forgette recalls. “Sometimes I was wondering, ‘what the heck did I get myself into?’” 

Forgette’s workshop invited participants to sew beads onto the medicine bags. In the end, it was a huge success, with his table being among the event’s most popular booths.

“From that point on, I knew that I was onto something,” Forgette says. 

Making new connections

Like many businesses, Forgette took Makatew virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. While he says his online workshops have been well-received, Forgette says the Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training program “couldn't have come at a better time” and helped him shore up some of his business fundamentals, such as creating a mission statement.

“The course really helped me to get to things that I've been thinking about, but putting on the back burner because I felt like I didn't have time,” Forgette says. “It is absolutely important in the life of an entrepreneur to establish some things early in your business.”

Two program moderators walked participants through each module, which also included topics such as branding and accounting. Each week, an Indigenous entrepreneur would also speak and share their own experiences.

“All the teachings in this course are Indigenized teaching – that's very important to me, because everything I'm doing, I want to make sure I'm doing correctly,” Forgette says. 

As well as this, the program connected Forgette to a network of Indigenous entrepreneurs, including two new business collaborators.

“We've already started working together because I feel I can help them in their journey, and they can help me in my journey as well,” he says.

The Bright Side of Business is an editorial feature focused on sharing positive stories of business success.

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