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Three Indigenous-owned businesses to support in Toronto

Owners weigh in on operating their businesses throughout the pandemic
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JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY
JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Indigenous entrepreneurs in Toronto are serving up food, showcasing artwork, hosting events, and creating handmade items that are both contemporary and reflective of different Indigenous traditions. The Varsity spoke with the owners and representatives of three different Indigenous-owned businesses about what they do and their respective missions.

Grab a bite with Pow Wow Cafe 

Pow Wow Cafe is located in Kensington market. It specializes in weekend brunches and the Indian taco, which owner Shawn Adler calls the “holy grail” of powwow food. 

Pow Wow Cafe’s menu is inspired by the food served at powwows, which Adler remembers eating as a kid. Adler explains that, through his mother’s side, his family is a part of the Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nations community near Thunder Bay, Ontario. He wanted his restaurant to be an atmosphere where people could catch up with friends and family that they had not seen in a while, similar to a powwow.

Adler is a professional chef who has owned many other restaurants before Pow Wow Cafe. The idea for the restaurant came from his experience as a food vendor at different events in Toronto, such as music festivals and powwows. “People would always want to know where they can get Indian tacos, and it just appeared logical to open a restaurant because there was a gap. There was a need for Indigenous cuisine in Toronto.” 

Adler mentions that there has been a fairly recent surge of restaurants and catering services specializing in Indigenous cuisine. “The media really caught on and said, ‘Is this a trend?’” 

To this sentiment, he responds: no, Indigenous cuisine is not just some trend. “The reason why you don’t see a lot of Indigenous restaurants, but you do start seeing them open in the last few years is that the [current] Indigenous chefs were the first generation not to attend residential school.” 

As with many other restaurants, Pow Wow Cafe had to shut down during the pandemic. The restaurant has reopened since, but its hours will be inconsistent for the foreseeable future as Adler focuses on running his other restaurant, the Flying Chestnut Kitchen. Pow Wow Cafe will focus on weekend brunch hours and catering at powwows and music festivals this coming summer. 

Support Indigenous creations with Pacha Art 

Pacha Indigenous Art Collection is a family-run business that sells apparel, home decor, jewelry, artwork, and household items made by Indigenous artists from across the Americas.

At their store on Bathurst and Bloor, they host workshops, events, and artist talks. Samay Arcentales Cajas runs the front end of the business. “My family is Indigenous to Northern Ecuador, we’re Kichwa, and so a big part of what we do is bridge the gap between Indigenous nations from [the] north and south,” she explained. “[We] acknowledge treaty networks that existed way before these territories were colonized and confined.” 

Cajas noted that Pacha Art in its current form is only the most recent iteration of her family’s business. As a child, the family sold items at events like busker festivals and powwows, and set up kiosks in shopping malls. 

They eventually decided to set up a permanent store for two reasons. The first was that constantly travelling and moving boxes was physically taxing. Another reason, as Cajas recalled, was that Indigenous representation in Toronto was overlooked and erased. She observed that this began to change in 2014, and she felt that her family’s business had a lot to offer.  

During the pandemic, Pacha Art’s physical storefront remained closed. Cajas said, “Our whole business has been online-focused for two years now. We’re still learning how to manage, especially for me, juggling multiple things or responsibilities. It’s always a learning curve.”

She also expresses the growing pains of adapting to a social media-driven world. “Now I have to do the whole TikTok thing and I’m a naturally more shy person, but I’m not allowed to be anymore. I gotta go out there and do it,” she said. 

The hope is that Pacha Art will be able to open back up sometime this year. Whether it be in the physical store building or online, Cajas emphasized that she wants to continue spreading a positive message about Indigenous representation in the city. “Our goal is to allow people to realize that Indigenous people can thrive, and we are thriving, and we have a lot to offer. We exist and we’re not gone,” she said. 

Embrace Indigenous tradition with SunHeart Rises 

SunHeart Rises is an online and pop-up store that specializes in jewelry and accessories. The items are made by owner Trip Phoenix, who uses natural materials such as leather, bone, and glass, and sells items ranging from delicate beaded necklaces to sturdy buckled cuffs. 

The story behind SunHeart Rises is a unique one. Phoenix explained that he was a professional musician 12 years ago, performing for films and TV and touring with a rock band. Upon returning to Toronto, he had a stroke, which took a profound toll on his health. 

“I was in the hospital for two months after that, and I started rehab because I lost most of my motor skills (speech, writing, reading, paralized [sic] on the right side of my body) so I needed to re-evaluate my life. I was out of the commission so to speak for a while,” he wrote. 

After a year, Phoenix began to recover and reconnect with his Mohawk and Tayrona roots by volunteering at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, where he picked up the skill of creating bone chokers and bracelets. In terms of the business’ name, SunHeart Rises, he wrote, “I chose that name for my Indigenous jewelry business to uplift the spirits of the people, as we are the Red Nation, the Children of the Sun.”

Phoenix started by selling at the Native Canadian Centre, and eventually got busy vending at powwows, craft sales, Indigenous awareness days at various schools and campuses, and other events. 

The administrative side of the job, he described, is not exactly easy. “You need to be aware and be on your toes and catch the calls from the coordinators from different organizations, and to reach out to them and to be professional,” he wrote. 

SunHeart Rises, like so many other businesses, was forced to turn to online marketing during the pandemic. Phoenix currently showcases his items on Instagram and sells them through the SunHeart Rises website. With government restrictions being lifted this year, though, Phoenix is booked for Toronto’s Indigenous Fashion Week and the Ontario Native Women’s Association conference. He is hoping to do more in-person events as they come up.