Indigenous business district on the way

By Demetre Politis

Half Ojibwe and half Jewish, Shawn Adler says he grew up going to powwows every weekend with his family. He ate meals such as tacos and corn soup — the traditional powwow dishes he cooks at his restaurant, Pow Wow Cafe in Kensington Market.

“I base the whole premise of this restaurant on the Indian taco,” he says. “Beef is traditionally found at powwows, we funk it up with other ingredients to really chefify it with flour, sprouts, cilantro. And then we invented chicken curry on fry bread, and pork souvlaki on pork bread.”

Pow Wow Cafe is one among the handful of Indigenous restaurants in Toronto. Adler says the reason we are now seeing more Indigenous businesses is because his generation is the first to not be forced into residential schools.

He says he didn’t grow up on a reserve but his grandmother did, and he had cultural influences around him. He’s well aware that residential schooling quashed a lot of success for his ancestors. “How are you to be successful at anything, let alone open a business,” he says. For Adler, opening an Indigenous restaurant “was just a natural thing to do.” “I didn’t really think that there was so few of them,” he says.

Indigenous literature and cookbooks on display at the Pow Wow Café in Toronto. (Photo by: Demetre Politis)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a list of Calls to Action in 2015. Call to Action 92 says the corporate sector in Canada should “commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships and obtaining the consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.”

Since 2012, Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has been planning an Indigenous business district as Indigenous businesses continue to pop-up in the city. Melissa Wong, her director of policy and operations, says Councillor Wong-Tam began speaking with a number of agencies and individuals in her ward, and was repeatedly getting questioned on why there was no Indigenous hub in the city. She had started consulting with the Indigenous Place Making Council, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and various other Indigenous organizations by January of last year.

I think it’s super difficult to be stripped of your culture, your language, everything, taken away from your parents and then be proud of who you are.

Wong says Wong-Tam proposed the district to the Aboriginal Affairs Committee in Toronto on Feb. 15 and they endorsed it. The first instalment for the business district, officially named the Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ICIE), is intended to cultivate Indigenous innovation and give small and mid-size businesses access to Indigenous-led innovation, technology and talent. Wong says the city has secured some space at Jarvis Street and Dundas Street.

“This district would give a safe and geographic-land space for the public to be able to learn about Indigenous culture and access Indigenous business,” Wong says. “It’s also an opportunity for Toronto to showcase the kinds of Indigenous culture and entrepreneurship that exists in this city, in a central location.”

She says there’s been a lot of discussion lately regarding the city’s commitment towards reconciliation and the city is looking at different ways to engage in Indigenous place-making.

“There’s an opportunity to partner with academic institutions, business and corporations to look into how we can build Indigenous business and support Indigenous entrepreneurs and innovations with a lot of experts in the area,” Wong adds.

Joseph Shawana, chef and owner of Ku-Kum Kitchen, an Indigenous restaurant on Mount Pleasant Road near Eglinton Avenue, says he always wondered why there wasn’t an Indigenous district.

“ … but then, it always comes down to the fact there’s a lot of Indigenous people in Toronto that are spread out vastly,” he says.

Shawana is originally from the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve located on Manitoulin Island.

He says serving Indigenous food is his way of finding his identity again.

“A lot of us lost our language due to the residential school system and our upbringing,” he says.

“It was a way that my grandmother taught us. She always cooked, my mother always cooked.”

A lot of us lost our language due to the residential school system and our upbringing.

Edward Cyr is a social worker of Algonquin and Irish descent involved with Indigenous Marketplace at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. He says having an Indigenous business district would be meaningful and impactful if it’s done correctly.

“My concern would be that this is a business district developed by non-Indigenous people to exploit the cultural values and integrity of Aboriginal people.”

Cyr says the perfect place for an Indigenous hub would be Ontario Place.

“It would put our people close to the water, around an abundance of condominiums growing around that area.”

Cyr says he sits with the Toronto Indigenous Business Association, consisting of only Indigenous people, and there has been talks within the group about potentially having an Indigenous district at Christie Street and Bloor Street West. But regardless of the proposed location of the district, he says he sees the positives in Wong-Tam’s initiatives.

“The fact that we are even having these discussions is monumental to how far we have come in terms of socialized oppression and inclusivity. I have no problem with Wong-Tam and I think what she’s doing, she means in a good way. No matter where they put the district, it will be a good thing,” he says.

In this vastly multicultural city with no shortage of cultural hubs, such as Little Italy, Little India, Little Portugal, Chinatown, Koreatown, Greektown, and Eastern-European neighborhoods such as Bloor West and Roncesvalles, a business district for Indigenous peoples is long overdue.

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