Friendship Centre Develops Social Enterprises to Enhance Lives

First Nations elders hold the chocolates and teas offered through Aq’saak Aboriginal Food Products Ltd.

Friendship Centre Develops Social Enterprises to Enhance Lives

The prime purpose is to create employment for the urban aboriginal population that we serve: CEO Michael Colclough

Gifting is integral to the aboriginal culture, and aboriginal elders and others in B.C.’s Comox Valley are sharing the gift of their wisdom and culture so that members of the community can gain life-enriching knowledge, skills and supports.

This is a foundational spirit behind Aq’saak Aboriginal Foods Ltd., a social enterprise of the Wachiay Friendship Centre in Courtenay, B.C.

“I’m planning to etch out a presence in Canada that would give us some income and employ people,” says Michael Colclough, CEO of Aq’saak and executive director of the friendship centre.

“That’s what I’m looking for … some sustainability and employment and income for our people.”
— Michael Colclough

“That’s what I’m looking for … some sustainability and employment and income for our people.”

Incorporated in February 2013, Aq’saak’s first offerings of chocolates and teas embody the cultures of Aboriginal Peoples on the west coast. Aq’saak means respect for nature and the products feature ingredients that were traditionally harvested in the area, Michael says.

Described as “Edible Aboriginal Legends,” the offerings were developed with the knowledge that elders from many First Nations of the Kwakiutl District Council shared with Cheryl Simon, who is on the friendship centre’s board as well as a Kwakwaka’wakw businessperson and traditional herbs practitioner.

Sales are being generated in various ways, and Aq’saak is fully owned by the Wachiay Friendship Centre. The non-profit organization offers about 40 programs and services to everyone who comes to the friendship centre, including non-aboriginal community members and urban aboriginal children, youth, families, parents and seniors.

The centre is a hub of the community, partnering with organizations and government to offer supports relating to everything from employment and legal aid to homelessness to learning and health challenges.

Aq’saak Aboriginal Food Products Ltd. is one of three social enterprises the friendship centre is developing. Just launched is the Wachiay Studio, which has world-class technology for such screen print applications as solar panels and circuit boards. Wachiay Aboriginal Radio and Multimedia will encompass operating a FM radio station and, through a newly-created venture with a major telecommunications company to access its studio, producing local TV programs for local broadcast.

Michael says these social enterprises have the potential to create meaningful livelihoods.

  Michael Colclough is CEO of Aq’saak Aboriginal Food Products Ltd., one of three social enterprises developed by the Wachiay Friendship Centre to create employment and related opportunities for aboriginal youth and community members.

“The prime purpose is to create employment for the urban aboriginal population that we serve,” he says.

“The second priority is to introduce our youth and Aboriginal Peoples to new technologies and new knowledge and education that would hopefully spark an interest in them, and they can come and go through the programs here, and some can end up with employment to stay; others will have transferrable skills where they can be employed in other industries across Canada.”

Literacy skills can also be enhanced which, Michael says, increases employability.

As the youngest and fastest-growing demographic in B.C., Aboriginal Peoples hold promise for a thriving future. Their knowledge and skills can contribute to new business, economic growth as well as resilient communities.

A future vision for Aq’saak is that it become a home-based business for aboriginal women, reflecting the inspiration that came to Michael from one of North America’s largest food-themed, home-based businesses.

“The genesis of it was my wife, family and friends on the reserve are all buying products from (this company),” Michael says.

“I kept seeing these parties taking place in our community selling non-native products and I thought there’s got to be a market for us. So we started research more than four years ago on what would be those products that we could put into the marketplace across Canada and target aboriginal women who live on reserve and off reserve, attend friendship centres and live in communities, and give them a product they could believe in, that they could sell in their communities, and give them some income as a result.”

Aboriginal culture and history is also being enlivened through the social enterprises. Aq’saak Aboriginal Foods Ltd., for instance, is inspired by aboriginal legends, traditions, practices and the wisdom of elders in developing its recipes and products. And the radio and multimedia initiative will give voice to aboriginal culture and stories.

“We have to think of ourselves as a business and of our services and programs as product ...”
— Michael Colclough

While the learning is ongoing – Aq’saak is looking to revamp and reposition its offerings as a result of various challenges – the possibility for social enterprise pushes efforts forward.

It’s all part of a shift that Michael sees as necessary for non-profit organizations like friendship centres.

“We have to think of ourselves as a business and of our services and programs as product, because it’s a competitive world for the non-profit society,” he says. “We write proposals and applications every day to keep the doors open here for a multitude of programs and services. ….

“When you’re running an organization like this, you have to look forward to stability rather than just reacting to calls for proposals; you need to set down a strategic plan for the future and look at some other revenue streams, and that revenue stream was business, for me,” says Michael, who worked extensively with First Nations and levels of government to generate employment in rural aboriginal communities by creating community access to natural resources.

He is looking ahead to the opportunities for the social enterprises. New partnerships, for instance, could generate distribution and greater marketing for Aq’saak Aboriginal Foods’ products. The chocolates and teas were given as gifts at the AGM of the National Association of Friendship Centres, growing awareness of social enterprise. And a joint venture with the growers’ association in Comox Valley to produce ingredients locally for Aq’saak’s offerings is a possibility. Aq’saak and the Wachiay Studio will also be part of a documentary on social enterprise airing on the national APTN channel, which Michael says could open up some new markets as well.

“We have to look at the next step. You never know how or where that opportunity is going to come in the market so we can get some sales that will sustain us and allow us to make further investment and to grow a company. Hopefully that’s just around the corner.”

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A version of this article was originally written for the Enterprising Non-profits Canada news service. This repost, for which we received permission, follows the style guidelines of the original post.

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Lisa Bailey came to Axiom News with reporting and editing experience at newspapers across southern Ontario. She has enjoyed a new approach to journalism based in appreciative inquiry and asking catalytic questions, and the variety of interviewing people from sectors as different as long-term care and engineering.

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