Kitigan sells authentic, high quality, Aboriginal handmade goods online. Its name is an Ojibway word, meaning “garden” and symbolizing growth, prosperity and the nurturing aspect of Mother Earth. Kitigan products are constructed, carved, sewn and preserved from wood, stone, cloth, bone, glass, metals, leather, and other natural materials. Kitigan operates under the Villages Equity Corporation (VEC) and was founded by the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC).
Ontario is home to one-fifth of the Canadian’s Aboriginal artists, with the majority residing outside of the province’s urban centres. This distribution mimics that seen across Canada for indigenous artists. Whereas minority and immigrant artists tend to cluster in urban environments, Aboriginal artists primarily live outside of metropolitan areas. In addition to this remoteness, many Aboriginal artists face poverty, social exclusion and lack of experience navigating the art market, further decreasing their access to the mainstream. Aboriginals are disproportionately ranked among the poorest of Canadians. This is reflected in the 30% earnings gap evident between average incomes for Aboriginal artists and that of other artists overall. In addition to earning less than their artistic peers, Aboriginal artists earn 39% less than Aboriginals working in other fields. As Chester Langille, Director of Capacity Support at OFIFC, explains “they are getting paid below poverty level, below minimum wage for the work that they have done.”
This is compounded by the fact that Aboriginal artists and art forms are routinely copied and exploited. Many artists’ works are rapidly under-valued as their forms and modalities are replicated and co-opted by foreign businesses. Cheap reproductions decrease the value of, and pollute the market for, genuine aboriginal art. Kitigan provides a valuable alternate venue through which these far-flung artists may interface directly with their customers, both locally and abroad.
Kitigan operates under the auspices of the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC), which represents the collective interests of 29 friendship centres across Ontario.
“To improve the quality of life for Aboriginal people living in an urban environment by supporting self-determined activities which encourage equal access to and participation in Canadian society and which respects Aboriginal cultural distinctiveness.”
Friendship Centres are not-for-profit corporations mandated to serve the needs of all Aboriginal people, regardless of legal definition. They also design and deliver local initiatives in areas such as education, economic development, child and youth programming, and cultural awareness. The Kitigan social economy initiative operates under Villages Equity Corporations (VEC), which was founded by the OFIFC in 2001. VEC is a for-profit entity operating as the economic development arm of OFIFC and its member centres. It is a one-share company owned by the member centres, with all centres contributing towards that share. Prior to Kitigan, VEC had one other initiative, a storefront at the OFIFC office in downtown Toronto selling Aboriginal art. This was closed because the location did not attract enough traffic. Kitigan is only the second social economy initiative because there were no resources available to move anything else through VEC. Kitigan was launched June 21st, 2013, National Aboriginal Day, after two years of planning. It operates in the art & culture, gallery, and retail sales business sectors. As an online social enterprise, it is run out of OFIFC’s head office in Toronto, prioritizing a social and cultural mission focused on creating revenue to support Aboriginal artists, Friendship Centres and for re-investment.
Kitigan’s mission is:
‘A social economy initiative that supports Aboriginal artisans, Friendship Centres and participating Aboriginal businesses and organizations to move toward self-sufficiency through economic development and capacity building.’
In addition to their focus on a social and cultural mission, they have five objectives:
- To provide a variety of authentic, original, quality Aboriginal art, gifts and crafts to a global market;
- To market Aboriginal artisans and provide support in developing their portfolio and entrepreneurial skills;
- To provide educational information regarding the diverse styles, cultures and regions from which Aboriginal peoples and their art come;
- To provide cultural knowledge about the meaning, purpose and methods the artisans use to produce their work and convey their message;
- To promote and support local Friendship Centres, participating Aboriginal organizations and businesses.
Development of Enterprise & Outcomes
OFIFC’s Social Economy Capacity Coordinator Candice Day completed a survey of the Friendship Centres two years ago, to find out if they were already engaged in the social economy and, if not, their interest in getting involved. The overwhelming feedback indicated that there is interest, but that none of the centres had the human or financial resources required to do so. Based on these results, the OFIFC is aiming to create five social economy initiatives each year for the next three years. Kitigan is the first of these. The OFIFC is in a unique position to develop this online social enterprise, with the centres as business partners, based on its history working with them. This makes their relationships different than those started by regular business. As Chester Langille pointed out, “when you start a partnership with a brand-new organization, you don’t know how it’s going to go. You have an agreement, and you make promises, but we have a really strong history with the centres and we know how strong they are.” An additional support exists in the form of the National Association of Friendship Centres, a network of 119 Friendship Centres from coast-to-coast-to-coast. This connection gives Kitigan a greater advantage in the marketplace, offering easy access to many centres which can increase exposure nationally. As a result, they can bring more artists together. Before the launch, Kitigan had six centres interested in participating. As sales increase and excitement and knowledge about the social enterprise builds, Kitigan expects that more centres will be interested in becoming partners. Kitigan is focused on a social and cultural mission. OFIFC created the social enterprise so that they can offer on-going revenue for Aboriginal artists in Ontario and an opportunity for Aboriginal businesses and organizations to build their own capacity and revenue. Many Aboriginal artists walk into centres or go from store to store to sell their products. Considering that many of the artists are very low-income, this strategy is not an effective use of their time. It takes away from time spent developing other pieces of art.
Georgina Franki, an artist from Tlicho Nation explains: “I can just be an artist. Just sit at home and not worry about paying overhead and with my own store I would be responsible for all that.” Franki sees great value in Kitigan because she knows that she will be paid for her work and that she will not be ripped off. A major problem for artists is that their art is not being represented properly and that they are being exploited. Langille shared that concern: “All artists have been saying they have been waiting for this, for someone to go to bat for them.” This initiative supports the artisans right away, because Kitigan’s policy is to buy the art directly from artists and then sell it on their website. Operating under the OFIFC has made Kitigan more viable offering such benefits as a place to store all of the art and the ability to set up an area to photograph the products. Kitigan’s goal is to offer on-going revenue for all their artists. They are working towards this by producing a list of all of the artists who have art online, and their contact information, so that shoppers can start to work directly with the artists. A platform such as Kitigan means that Aboriginal artists can focus on their art, without having to worry about marketing their products. The art Kitigan sells online is not necessarily the same as the products that Friendship Centres display in their storefronts. For example, if a centre in the North would like to sell cornhusk dolls or Iroquois raised beading it would be difficult. This art comes from southern Ontario, and Northern Friendship Centres may not know the artists there. Kitigan supports Friendship Centres like these by selling the art they have at their cost, plus a 15% mark-up fee for re-stocking. Some of the other products that Kitigan sells are giclee prints of Aboriginal art, moccasins, mitts, gauntlets, satchels, paddles, antler carvings, pottery and more. As every center has artists coming to them to sell their art, Kitigan will endeavour to engage more centres, encouraging them to have storefronts and to eventually become suppliers. Another major access barriers for Aboriginal artists is access to materials. Providing easy access to materials for artisans is one of Kitigan’s main priorities. Kitigan is located in southern Ontario which offers easier access to all major industries supplying materials such as furs, hides and beads. This location allows them to source raw materials at almost half the price asked of artists living in more rural areas. The need was clear when Langille was in Thunder Bay at an annual Christmas craft show. Artists there completely abandoned their stations when a tanner came in with hides, because it is so expensive to get good quality hides. Kitigan hopes to have a specific link on their website for the artists they work with, to connect them with materials they need at a much lower cost. This comes full circle, as it will reduce the costs for Kitigan when they purchase from the artists. A major part of Kitigan’s envisioned growth rests on the development of strong partnerships. Currently Kitigan is partnering with Nation Imagination, an Aboriginal gifting company, because Nation Imagination has connections with artisans in British Columbia and Alberta and each organization will be able to share their access to unique products. In addition, where Kitigan has copyright licenses, they can share the products with Nation Imagination, assisting the artists in accruing royalties. Partnering with a company that has more experience in this model allows Kitigan to benefit from templates and ideas that they have shared. Kitigan is also looking to pursue a partnership is in support of Aboriginals who are currently incarcerated. Kitigan is aiming to partner with jails that have large Aboriginal populations. They would like to see incarcerated men and women developing art and becoming suppliers for Kitigan’s online storefront. Kitigan would also be creating a revenue source for these men and women which would assist them in their reintegration with money they had saved. Kitigan hopes that these could become permanent programs at the jails, and they foresee these individuals becoming ongoing suppliers. Through partnerships such as these, Kitigan stays focused on its social and cultural mission while creating revenue for the business and for the individuals using the platform.
Kitigan grew ‘off the side of the desk’ of two full time employees at OFIFC, through the commitment of an experienced volunteer. It was founded in June of 2013, and now has two full time equivalents (FTEs) and one volunteer. The two FTEs, a Marketing & Communications Coordinator and an Ecommerce Merchandise Coordinator, report to the Social Economy Capacity Coordinator and Capacity Support Director. The volunteer was identified as an integral part of the business planning and start-up, as they had considerable experience with branding, marketing, and running several businesses, including Ecommerce businesses. In addition, the volunteer brought a more mainstream Canadian perspective, an important consideration in a market where most customers will be non-Aboriginal. The two coordinators are full-time, paid interns who are actively involved in developing a marketing strategy. They are also tasked with creating partnerships, connecting with artisans and suppliers, maintaining the website, looking after the physical product, order shipping, and creating opportunities, where possible, to benefit Aboriginal artists and community. The OFIFC Board of Directors has been indispensable to the development and growth of Kitigan. Kitigan’s social and business missions were aligned with the parent organization’s goal of self-sustainability, and it was important that they meshed with the OFIFC’s strategy. The OFIFC Board of Directors’ openness to a new social economy initiative provided the foundation of support necessary to carry the idea of Kitigan through.
The majority of the revenue to launch the social enterprise came from the parent organization. OFIFC contributed $75,000 to purchase products from artists, and also contributed towards some of the initial administrative work. Since a storefront used to exist at OFIFC, there was a lot of unused product in storage, and Kitigan was able to benefit through the use of anything which was handmade and fit within the site’s mandate. The remaining products have been made available as promotional items. The Social Economy Capacity Coordinator position at OFIFC is funded through the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for three years. It is one of 29 community initiatives funded in the province. Although its main role is to support Friendship Centers by building their capacity within the social economy, the funding is also based on a proposal that this coordinator would create five social economy initiatives a year. It turned out to be a very ambitious number when Kitigan was begun as the first initiative. However, other initiatives have evolved out of the launch of Kitigan and have made the target of five initiatives more realistic. Some of the most essential work, such as preparing a business plan and creating the ecommerce platform, was done through a volunteer. If the amount of work contributed by the main volunteer was to be quantified, it would range from $25,000 to $50,000. According to the Coordinator and Director,”to get staff, it’s the only way it’s [Kitigan] going to survive.” Getting Kitigan off the ground required a significant time investment that took away from their existing full-time responsibilities. This led them to actively search for funding for positions to grow Kitigan. Through Miziwe Biik, an Aboriginal employment and training organization, they were able to secure funding for two intern positions. Securing this funding was essential, according to Langille, “there was a plan A and a plan A.” The revenue goal for Kitigan is $150,000 in net sales from goods and services in its first year.
Challenges & Successes
Kitigan has experienced a few ‘growing pains’ during its development. One unanticipated challenge was the significant difference between an ecommerce site and a storefront. There is a large amount of work necessary to display product on a website, as compared to on a store shelf or in a display window. With a storefront, the dimensions of each product are not a great concern. On a website, every product’s dimensions need to be measured, it must be weighed, and there needs to be multiple, high quality photos taken from different angles, ensuring that the customer has the ability to zoom in their view. In addition, the artist information and a description of the product must be included. Kitigan will be looking to create a permanent space to take these photos. Ensuring quality control over the art being purchased has been a steep learning curve for Kitigan. Since the employees had little to no expertise with buying art in the beginning, they had difficulty distinguishing the quality of different pieces. One factor impacting quality is the amount of time given to purchase the art. In one instance, employees visited Thunder Bay for a craft show where they had a certain amount to spend on products, but also had a flight that day they had to catch. While frantically trying to write biographies and information about each product during purchase, they found it easy to miss small details, such as a pair of moccasins with fake fur. This kind of product becomes a dead loss, as it would not be considered authentic and could not be sold through Kitigan’s site. Money spent on such fake products needs to be recovered from other income, and so these types of mistakes can add up quickly. Staff knowledge has since increased, however, through more exposure to the many different traditional styles, and through further research on different products. The ability to transport the art safely has also quickly become a need. Kitigan was unaware of the proper set up necessary for transporting delicate artworks. For example, they did not have the proper cases to transport art being used to take digital photos for giclee prints production. This led to one piece sustaining some damage, a piece of art that could not even be sold. Kitigan is becoming conscious of, and cautious with, the transportation requirements of the valuable pieces of art They reproduce. This knowledge, in a large part, is being gleaned from the procedures followed by existing major-market art galleries. Kitigan’s social awareness has also forced it to make a difficult business decision. Langille discussed how Kitigan’s mission to promote Aboriginal culture and awareness prevents their use of any combination of the words Native, American, Indian and Art. These terms are typically typed into search engines by customers in search of artworks similar to those which Kitigan sells. This decision was made because they want to stay true to their own teachings, images, and education, which self-describe as Aboriginal. Like other social enterprises, Kitigan faces the dual challenge of serving both its social goals and its need to make money. The awareness that they are literally cutting off a wide section of their market by not including key words which typically improve search engine optimization is daunting. However Kitigan remains hopeful that backlinks and strong partnerships will help overcome this challenge. One of Kitigan’s biggest successes is their strong business plan. The volunteer, who came on-board early on, was able to assist in different areas from establishing the finances based on their experience to identifying the niche market. The business plan was strengthened by the volunteer’s knowledge of what platform to use, and prevented Kitigan from making a lot of mistakes early on.. Kitigan has also received a lot of positive feedback on their website, which has a white background. This design provides a clean and crisp appearance which enables the customer to focus on the product. This sets Kitigan apart from other Aboriginal businesses, many of which have a lot of pictures and colours in the background. This takes away from the products being featured. Kitigan will continue to seek different avenues to ensure that their products stand out.
Impacts & Outcomes
Kitigan provides Aboriginal artisans with a forum for developing their market, promoting their work and creating an ongoing revenue source through both sales and royalties. This social enterprise also exists to support Aboriginal artisans in developing their portfolios and entrepreneurial skills. Kitigan also supports Friendship Centres and participating Aboriginal businesses and organizations, which act as their suppliers and partners. Kitigan purchases art from their suppliers, who are directly engaged with artists. In return, those suppliers receive commissions on all products sold by Kitigan. A major outcome of this support is the preservation of dying arts. Most Aboriginal art has roots in practicality, because in the past there was no money to buy what was needed. With everything that is now available in stores, however, the products created by artisans are not necessities, and are widely perceived as too expensive. An appreciation for the quality of work and the time required to create each piece of art is not commonly felt. When Kitigan was looking to find star blankets in Ontario, they had a very difficult time. They finally found a centre that knew artisans making them, and so went to see them. These star blankets were handmade and took many months to construct. When Kitigan expressed interest in purchasing them at their true value, one of the artisans commented, “well ladies, let’s get to work.” This motivation and interest in continuing their art is what Kitigan is trying to inspire in the artists. If artists are working and not making a living, they will stop doing it. This has further implications because it means that new people will not be trained in the art, and the art form itself will die off. If artists can make a living from their art, it is going to attract others to practice it, and that art form will continue to exist and prosper. Some examples of reviving a dying art are the prolific beaders, Lorna Hill and Samuel Thomas. This Cayuga mother and son are self-taught, and have created over twenty-five thousand pieces of traditional raised Iroquois beadwork. The strong interest in their art has lead them to teach and pass on the tradition. Thomas is the Board President of the Niagara Regional Native Centre.This is the kind of impact Kitigan is aiming to have with the artisans on their website. Kitigan anticipates that 80% of their market will be non-Aboriginal. This means that there is an opportunity to educate people outside of the Aboriginal community about what authentic, high quality Aboriginal art looks like, and about its history. With knock-offs such as dream catchers and moccasins appearing in retail stores, this education is vital to preserving the techniques and art forms of Aboriginals. On the Kitigan website, it shows who produced the art piece, what materials have been used, and if there are any teachings around the product. There is also further educational information and cultural knowledge about the diverse styles, cultures and regions from which the art originates.
“It’s more work thank you think!” exclaimed Langille, “and once you really get started, it’s just as bad.” No one has been afraid of hard work at Kitigan; however they have learned some valuable lessons that could help ease the work load for other ecommerce social enterprises.
- You will need to make hard choices: stay true to your mission but look at the numbers because as a social enterprise there will be trade-offs.
- Have quality products: yes the social mission is important but customers will not purchase anything if you don’t look professional and have good products – you will end up hurting your clients, not helping them, if this is not a priority. Telling your story will not help if you don’t have something to back it up.
- Be clear and transparent with partners: as part of the development of Kitigan, OFIFC developed a supplier agreement so that there was a clear outline of what was expected from the suppliers and what Kitigan would be doing in return.
- Research, research, research: do a feasibility study, understand your market and select the right team, with complementing skills and lots of energy, to start the business.
- Get support from your parent organization: it’s vital to have your board of directors understand what you are trying to do; you can gain their support by making a strong case that fits with the organization’s mission, and identifies your goals which, in turn, clearly support the ultimate plan.
- Develop partnerships: almost always someone has done it before or at least something similar. Establishing key people and organizations to turn to will improve your chances of success.
The intent is that as Kitigan grows, product will move and regular orders will be placed for the artists. They, in turn, will no longer have to run around door-to-door to sell their product. Instead, artisans can focus on their artwork, and customers will seek to commission them directly. Kitigan is also focused on supporting Aboriginal businesses and the hope is that there will be such an influx of art from different artisans that, over time, they will be able to open their own storefront instead of shipping the products to Kitigan. The vision for this social enterprise is that different centres and businesses develop their capacity as they work with Kitigan, thus leading to them building their own social economy initiatives. To promote the authenticity of Aboriginal art, Kitigan hopes to be involved in the development of a certification process, including an online database, affixing a seal of authentication for Aboriginal art. This will ensure that customers are satisfied with the art they receive and that Aboriginal artisans are acknowledged for their talents. OFIFC would also like to create permanent positions at Kitigan. Different ways to fund these positions are being explored. For instance, if a partnership is established with a jail and the Aboriginal art program is regularized, then perhaps the jail could fund a part-time position at Kitigan to manage the relationship and ensure that products are being sold. Additionally, VEC is a business incubator and is not intended to be responsible for continual administration. As VEC’s fledgling first social enterprises grows and becomes more sustainable, the goal would be to spin it off into its own business and, perhaps, eventually sell it. Although waiting to see what happens, in terms of online sells, can be scary, Kitigan is proud of the education and awareness that has already occurred as a result of starting this business. When the employees reflect about the difference between their social economy initiative and a regular business, they highlight their social mission. It is not about how much money they can raise just for Kitigan; it is about how much money they can raise to meet everyone’s needs – the artisans, the Friendship Centres, the suppliers, and Kitigan itself.
Langille and Day reflected that doing a case study was a nice process because, “it’s so important to share your story and what you are doing so you [social enterprises] can learn from each other. But you are often so busy and caught up in the details that we can forget what we are doing and impact we will have.” Kitigan is an important, unique, and innovative initiative in the Aboriginal community, and will have a significant economic, social, and cultural impact. Researched and written by Stephanie Massot
About Us. (2013). Retrieved September 1, 2013 from http://www.kitigan.com/about-us/http://www.ofifc.org/about/ Beadworking. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2013 from http://www.iroquoismuseum.org/beadworking2.htm Canada Council for the Arts. (n.d.). Portrait of the Arts in Canada. Retrieved September 14, 2013 from http://canadacouncil.ca/en/council/resources/arts-promotion/arts-promo-kit/part1 Creighton-Kelly, C., & Trépanier, F. (2011). Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. Retrieved September 12, 2013 from http://www.canadacouncil.ca/~/media/Files/Research%20-%20EN/Understanding%20Aboriginal%20Arts%20in%20Canada%20Today%20A%20Knowledge%20and%20Literature%20Review/Understanding%20Aboriginal%20Arts%20in%20Canada%20Today.pdf Day, Candice. Personal interview. 4 July 2013 Franki, Georgina. Personal interview. 4 July 2013 Hill Strategies Research Inc. (2005). Diversity in Canada’s Arts Labour Force. Retrieved September 14, 2013 from http://www.arts.on.ca/Asset406.aspx. Langille, Chester. Personal interview. 4 July 2013 Métis Minute. (2013). Retrieved September 1, 2013 from https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=570383752988041&story_fbid=671613902865025