Paula Naponse never thought she would own her own store, a dream she had had since she was eight years old.
For a decade, Naponse’s business selling fashion, beadwork and handicrafts like candles was an ad hoc affair. She had a name, Ondarez — a name inspired by a similar phrase she often saw on Facebook (this was in 2008, Facebook pic) in posts from her home community: “I’m on the rez.”
But a showcase seemed out of reach. Naponse sold his wares at cultural gatherings and by mail order. But thanks to a tourism training program and the impetus of her eldest daughter, Naponse’s business has expanded from her childhood dream of a shop window and cafe.
“I have a sign now!” I never thought this could happen to me,” Naponse said. Canadian National Observer.
Beandigen Cafea pun on the word anishnaabemowin biindigenousor welcome, opened in November 2021 and serves as a showcase for Indigenous artisans and a community space for beading circles, Indigenous open mic nights and NDN taco pop-ups.
The space is made up of years of accumulated hard work by Naponse, including parenting and seizing opportunities as they arise.
Naponse’s story begins in her home community of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, a First Nation in northern Ontario, near Sudbury, where she was born and raised. Naponse, inspired by the beauty and goodness of her home country, has created products that reflect her community.
“I always want people to know who I am, where I’m from and our people,” she says. “And the beautiful things… Of who we are, not necessarily the struggles, the traumas, the pain, we have that, but I’m always on how we move forward and what strengths we have.”
Naponse, who is a self-taught artist, works with several techniques, including sewing, insignia, beading, basket weaving, candle making and screen printing.
“Everything is self-taught, from making the products to learning how to run a business,” she says. “For me, I always want to find out, that’s the learning part of me, knowing that I found it myself and I’m proud of it in the end.”
Since 2008, his work with Ondarez has oscillated between part-time and full-time depending on what is happening in his life. Over the next decade, she moved to Ottawa, attended university, and went on to raise four children.
The Beandigen Café, a play on the Anishnaabemowin word biindigen, or welcome, opened in November 2021 and serves as a showcase for Indigenous artisans and a community space for bead circles, open mic nights and taco pop-ups.
Three years later, in 2018, tragedy struck. Her husband died in a car accident, leaving Naponse a single parent.
She wasn’t sure she was going to continue her business, but in 2020 an opportunity arose with the eight-week Indigenous Tourism Entrepreneurship Training Program, or ITET for short.
The program is led by Algonquin College and Ottawa Tourism in partnership with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada and Ontario Tourism to provide business training and networking opportunities with an Indigenous lens.
ITET was developed with a community model in mind, centered on Indigenous enablers and Indigenous ways of knowing, ancestral knowledge and storytelling, said Catherine Callary, Vice President of Destination Development for Ottawa Tourism. Canadian National Observer.
Algonquin College is currently looking to continue the program, launched in 2020, through its Indigenous Initiatives as part of its Truth and Reconciliation division. Algonquin College and Ottawa Tourism are exploring how to integrate the ITET program into their larger tourism programs.
The timing was right: before the pandemic devastated the tourism industry, there were approximately 40,000 Indigenous tourism employees and 1,900 Indigenous-run businesses. Today, there are about 15,000 employees and 1,000 businesses left, according to a study by the Conference Board of Canada.
To top off the ITET programme, there was a competition, similar to that on television The dragon’s lair, where the participants would present their company. Naponse won the competition among her classmates and received a video from her company, among other promotions.
After the program, Ottawa Tourism stayed in touch with Naponse. A new opportunity, a request to open a storefront, has emerged around Lansdowne Park, a shopping and entertainment district that is home to the Ottawa OHL team, the Ottawa 67s, and its CFL team, the Redblacks, as well as big box stores and restaurants.
Naponse wasn’t sure if she would go ahead with the showcase proposal, but her eldest daughter convinced her to apply together as Beandigen. Her daughter had worked in the café business in Ottawa and was an artist herself, so why not combine the two? Beans and pearls.
“She was my daughter, my daughter really helped me, and now she’s a co-owner.”
Naponse and her daughters now work in the café. The two young adults do most of the heavy lifting since Naponse also has a full-time job as a strategic advisor to her First Nations band office. But the cafe is a love project – the family does it to honor their late husband and father.
“Part of that is with him too. He loved coffee, that kind of environment… His spirit is with me when I do that,” Naponse says.
“And he would have loved to work here. I always think about that, he would have loved to do that.
On a mural that spans the ceiling of the café, two small letters mark the prow of a canoe—GC—the initials of her late husband.
“I’m building it for my kids, so they can do whatever they want,” she says. “I never thought it was accessible to me.”
Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada