Kathline Isaac of Bearpaw Gifts and Leslie Walker of Walker Home Construction are paving paths to business success, growth and innovation on a national level.
These entrepreneurs from Whitehorse were both honoured with Indigenous business awards at the inaugural Indigenous Prosperity Forum in Gatineau, Que.
The event, hosted by the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA) at Hilton Lac-Leamy, showcased the strength and resilience of First Nations, Inuit and Métis entrepreneurs across Canada. This year’s theme was “reConnecting — Investing in the Return to Indigenous Prosperity.”
Isaac, who flew to the ceremony in May with her daughter, received the NACCA Indigenous Woman Entrepreneur Award of Excellence. Walker Home Construction took home the NACCA Indigenous Business Award of Excellence.
Isaac and Walker were both nominated by däna Näye Ventures (DNV), a First Nation-controlled institution that provides business training, financing and support services to all Yukon-based entrepreneurs. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to facilitate and empower the development of economic self-reliance.
Walker received assistance from the entrepreneurship and business development program. He recently got a business expansion from DNV which helped him grow his construction company into a general contractor.
Isaac took her first DNV business course in 1999. She started her own cleaning business in 2003, approached DNV for a business start-up loan in 2006 and opened her first store in 2007. Returning as a client multiple times, Isaac says she received the help she needed to expand her business and open a second location in Carcross Commons.
Walker Home Construction employs primarily First Nation citizens and has successfully operated in Whitehorse and various communities around Yukon for the past 13 years.
“Residential and commercial construction is pretty simple. We build homes,” said Walker. “With the company that we’ve created, it’s more inclusive of the employees.”
When Walker was a young apprentice, he was a single father and would run into situations where his daughter would be sick and his bosses would be really upset with him, even though it was out of his control. Walker decided he wanted to start a company that would “meet people where they were at.”
He says he likes to look at his team as a community.
“Everyone has value and I like to cultivate warriors, as I call it. Without my workers — the warriors of my company — we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Isaac also attributes much of her success and that of Bearpaw Gifts to her dedicated staff.
“This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for their hard work,” she said. “I also want to thank all the communities in the Yukon who have supported my store over the years.”
Bearpaw Gifts features a large selection of beads in the Yukon, as well as fashion, accessories, jewelry, traditional hand-made items, skin care and unique gifts.
“My Whitehorse location sells a lot of craft supplies local artists use to create their projects,” said Isaac. “We have a large gift-giving section and purchase products from local artisans and First Nations artisans across Canada.”
Her seasonal store in Carcross was closed for two years due to the pandemic but reopened on June 1. Isaac said travelling to the NACCA awards put her behind on reopening, but it was worth it.
“Being acknowledged for all my hard work felt excellent. I was honoured and so surprised to hear I had been nominated.”
Two winners were chosen in Isaac’s category this year, so she understood she would be splitting the funds with Jennifer Dubois of the Myosiwin Salon Spa in Regina, Sask., but the presenter at the ceremony surprised them with the announcement they would both receive the full $5,000.
“My co-winner was in tears. It was a lot to take in,” said Isaac.
Walker couldn’t attend the NACCA ceremony but was honoured to have the hard work of his company recognized.
“It’s been a pretty overwhelming year so far,” he said. “I received notification I won the NACCA award and then a few days later went to the Cando Conference in Saskatchewan and won the Indigenous Economic Developer of the Year Award.”
These two awards, according to Walker, represent all the hard work from his team and supporters over the years.
In Isaac’s NACCA speech, she said she didn’t get the opportunity to thank the government for all the support she was able to receive throughout the pandemic.
“Without it, my business wouldn’t have been able to survive,” she said.
CERB and the wage subsidy allowed her to keep all her staff on board. Isaac also took on more cleaning contracts to offset the loss from lockdown restrictions. The best part of owning her own business, she said, is being her own boss and knowing she can take on more contracts or say no to contracts.
Both Isaac and Walker came from difficult backgrounds and found their way out of the welfare system by building their own businesses. Bearpaw Gifts and Walker Home Construction have allowed them to thrive and make a difference.
“I’m realizing I have value and the only limitations in my life are the ones I set for myself,” said Walker.
His advice to anyone who wants to start their own business but doesn’t know where to begin: “Start with yourself, believe in yourself, look in the mirror and ask yourself what you want. What is going to make you feel like you are living a life full of purpose? Then move towards that, no matter what anyone tells you to do.”
Isaac’s advice to anyone considering an entrepreneurial path is to find something you really love to do so it doesn’t seem like a job. She also recommends seeking out a mentor right from the start. Isaac wishes she had sought help sooner, rather than trying to do it all on her own.
Her words of wisdom: “You’ve got to be really passionate about your business because you’re going to have to do a lot of really hard work. Be persistent and persevere no matter what. If you set your mind to it, you can do anything.”
Contact Magan Carty at email@example.com