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Latest News » Mother of Indigenous Social Enterprise: Louise Champagne and Neechi Commons
Posted: Thursday, September 17, 2020

Photo: (From left to right) Brenda Parsons, Louise Champagne, and Dr. Wanda Wuttunee.

Once upon a time Indigenous Nations were able to nurture a strong sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity amongst their people. So, what happened? Why do Indigenous people continue to be the poorest of the poor in Canada? Let’s explore this under the banner of Economic Reconciliation and Indigenous Social Enterprise which at its roots aims to address issues of racism.

Looking back, First Nations were viewed as the “Indian Problem” and through forced segregation lived in isolation - out of site and out of mind from the rest of Canadians as it was growing as a new country. The Indian Residential School system and forced relocation of First Nations to left-over parcels of lands (which became the 600 plus First Nation communities across Canada) including the Indian Act policy made it near impossible to participate in the growth of the economy. This has led to the huge push we see today to support Indigenous people’s growth in the business sector across Canada.

The issue is that the growth of Canada as a new country was never meant to include Indigenous peoples at the forefront of enterprise- activities associated with the production, sale or distribution of products or services. Therefore, positive stories of entrepreneurs were almost non-exist until recently. Historically First Nations had long established social systems, or “social enterprise” that were based on values of collaboration. From a young age children developed behaviors and mind-sets of problem solving focused on collective well-being which promoted concepts of “we” and “us”. In contrast Europeans brought with them a different set of values that were based on hierarchy, power and concepts of individual wealth, or concepts of “me” and “mine”, which overtime would contribute to the rise of capitalism. Capitalism can be defined as a system of economy in which the means of production are owned by private individuals and organizations, whose main goal is to make individual profits. It protects the rights of individuals and groups of people under corporations in the trading of capital goods, land, labor and money (Harvey, 1990: 20). Rather than focusing on collective well-being and the obligation to support and care for one another, commercial economies are conditioned to put profit before people.

Despite colonial oppression Indigenous peoples have maintained collective values and have been disrupting capitalist economies by demanding better. Louise Champagne is one of the champions of this cause. Louise has dedicated her life to (re)building a social economy right here in Winnipeg. She created employment in high unemployed neighborhoods through Neechi Foods Co-Op which operated out of Dufferin Avenue for the first 23 years before opening the Neechi Commons building at Main and Euclid in 2013.

Neechi Commons building at Main & Euclid.

Photo: Neechi Commons building at Main & Euclid.

Today, we see investments being made to support the growth of Indigenous entrepreneurs and into Social Enterprise, but please note social enterprise is not a new concept, although some would like to think so, the values and practice of collaboration for social good are inherent within the cultural life ways of Indigenous peoples. It is the way in which newcomers were able to benefit from a well-established culture of caring that ensured their survival along with access to natural resources. These values live on through Indigenous peoples who continue to look for practical and innovative ways to address social issues for collective good. Louise Champagne is one of these people. If we look at the rebranding of Indigenous economies as social enterprise, Louise is the Mother of Indigenous Social Enterprise within Winnipeg’s inner city. She has been dedicated to revitalizing her local economy by creating opportunities for employment through cooperative enterprises. Co-ops are managed by their members. Rather than operating as a private or public company — where production, distribution, and other decisions are largely based on the desires of higher-ups or shareholders — each member has a say in how the organization functions.

From a race relations lens, economic reconciliation and investments into Indigenous Social Enterprise will take more than new capital to support Indigenous entrepreneurs. Financial investments alone assume Indigenous peoples exist in a neutral playing field. In the book “Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg”, Owen Toews illuminates Winnipeg history of racism and settler colonialism with successive stories of development, relocation and paternalism that guarantee wealth, power, status and control of enterprise for non-Indigenous people. Louise’s story is a good case study given the context that Winnipeg has a strong history of racism with issues of exploitation and the sabotage of Indigenous led initiatives and its leadership. The book would have us rethink the rise and closure of Neechi Commons from the context of our racial realities. So, within this case study, maybe we need to consider what we are losing, who is holding back support, who benefits from the closure of Neechi, and consider what else we can do to support Louise as a female Indigenous entrepreneur. This article is my contribution.

Lessons learned

In talking to Louise, she recognized there was a learning curve and may have done some things differently - but isn’t that the central tenant of entrepreneurship, the notion of learning from your mistakes? At Neechi Commons the co-op attempted to implement a business model involving several different types of businesses at once without adequate resources. It also faced supermarket trade wars, tough neighborhood conditions and an excessive debt load. All of this placed heavy strain on the staff owned and operated cooperative when they moved into the new location at the corner of Main and Euclid. After massive investments of interest-free, personal finance and time, in 2018 Neechi suspended operations to avoid further cash losses. But now Neechi is trying hard to find financing that would allow it to retire its large commercial debt and to create a heavily reconfigured Neechi Commons. Louise states she is not looking to hold back growth of others into Neechi Commons, she welcomes a re-invention of Neechi Commons and would love to be part of this process and would like to see others engaged. In fact, she would love to see a new set of tenants operating a whole new mix of social enterprises or other compatible businesses and social services, thereby continuing the legacy of opportunities and hope for the Indigenous community and neighborhood residents. Isn’t Neechi’s desire to rebuild with a new business model worth a review?

Louise as an entrepreneur and community advocate has long understood that personal, social and economic well-being go hand in hand. In addition, to spear-heading the creation of Neechi Foods, she co-chaired the Native Child Welfare Coalition that took on the old Winnipeg Children’s Aid Society and gave birth to the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Canada’s first urban Indigenous child and family support organization. She also managed a province-wide, community based Indigenous training program for future economic development officers. This led to the creation of the Payuk Inter-Tribal Co-op, a 40-unit apartment block on Balmoral Street that provided safe and supportive housing for Indigenous women and children, free from alcohol, drugs and violence. I myself lived in and benefited from living in Payuk when I was attending University. She also served on the first child and family committee of the Manitoba Métis Federation and helped found Niigaanaki Day Care Centre. Later, she worked for the Anishinaabe Owayshi program, which supported youth who faced difficult life challenges and worked for the Aboriginal Focus Program at the University of Manitoba.

In 1994 Louise presented a list of Community Economic Development (CED) Principles/criteria, which had been drawn up at a Neechi Foods Co-op meeting, to an inner-city church and labour panel on poverty. Those “Neechi principles” were subsequently adopted by other businesses and agencies that share a commitment to community development in Winnipeg. They were central to the creation of LITE, a unique charitable organization that for over a decade has been using purchases and grants to help create inner-city employment within a CED context and inspired the development of Winnipeg Social Enterprise Centre. In 2013 Louise was a recipient of the Excellence in Aboriginal Business Leadership Award from the Asper School of Business.

Louise became the first Prairie Region representative on the national board of the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF) and was the first representative on the Manitoba Cooperative Council. She received both the CWCF Co-op Merit Award and the Canadian Cooperative Association’s Cooperative Achievement Award and served for five years on a ministerial advisory committee for the Innovations and Research component of the federal Cooperative Development Initiative. Under her leadership, in 2005 Neechi was recipient of a Healthy Living Award from Winnipeg’s Reh-Fit Centre Foundation. Louise is also recipient of the Queens Golden Jubilee Medal (2002) and the Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012).

On a personal note, Neechi Commons is so near and dear to my heart. I remember running over to Neechi when it was located across from RB Russell on Dufferin Avenue. I would grab something to eat and head back to school. It gave me such great pride to see an Indigenous woman running a corner store in the north end. This is a neighborhood I grew up in, which is why I too had hopes for a revitalized Neechi Commons and explored the idea of bringing educational programs, including Indigenous Social Enterprise, language and culinary programming, to this location. Such programming would honour Louise’s legacy, building on her brand and her efforts to empower local community-members with skills and knowledge that would restore dignity and well-being to the community. The Neechi Commons building exists because Louise and her co-workers put in 28 years of sweat to build something that we could be proud of. Neechi became a source of pride for the community and a little hub for community meetings.

Louise has made a huge impact into development of social enterprise within Winnipeg’s areas. She has led by example and could use the support to maintain Neechi Commons as a community hub to provide training, employment and community pride. Reimagining the Neechi Commons with Louise’s input and participation is one way to change the narrative and hold people accountable to support of Indigenous entrepreneurs. As Louise notes, Neechi Foods Co-Op is still the registered owner and is therefore looking for investments. Without this the support Neechi will be lost and Louise and others will lose much of their life savings. This is a call to financial institutions, social-impact investors, philanthropists, foundations and to our community.

Please let Louise know if you or any of your contacts might help access funds to allow Neechi to regain control of Neechi Commons. She can be contacted by email: neechifoods@shaw.ca. Also, let her know if you would like a copy of Neechi’s new, reconfiguration business plan. A Legacy Photo Gallery is included on Neechi’s website: https://neechi.ca.

This is a Call to Action.

Rebecca Chartrand writes about amazing Indigenous women who are sharing in the responsibility to guide our nations back to a place of well-being.
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