INAC at Polo Park creates jobs, hope
Many businesses took a hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but others flourished, and others were born. Winnipeg based entrepreneur Michelle Cameron’s business Dreamcatcher Promotions flourished and then gave birth to a branch company called Indigenous Nations Apparel Company (INAC). Since opening in June of 2021, the INAC store has garnered an active and loyal clientele in Polo Park.
Dreamcatcher Promotions, which Cameron had been running for 12 years, was a one-stop shop for promotional products for businesses, including apparel such as hoodies and jackets, bags, drinkware, and pens with Indigenous logos, themes, or artwork. Before the pandemic, Dreamcatcher took its products to conferences, trade shows and public venues but, with the lockdown, since it did not have a storefront, it had nowhere to sell its products.
“We wanted a place for people to go where they could buy this stuff. There aren’t many stores like this that focus on Indigenous apparel,” Cameron said.
“During COVID we had to figure out how to pay the rent,” Cameron said. “We took all our jackets, hoodies, and other products and created an e-site.”
The transition to retail e-commerce proved very successful. Coming out of the pandemic, Dreamcatcher analyzed its success and planned to continue doing retail business but did not know exactly how. Cameron decided to separate the companies and explored the possibility of a physical space. Although rent at Polo Park was higher than expected, she decided to try it out and signed a short-term, seven-month lease. INAC was born and took up residence on the second floor – the first Indigenous apparel and Indigenous-managed store in the mall.
When the term lease was up, the company had to decide to continue. Sales looked great, but Cameron didn’t know whether that was an anomaly.
“We couldn’t rely on any previous stats. We had only the interest and sales of the previous seven months to base our decision on and the feedback we got from people,” she said.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. For example, one day, a sales employee saw two elderly Indigenous women standing outside the store crying. She went out to see if they were OK.
“This is beautiful,” one of the women said. “I thought I would die before I would ever see anything like this in the mall. As soon as we heard about this, we hopped on the bus to come and see this for ourselves.”
Cameron employs 51 people who work on all aspects of the company and its products from start to finish, including design and printing, distribution and retail sales. The only thing they don’t do is stitch together the garments.
“For me it’s more than just a store and selling a product. It’s building self-esteem. It’s not about the designs and products we create,” Cameron said. “It’s about working with other Indigenous artists and employing people. It’s for people to see what is possible. Every time people support INAC, they support families. We are creating jobs; we are supporting families.”
When Cameron was growing up, 30 years ago, she remembers walking into a bank, seeing an Indigenous teller and thinking, “Wow, I could be a bank teller. Back then you didn’t see many Indigenous people in professional jobs. I think about it now that that is what I looked up to then. I aspired to be that. There is so much more that we can do. We can do whatever we set our mind to do. We are building hope. We are paving a road for someone else to come behind.”
INAC recently signed a contract with the Northwest Company that will take INAC’s products to 78 stores across Canada. With the increase in business, INAC will soon be doubling the size of its factory, from 15,000 to a 30,000 square feet.
“With more business, come more jobs,” Cameron said. “It’s a beacon of hope in the community.”
Recently, an 11-year old girl came into the store with her mother wanting to know whether INAC would carry her Kookum Scrunchies.
“It was her dream to be in a big store in the mall, so we bought up all her product and made her the happiest little girl ever,” Cameron said. “She was jumping up and down crying. If that is her dream, I want to support her.”