Hobbema’s business community has become a lot more active in the past two years — thanks in large part to the efforts of a Toronto woman.
Heather MacTaggart has been spending about two out of every five weeks on reserve helping First Nations entrepreneurs. She’s been rewarded with 15 new businesses in Hobbema: a soup and sandwich delivery service, a hairdressing shop, a janitorial business, a taxi service, an auto-detailing service and a used furniture shop, among others.
“It is incredibly gratifying,” said MacTaggart. “I do work I know is making a difference, every day.
“There’s nothing that feels better. I know for a fact that we have dramatically changed people’s lives.”
Those successful business people participated in Change it Up!, a program delivered by MacTaggart’s non-profit organization Classroom Connections. Through it, a small team of on-reserve coaches have been able to help aspiring entrepreneurs transform ideas into reality.
Beverly Dion, a Samson Cree Nation member who recently started Dion’s Furniture and Decor, praised MacTaggart for her success.
“I cannot even describe how much having a mentor has done for me. Helping negotiate the lease, advice on purchasing stock, helping to figure our staffing, etc. The truth is, if Heather wasn’t here I wouldn’t have done it.”
MacTaggart started Classroom Connections in 1997, after working in marketing and communications positions, and doing consulting work. Classroom Connections’ mandate was to create educational programming to help those who don’t respond to traditional teaching methods.
First Nations people seemed good candidates for Classroom Connections’ services, and in 2009 Change it Up! was launched on the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation south of Fort McMurray. Derek Bruno, a Samson Cree Nation councillor and a successful businessman, saw the potential of the program and helped MacTaggart.
By 2012, Samson Cree Nation had contracted Classroom Connections to deliver the program there. There, it was made available to members of other local bands, said MacTaggart.
“It’s mostly Samson members, but we have some Ermineskin people and some Louis Bull people as well.”
The program has also been offered at nearby Montana First Nation.
“The last five years I’ve spent a huge chunk of my time on reserve in Alberta,” said MacTaggart.
“I live in Toronto and I commute to Alberta.”
Bruno is pleased with the results, citing the need to address chronically high unemployment on his reserve.
“There’s no silver bullet to all this.
“But it’s quite possible that part of the solution may be at hand in the entrepreneurial movement that Change it Up! is tapping into.”
MacTaggart is now working on a complementary program that would provide ongoing support to aboriginal business people. Called MentorNation, it would see volunteer business coaches from across Canada working online with First Nations people.
“What we realize is that when Change it Up! entrepreneurs are successful and people start businesses, they need mentors. And I can’t physically keep mentoring everybody myself.”
Classroom Connections is currently raising money for MentorNation, with hopes of introducing it in Hobbema as a pilot project next year. If all goes well, mentors will be recruited in hopes of expanding the program across the country.
Additional information about Change it Up! and MentorNation can be fond online at www.changeitup.ca.