Toronto has announced plans for an Indigenous business district, raising questions about when development will be completed and whether it can attract the companies it needs

Story by Daniel Calabretta

Feature images by Daniel Calabretta

Since 1987, business owner Candice Holmstrom has been running and operating her interior design firm, CH Designs Inc., out of her own commercial building in The Beaches—a neighbourhood located east of downtown Toronto. She purchased the building two years after establishing her company. “Essentially, I just wanted to have a space for my practice,” Holmstrom says now, reflecting back on her investment.

For the past three decades, Holmstrom—who is of Ojibwe descent—has not only been referring to The Beaches area as her place of business, but also her home. For Holmstrom, a woman who was the daughter of a Canadian Armed Forces’ member and spent most of her childhood moving around, the Toronto east-end neighbourhood is home. She’s raised her daughter there as well.

So when asked about the prospective development of an Indigenous business and cultural district—news that surfaced back in January of this year—and whether she would uproot her design practice, Holmstrom did not rule it out, entirely. “Depending on when it would be open…” she says, as she pauses.

Being the president of her company as well as a business property owner, Holmstrom explains how it’s not really feasible to move now. “I’m not sure I’d be the right candidate to end up going into that complex,” she says. “I’ve owned the building since 1987. So I don’t think I’d really want to go be a tenant in another location. It wouldn’t make economic sense.”

Holmstrom says that, over the years, she has heard rumours and rumblings within the Indigenous business community that a First Nations’ BIA would be coming to Toronto. “Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve heard about these ideas. So I’m not sure if this is actually going to come to fruition.”

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27 Toronto Centre-Rosedale), who initiated the idea in 2011, says that even though plans for this development were announced a couple of months ago, it will still take some time to complete. “This is a multi-year process,” Wong-Tam says. “It’s going to be one where we’re going to move very diligently and carefully through.”

Wong-Tam has obtained a prospective location for the district, at the intersection of Jarvis and Dundas Sts., according to Huffington Post. Wong-Tam will be working in conjunction with Chief Stacey Laforme of Missisissaugas of the New Credit First Nation and JP Gladu, the president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), to bring this project full circle.

Gladu, who has held the president and CEO title for the past four-and-a-half years, says that he’s “pretty hopeful” this development will happen. “I think it’s going to take political will. It’s going to take innovative policy and practices with the city, and it’s going to take leadership on behalf of people like Chief Stacey Laforme and his community,” Gladu says. “I’m not a betting man, but I hope (and many of us hope) that it does come to fruition.”

The district will contain a start-up centre embedded with Indigenous history, street-level businesses, cafés and artisan shops, as well as an international centre for Indigenous knowledge. “Having a district where it’s open and welcoming, everyone will be happy to go there and learn a lot about each other,” Laforme told the Huffington Post.

Tina Ottereyes, a manager at the Indigenous restaurant Tea-N-Bannock, northeast of Leslieville, was excited when the news broke. “I think I read about it on blogTO. When I saw it, right away I shared it—because I was so excited about it,” Ottereyes says. “[It’s] a chance for First Nations peoples to showcase their culture, language and what they have to offer.”

A feasibility report regarding the district is currently being produced.

Email Daniel Calabretta at daniel.calabretta@ryerson.ca