Ottawa social enterprise EcoEquitable making masks built for winter in bid to weather pandemic storm

Sales to support local Sewing for Jobs program that assists newcomer women to Canada by teaching them to sew and gain financial independence
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Anouk Bertner, executive director of Ottawa nonprofit social enterprise EcoEquitable, wears her three-layered, washable SafeTube mask. Photo by Caroline Phillips

An award-winning Ottawa social enterprise that improves the lives of refugee and immigrant women through the power of sewing has partnered up with an Alberta company focused on sustainable change to create a new non-medical grade face mask made for Canadian winters.

Nonprofit organization EcoEquitable is working with Calgary-based fibre science and consultancy Dessius Limited to develop, test and manufacture the SafeTube. It’s a three-layered lightweight tube mask made with airway-safe European materials. It's been tested for effective filtration in the same way that medical masks are.

The masks can be worn indoors or outdoors to protect against the lethal coronavirus. Not only are the coverings safe, comfortable and ethically produced, but they’re designed to withstand Canadian winters, says Anouk Bertner, executive director of EcoEquitable. They can be worn like regular neck warmers when face coverings aren’t required but can also be easily pulled up for protection of one’s health. As well, they come with an elastic drawstring that can be adjusted for a snug fit below the chin and over the nose.

“I wear mine all the time and it's great to have product tailored to the Ottawa weather and lifestyle," Bertner told OBJ.

Bertner said the goal is to sell 500,000 SafeTubes between now and the end of the winter. The masks are being manufactured both in Ottawa and Calgary. They’re sold on the EcoEquitable website through e-commerce platform Shopify and can be bought locally at outdoor retail store SAIL.

EcoEquitable currently has a permanent sewing staff of five employees working on incoming orders but is looking to expand in January.

“We can really see this growing,” said Bertner. “The more orders we get, the more people we hire.”

It’s not surprising that a charitable organization with a focus on sewing and textiles has made its way into the mask-making industry, which has been booming during the pandemic. Still, Bertner resisted the urge to jump right in without first doing her research. Even with her university education in the sciences, she knew she was far from qualified as a mask specialist.

Last spring, when there was a lot of misinformation swirling about how the virus was being transmitted, she enrolled in a Canadian Apparel Federation webinar on reliable and safe masks for community use. It was presented by Dessius founder Odessa Ingarfield, an expert in the area of textile science. She's worked with such companies as Lululemon, Reebok and Home Depot, to name a few.

“She was so passionate, and talked about how do you create a good mask and not just a piece of fabric that you wear over your face,” said Bertner. “She talked about all these considerations that I hadn’t even thought about and, I think, most people don’t think about.”

When it comes to face masks, there are no specific regulations. Consequently, anything goes ​– even fleece and crochet coverings. “Why even bother?” Bertner asked bluntly. 

Bertner and Ingarfield are now working together, with Ingarfield in the role of product developer for the SafeTube.

The target audience, said Bertner, is anyone in regular contact with the public.

“We just wanted to make it really easy for people to protect themselves,” she said, adding that the masks are designed so that children can adjust them on their own, even with mittens on.

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EcoEquitable executive director Anouk Bertner stands in front of a world map on display in the EcoEquitable office to illustrate how the nonprofit organization helps women who have come to Canada from all parts of the world. Photo by Caroline Phillips

EcoEquitable runs an innovative sewing training program with the goal of helping newcomers to Canada build friendships and community and, ultimately, find employment through sewing. The organization is located in the Heartwood House building at 404 McArthur Ave. in Vanier.

Participants learn hand-stitching and are introduced to the sewing machine and various sewing techniques in addition to gaining an understanding of basic sewing patterns and cutting skills. They can continue in their training if they wish to learn how to construct garments and do alterations and repairs.

The social enterprise was founded as a co-op in 2002 by French Catholic nun Lucile Champagne, a serial entrepreneur who believed that work created dignity.

EcoEquitable was recognized in 2018 with a Community Builder of the Year Award from United Way in the ‘From Poverty to Possibility’ category for its Sewing for Jobs program.

The organization’s profits from SafeTube sales will be used to help it weather the pandemic, said Bertner.

“In 2020, when we started the year, we were thriving. All of our programs were growing. People were coming to our classes. Then, 2020 became the year of surviving.

“I would like to get back to thriving.”