Ottawa coffee company addressing Indigenous water crises with help of Shopify

Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow
Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow is the founder of Birch Bark Coffee Co.

A First Nations-owned coffee company in Ottawa is tackling the subpar water conditions in many of Canada’s Indigenous communities with a little help from Shopify.

Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow, an Ojibwe entrepreneur and band member of the Whitefish River First Nation on Manitoulin Island, is the founder of Birch Bark Coffee Co. For every 40 bags of coffee the company sells, Birch Bark will purchase and install a water purifier in an Indigenous community facing a boil water advisory.

Safe access to drinking water is a well-documented and widespread problem affecting Canada’s Indigenous populations. There were 81 long-term water advisories in communities across the country as of March, according to the Assembly of First Nations.

As Marsolais-Nahwegahbow was setting out to build a company, designing coffee labels inspired by Canada’s Inuit, Metis and First Nations peoples, he was also in search of a way to give back. After meeting a friend who built water purifiers for the Red Cross, he says Birch Bark’s purpose came into focus.

“Once I had that all put together, it completed the circle,” he says.

Though the company has only been in operation for a little over a month, Birch Bark has funded the installation of 25 water purifiers to date. Marsolais-Nahwegahbow says he’s starting with the Curve Lake First Nation community near Peterborough, ON.

There are as many as 700 homes at Curve Lake currently living off plastic water bottles. The waste from these short-term solutions is ending up in landfills, a side-effect Marsolais-Nahwegahbow believes his company’s mission will also help to reduce.

“The water advisories should’ve been mended decades ago,” he says. “I’ll work my way across Ontario, and then I’ll work my way across Canada until it’s completed.”

Spreading the message

Marsolais-Nahwegahbow is one of three Indigenous entrepreneurs being highlighted by Ottawa’s Shopify at an event next week. A digital exhibit on the first floor of Shopify’s 150 Elgin St. headquarters will display the stories of Indigenous merchants using the e-commerce giant’s platforms to build their businesses.

Dave D’Oyen, Shopify’s inclusion and innovation builder, says the firm’s goal is always to put the spotlight on its merchants and felt National Indigenous History Month was a chance to shine a light on Indigenous-led businesses.

Dave D'Oyen
Dave D’Oyen is Shopify’s inclusion and innovation builder

“We thought this was a great opportunity to help our merchants tell their stories,” he says.

Marsolais-Nahwegahbow credits Shopify with helping make his company, and by extension, his cause, possible.

“I have to shake their hand on this because if it weren’t for them, I don’t believe I would have the opportunity to reach out to so many people on this platform,” he says. The First Nations founder even met recently with Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke and chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein, offering the two entrepreneurs a traditional sweet grass gift.

Marsolais-Nahwegahbow says the reach of Shopify’s platform has helped him be more visible as an Indigenous entrepreneur. He says it’s critical to give youth in communities affected by water advisories an example to show that “there are First Nations entrepreneurs out there.”

“As entrepreneurs, there is always going to be road blocks, but … I won’t let anything stop me going forward. We can actually correct these problems in our communities,” he says.

“We’re storytellers. Even myself, as a First Nations entrepreneur, we’re visionaries. I want my story with Birch Bark Coffee to end with a happy ending and put smiles on community's faces.”

Shopify’s exhibit highlighting Indigenous merchants will launch to the public on Monday, June 18 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Afterwards, it’ll be free to view everyday for the next four weeks from 7:45 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., and from 2:15 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.