Ottawa Changemakers: Talking Stick lets Indigenous communities discuss shared challenges

TryCycle Talking Stick
John MacBeth, CEO of TryCycle Data Systems.

Providing a platform that allows people to talk to someone anonymously about shared challenges is proving a successful business model for Ottawa-based TryCycle.

With more than 10,000 conversations lasting an average of 23.5 minutes in its first 12 months, TryCycle’s Talking Stick has become the platform that many of Canada’s Indigenous communities turn to for culture-based support.

Conceived during the pandemic, the goal of Talking Stick was to encourage Canada’s Indigenous peoples to talk about and raise awareness of the importance of vaccination. Data soon revealed that users were discussing other urgent issues, such as domestic violence, isolation and substance use. 

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“It has been overwhelming,” says TryCycle co-founder and CEO John MacBeth. “The greatest discovery of my business life is that connection is everything. That is the sole real goal of Talking Stick. It’s just to provide a safe environment for a person to feel connected.

“We are engaging and trying to help people with vaccine hesitancy and ultimately we’re helping them with connection,” MacBeth says.

Since its inception, more than 120,000 messages have been exchanged on the Talking Stick platform. Talking Stick is designed for a rural and remote Indigenous demographic, MacBeth says, adding that he had to be careful to build trust with the people he was hoping the platform would serve. 

“When you embark on something like that, especially if you’re not rural or remote and especially if you’re not Indigenous, you are potentially opening yourself up to catastrophe because the nuances and the subtlety in this environment is absolute. We’re talking about people who have been mistreated for 400 years. So we didn’t embark on that lightly.

“We reached out to all of our Indigenous partners and friends and we asked that they would help us. And, to no one’s surprise, they gave us everything they could give us. And we worked in strict collaboration and built something that is truly unique in Canada, if not North America, which is a social platform designed specifically for Indigenous (communities) that takes into (account) all of the cultural sensitivities,” MacBeth says.

The result is that Talking Stick is a space for every Indigenous cohort, whether the person is Micmac, Blackfoot or Cree, or a subcommunity of those communities. MacBeth explains that a French-speaking Cree person living in New Brunswick may be different from a French-speaking Cree person living in James Bay and that he has people who can connect with Indigenous people living in each of those areas.

MacBeth says TryCycle, a “small company with 35 full-timers,” has hired 219 Indigenous people from various communities to foster a welcoming environment to anyone looking to connect. The company has applied for federal funding so that Talking Stick can support Indigenous communities across the country.

“The trust between peer and guest is what’s driving this, the empathy and compassion of the peer. We worked with chief and council at the provincial level, at the tribal council level and at the community level and we asked them to help us to recruit, because what we wanted to do is recruit as many people from every community so that every community could be represented on the platform,” MacBeth says.

As a result, Talking Stick has representation in 58 of Saskatchewan’s 74 Indigenous communities, for example.  

TryCycle is speaking with 27 jurisdictions around the world, including Indigenous communities in Australia and the U.S., with the plan to take Talking Stick global.

The company is also working to launch a similar support model for Canadian veterans called The Burns Way, a judgment-free, confidential space where veterans can connect with peer advocates who share their experiences.  

Ottawa Changemakers highlights entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences who are making a difference in the city.

Invest Ottawa is Ottawa’s lead economic development agency for knowledge-based industries. Guided by a vision to be a globally recognized, innovative, inclusive and future-ready city, Invest Ottawa delivers programs and services that catalyze the growth and success of entrepreneurs and firms.

RBC Royal Bank is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance and creating value for clients and communities.

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