Our Story

 My name is Shain Jackson, a Canadian of Aboriginal decent originating from the Coast Salish community of Sechelt.  I write this on behalf of Spirit Works Limited, a First Nations owned, operated, and staffed company that was begun for two purposes: 1) to create beautiful Authentic Aboriginal Products (those designed, produced and distributed by Aboriginal People); and 2) to address through our business many of the problems plaguing Aboriginal communities.

What follows is a story relating to our experience with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Games (VANOC).  It is with much thought and soul searching that we have decided to go public with this.  We are aware of the many repercussions that may flow from an indictment of such a prolific organization, but we feel this is a story that needs to be told.

Our problems relate to VANOC not living up to its general commitments to First Nations people and to their specific, albeit unenforceable, commitments to our particular business.

It is our hope that after reading this, you will sign a petition in support of Aboriginal businesses such as ours.  It can be found at:  http://www.gopetition.com/online/32954.html

All of us at Spirit Works have worked very hard to create something truly inspirational and we would like to thank everyone for their encouragement and support toward making our dream come alive, especially in this, our most trying time


The Story

When I found out the Olympics were coming to Vancouver under the auspices of a true partnership with First Nations and “unprecedented Aboriginal participation”, I was over the moon.  Then when VANOC began voicing so strongly its commitment to supporting First Nations’ economic development, enhancing and promoting Aboriginal art and culture, supporting Aboriginal employment and training, ensuring the environment was protected, and so on, I was sold.  I thought to myself, “what a once in a lifetime opportunity to address many of the ills within our communities while exercising an entrepreneurial spirit. 

I believed so strongly in VANOC’s promises that I invested my family’s life savings (and that amount again in loans for which we still owe) in developing a business creating products I knew (and still know) would be the most sought after by visitors to our shores: truly Authentic Aboriginal Products.  Products such as traditional jewelry, bentwood boxes and paddles, all of which are designed, produced, and distributed by us, with the benefits going to where their needed most, our communities.  I believed so strongly in the demand for these products that I convinced everyone around me (family, community members, employees, etc.) to invest in my vision. 

This vision came to me while I was practicing law and representing the rights of Aboriginal communities throughout British Columbia.  I have always been an active proponent of Aboriginal rights.  This stems largely from my own experiences of abuse, poverty, and outright despair resulting from my own Aboriginal background.  I set out with the vision of creating something quite unique and truly inspirational.  Spirit Works was born and the company itself became very much what I had envisioned. 

Spirit Works’ profile: 

  • We are a First Nations owned, operated and staffed company focused on the design, production, and distribution of Authentic Aboriginal Products.  These include traditional bentwood boxes, jewelry, and paddles;
  • Spirit Works possesses the resources, networks, processes, suppliers, man/womanpower, and general capabilities to compete generally in the Aboriginal gifting market.
  • We currently wholesale to over 70 very reputable retailers including: Vancouver Art Gallery, Grouse Mountain, Museum of Anthropology, Black Ball Ferry, Bill Reid Gallery, Royal BC Museum, and many more.
  • We employ 5 full time Aboriginal workers in addition to providing casual labour opportunities for up to 5 more First Nations community members;
  • We provide employment and training for youth wishing to learn joinery, indigenous art or both.  We have partnered with Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society(ACCESS) to provide these opportunities to First Nations individuals who have had difficulties finding and maintaining employment. 
  • We donate space, equipment, and all-round support for First Nations artists.  This assistance has been offered frequently in relation to many different projects including 5 Olympic art projects.
  • We donate our time and cultural experience.  We have facilitated and donated materials for numerous workshops aimed at teaching youth important cultural lessons.  For this we have partnered with local Aboriginal organizations such as the Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA) as well as both the Friendship Centers in Vancouver and Victoria.
  • We donate time, space, and expertise to the Siyamin Artist Coop and incidentally the Four Host Nations (Currently Spirit Works is donating its time and expertise to design, and facilitate the construction of, the First Nations’ outpost at the Athlete’s Village in Whistler).
  • We take care of our environment by using only salvaged, recycled, or otherwise sustainable materials in our products.
  • There is much much more

 Hoping to fulfill a need within the Olympics I went on to study VANOC’s Aboriginal Licensing and Merchandising Program which left a large opening for something we could easily provide.   After developing our product lines, and battle testing them in the retail market, I lobbied VANOC tirelessly to acknowledge these products and to provide an opportunity for us to fill a large void that so obviously existed within VANOC’s Aboriginal Licensing and Merchandising Program.  Although there were licensed Inukshuks, there appeared to be absolutely nothing in the way of licensing for First Nations products.  I thought to myself that if there was anything the Olympics could not outsource, it would be Authentic Aboriginal Products.

I met personally at VANOC headquarters with executive vice president Dan Doyle on the matter, but this meeting went nowhere.  Furthermore VANOC licensing has had our samples for about a year with no response.

Finally, May 22, 2009 VANOC came out with Request For Proposals 1248 (the “RFP”) asking for Authentic Aboriginal Products for the purposes of licensing.  We thought our prayers were finally answered.  The RFP spoke precisely to what Spirit Works does and how we do it:

In 2008, VANOC and the FHFN launched the Vancouver 2010 Aboriginal Licensing and

Merchandising Program, which was created to showcase excellence and authenticity in Aboriginal arts, culture and enterprise. …

In order to ensure this aim is met, VANOC is seeking the “best of the best” of Aboriginal

businesses with operations in Canada which can consistently design, manufacture and distribute attractive, high-quality, affordable licensed products bearing VANOC designated marks. …

VANOC is seeking products which complement and advance VANOC’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability. Each Proponent shall in its Proposal specify the extent to which the product offered will meet VANOC’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability.

In the RFP, July was set for the time VANOC was to officially award the licenses in relation to the Authentic Aboriginal Products requested in the RFP.  Although this time came and went I was told in no uncertain terms by VANOC representatives and their associates that our products were among the only ones chosen in relation to the RFP and that licensing opportunities were imminent. 

Because of the way the RFP was laid out, making reference to the Aboriginal Pavilion, “other retail opportunities”, and requesting a layout of our own distribution networks, I considered the RFP to represent a substantial opportunity.  I therefore invested much of Spirit Works’ resources applying for it, and additionally, preparing for it since hearing VANOC’s assurances that we were chosen.  When I was informed recently that the grand total of the products VANOC was proposing to facilitate the sale of under the RFP consisted of about 38 of our necklaces and 16 of our Baby Bentwood boxes, I was shocked.  Essentially this amount of product would garner Spirit Works a profit of $300 (without including our overhead costs)

While other suppliers are literally making millions of dollars from our culture, an Aboriginal, owned, operated, and staffed company making truly Authentic Aboriginal Products has been left with virtually nothing.  As a result of our subscribing to VANOC’s promises and assurances Spirit Works is currently facing layoffs and we can now define ourselves as a business struggling to survive.  It is difficult to believe this is happening at the eve of the Olympics when a company such as ours should be prospering.

Through my experiences with VANOC, and my now considerable experience in the retail market, there are certain realities that have come to light which I now understand to be the impediments Spirit Works has been experiencing in regards to Olympic opportunities.  It is my opinion that VANOC contracted out essentially all the merchandising rights within the Olympics leaving no meaningful room for Aboriginal participation, barring tokenism.  I think there was also an element of stereotyping involved whereby VANOC, as well as its suppliers, felt Aboriginal companies couldn’t meet the demand and quality they were after.  Finally, I believe strongly that VANOC or its suppliers could not feasibly consider carrying a brand designed, produced and distributed locally when it is so much cheaper to have things originate abroad.  Despite the commitments VANOC has made in the areas of protecting human rights and the environment it is so much more profitable to have things made in countries caring little for these things.

It is unfortunate for us that we believed VANOC’s promises about “unprecedented Aboriginal participation” and its commitment to supporting First Nations’ economic development, enhancing and promoting Aboriginal art and culture, supporting Aboriginal employment and training, ensuring the environment was protected, and so on. 

It is my perspective that Spirit Works has a very valid grievance with VANOC’s merchandising of Authentic Aboriginal Products.  It has now been 5 months since VANOC committed to licensing our truly Authentic Aboriginal Products and to this has not happened.

We have done everything right, and gone way above and beyond when it comes to matters of social responsibility and environmental stewardship.  We have also gone way above and beyond in our support for the Olympics.  I reiterate that Spirit Works has donated expertise, space, equipment, and generous support in the facilitation of 5 large scale VANOC art projects. 

As I write, a very large art piece destined for the Olympic Oval is being created at our studio, using our equipment, at no charge to the artist creating it.  As I write, the drawings for the First Nations outpost in the Whistler Athletes Village lay on my computer and I spent just this last weekend meeting with the structural engineer for the project.  Spirit Works has worked tirelessly to aid in designing and facilitating this project, again, at no charge, to support the Siyamin Artist Coop, of which I am a member.

In no way did we expect special treatment, only that VANOC live up to its commitments. We competed fairly within the RFP which VANOC put out for Authentic Aboriginal Products, and our products were considered the “best of the best”, yet VANOC refused to offer Spirit Works any substantive opportunities; this while allowing other suppliers to make millions from our culture.

Although VANOC has used an escape clause within the RFP to avoid having to issue a license for our products, we are asking you to support us in demanding they live up to their moral obligations specifically to us, and their promises to Canadian First Nations people in general.

Supporting First Nations economic development does not mean contracting out every substantive merchandising opportunity so that there is literally none left for a First Nations companies making truly Authentic Aboriginal Products.

Unprecedented Partnerships with First Nations does not mean appropriating, and profiteering from a term like “Authentic Aboriginal Products”, while offering no substantive opportunities to the First Nations people making the real thing.

If you are supportive of our cause we ask that you voice that support by signing our E-Petition which can be found at:  http://www.gopetition.com/online/32954.html

It states:

We the undersigned call on the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Games (VANOC) to stop using the term “Authentic Aboriginal Products” to mean their licensed products, with Aboriginal graphics placed on them, that are produced by non-Aboriginal companies, and originate from outside of Canada.  Furthermore, we the undersigned call on VANOC to honour its commitments to local Aboriginal businesses and immediately end the exclusion from its licensing scheme, Aboriginal products that are truly Authentic, made by people from First Nations communities in Canada.

Thank you so very much for your support.

%d bloggers like this: