The half dozen customers in back of Edmonton’s St Faith’s Church are in a buoyant mood. While they wait to order from a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned eatery, Curtis Cardinal, owner of Tee Pee Treats, comes over to greet them.
Ten years ago, Cardinal started selling bannock from his back pack. A few years later he launched his catering and takeout business, which despite COVID-19 restrictions, still regularly sells out of what he calls ‘First Nations comfort food’.
“Sometimes it’s so busy it’s hard to keep up,” said Cardinal, now four months into his new location. “I had no staff at the beginning of the year, and I realized, I can’t do this by myself.”
The staff of three includes his niece, who takes orders, and his aunt. A nod to Cardinal's mom is evident too, in a menu featuring all home-cooked fare and even her soup recipes. And Cardinal's six delivery drivers are friends, making the family-run business an important employer in a challenging year.
“Believe in yourself and believe in what you’re doing with the food and service,” he said, stressing the importance of using fresh ingredients and supporting local providers. “You have to put love into what you’re doing.”
With favourites like the bison bannock burger and wildberry bannock cake, Cardinal is succeeding in offering quality food to the wider public while giving back to his people.
“There’s not enough Indigenous foods out there,” he said. “I’d like to see more.”
Five hundred kilometres south at Blackfoot Grill in Stand Off, Alberta, owner Clayton Chief Body takes the menu from his Blackfoot roots.
“On the coast there’s salmon, shellfish; the lakes. The prairie staples were simpler: buffalo meat, berries and roots,” said Chief Body.
Starting the business in 2016 with his dad, Chief Body used to take his Indigenous food trailer across the prairies and into British Columbia. Winter meant setting up a catering operation, and eventually buying a café space in the Blood Tribe administration building. Though COVID-19 has affected all aspects of the business, the food trailer will venture out again.
Chief Body said support from Indigenous Tourism Alberta and Calgary's Indian Business Corporation means he can continue, getting bison from local producers and offering what his people prefer.
“Especially the elders, they like the flank. I think it reminds them of the way it used to be,” said Chief Body. “You need to respect the traditions and people you are serving.”
Ian Gladue sold his Edmonton restaurant just before COVID-19 hit. While his passion is still the Native Delights food truck, he took a leap of faith in 2019 to start making authentic dried bison meat.
Pânsâwân (pronounced bhan-sa-wan), which in Cree means thin-sliced-meat, is traditionally smoked and dried. At Gladue’s facility in Leduc, the bison undergoes a slow smoke using natural wood chips, including hickory.
Gladue has watched business far surpass early expectations, remembering the day in 2016 when his mother was cutting meat for drying. Aware of the colonial introduction of bannock into his people’s diet, he said he wanted to “dig deeper”.
“In the late 1800s we used what we had, yet bannock is now considered a traditional staple. I wanted to do something prior to contact,” recalled Gladue, who is from Bigstone Cree Nation. “My mother asked, what do you want to do? I said, I want to do pânsâwân.”
Created after consulting with local elders, Pânsâwân Bison Dry Meat has gone from selling at one store in Enoch to over 250 outlets in two years. Safeway and IGA carry the brand, and Gladue is expanding into pemican, using blueberry and strawberry.
“There is a purpose for both my food truck and Pânsâwân, to preserve, restore and share our traditional food with the world,” said Gladue.
For Scott Iserhoff, originally from Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, the inspiration for his Indigenous catering business started with requests in Edmonton. The menu at Pei Pei Chei Ow – which means ‘robin’ in Omushkegowin (Swampy Cree) – includes wild greens like dandelion and sage, and appetizers of wild duck liver with black currants.
“I like to use wild meats and plants that have always been growing on Turtle Island or came here through trade from the South,” he said.
“Pei Pei Chei Ow is also about education, as food always comes with a story,” said Iserhoff, who launched his business in 2017 and will soon open a space at Edmonton's downtown farmers' market. Online cooking classes are also in the works. “Food is more than just sustenance. It’s family and community time, where we honour the ingredients and where they come from.”
In an episode of Red Chef Revival, a web series that follows three First Nations chefs exploring Indigenous cuisine across Canada, Enoch chef Shane Chartrand sums up a common sentiment, saying he looks for authentic relationships beyond 'Indian taco'.
“I look for spirituality and beauty in my own Indigenous culture, and its food,” said Chartrand. “Because it sat there lost for so long.”
“This is huge to me, to help inspire my people to want to dream bigger and pursue their goals. It definitely brings warmth to me.”