A nonprofit develops an income stream
MONTREAL, Quebec - Five years ago, Avataq Cultural Institute was looking
for ways to bolster its bank account and better support its programs for
the Inuit of Nunavik, the Arctic region of Quebec. "We're a nonprofit, and
that means we do a lot of fundraising," explained communications director
Taqralik Partridge, Inuk. "So in 2000 we formed a subsidiary, Avataq Corp.,
to develop ways to be more self-sustaining."
The subsidiary surveyed resources in Nunavik and concocted a project to
create seasonal jobs for women, sustain traditional knowledge and provide
its parent organization with an income stream by blending unique herbal
teas. The main ingredients? Crowberries, bearberries and other plants Inuit
women have been picking for millennia during Arctic summers.
Tastings in Nunavik and at Trans-Herbes, a major Montreal-area processor of
herbal teas, married not just plants but sensibilities, merging age-old
customs and modern tastes to produce five strikingly different blends
ranging from the cloudberry-based mix's rich butterscotch notes to the
floral mintiness of the ground juniper infusion.
Launched in 2002 under the name Northern Delights, the teas are sold in
nearly 1,000 health food stores across Canada, with sales of well over
$100,000 a year.
Avataq Cultural Institute (an avataq is a harpoon fitted with a sealskin
float) works to sustain Inuit culture from offices in Inukjuak and
Montreal. The organization was founded 25 years ago by the Nunavik Inuit
Partridge explained her community's sense of urgency in regard to
cultural-preservation issues: "Contact in the Arctic was very recent, from
the 1870s in some areas to as late as the 1950s in others. In Nunavik,
Inuttitut is the first language for 90 percent of the people - one of the
highest uses of an original language in North America - and the schools use
it exclusively up to grade 3. Nevertheless, the advent of new media and the
Internet has threatened both language and traditions." Innovative projects
like the tea business are especially valuable by providing jobs and a way
to sustain the elders' knowledge.
The cultural services that the subsidiary and its tea project support
include supervision of all archaeological work in the region; partnerships
with other cultural organizations, such as the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C.; grants for performing and visual artists; and the
publication in three languages (Inuttitut, English and French) of
magazines, books and monographs. The group has issued elders' memoirs,
studies of traditional food and medicine for the region's public-health
board and a collection of children's stories. Long-term plans include
finding a permanent home for an important historical collection of arts,
crafts and everyday objects returned to the Inuit by the Canadian federal
Avataq Cultural Institute general director Suzanne Beaubien runs the tea
project, which got underway following an environmental impact study and the
creation of a harvesting manual. "We hired a botanist to go out on the land
with the elders - the women who have the knowledge of the plants," said
Beaubien. "They defined the correct parts to pick, how much to take, when,
and so on." The harvested plants were dried on racks in a large tent in
Nunavik, then shipped to Trans-Herbes to be placed in tea bags and either
cellophane-wrapped cardboard boxes or wooden gift boxes.
Though the plants have never been sprayed or fertilized, they are not
certified organic because there are no accreditation processes for tundra
vegetation. So far, this has not been an impediment to sales.
"People go for the full-bodied flavor," explained Beaubien. "Even men like
them. Women tell us that their husbands, who don't ordinarily drink herbal
teas, enjoy ours."
However, she and her colleagues are taking a second look at the packaging.
"Positioning - figuring out what people will notice and pick up at the
store - is both difficult and very important," said Partridge.
The current boxes and bags are in discreet natural-looking colors. They may
be too discreet, according to Beaubien: "At Avataq, we put the accent on
quality, whether we're publishing a book or putting together an exhibition.
When you see our product in a museum shop or an upscale boutique, it looks
wonderful. However, at a health food store, among many competing teas, our
packages can get lost."
Meanwhile, Avataq markets the Northern Delights line via trade shows and
in-store promotions. "We like to develop relationships with customers,"
said Beaubien. "For the next 20 weeks, we'll be doing four-hour tastings
twice a week in health-food stores around Quebec." She's also researching
the permissions and certifications needed to export the product to the
United States and Europe.
Another item on the agenda is construction of a permanent drying facility
in Nunavik, which will allow residents to start related businesses. People
in the region have already fielded ideas for selling dried mushrooms and
Going forward, Avataq Corp. will focus on growing its already-successful
tea business rather than on developing additional enterprises. Other ideas
that came up during its original research, including aromatherapy and
therapeutic products, will take a back seat. "All that may come," said
Beaubien. "However, since it's easier to expand an existing operation than
to start a new one, we'll stick with improving the tea project for now."