Brian Webb’s business provides for Chisasibi and keeps community traditions alive

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Just before Christmas a few years ago, Brian Webb’s mother set out to buy presents in Chisasibi for her granddaughters in Montreal. To her dismay, she found there weren’t many options available in her home community.

“She couldn’t find anything,” said Webb. “The only things she found were notebooks, like office pads. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I start myself a business in Chisasibi?’”

The following year, Webb began shipping merchandise to his sister Sandra Webb in Chisasibi, who sold the items out of her basement. He and business partner Michel Goyette worked full time and Sandra helped them out on weekends when she wasn’t doing her regular job.

“We started with Chisasibi hoodies, with a floral or a goose design,” said Webb. “That was our first project and it went very well – we got a lot of positive feedback. From there, we added new designs and other products that people were requesting.”

As the business grew, the three of them used whatever space they could find to sell their merchandise. Finally, last February, they were able to snag a spot in the Chisasibi commercial centre.

“We’re very limited for space in the community,” Webb explained. “We started in my sister’s basement and then moved to my Mom’s. Then we moved into the dining room of a restaurant [in the commercial centre] that had been closed for 18 years. We started this with no funding whatsoever; it was with money from our personal income. We began small, grew slowly and each time we had profit we would reinvest it.”

Not long after moving to the commercial centre, a passing remark made by a group of local youth gave the business its name.

“Some kids walked by and said, ‘Ouwah, store!’” laughed Webb.

He explained that the term “ouwah” originates from Chisasibi and is quite versatile – typically used to express astonishment, frustration or disgust. In this case, the youth were amazed they had a place to buy baseball caps.

“People walk in they say things like, ‘My late grandmother would have loved this store,’ or, ‘My late mother, if she was still around, I’m sure she would be here.’ People have been saying this should have happened much earlier,” added Webb.

The Ouwah store offers a little something for everyone, and ultimately exists to meet the diverse needs of a Cree community. What started as a store for hoodies and baseball caps has expanded to provide supplies for sewing and knitting, items required for traditional walking-out ceremonies and dance regalia, and most recently, protective equipment, like work boots.

“We started selling fabric, now we’re into yarn and today we opened up our shoe department,” said Webb. “We have some leather and there’s going to be fur coming soon. We get a lot of requests from the people who come in looking for something specific that we don’t have, so we make an effort to get it for them at the best price possible.”

With business going well, the Ouwah store has started shipping outside of Chisasibi. The store now has four employees from the community.

“We didn’t give up, we just kept going,” beamed Webb. “Now, people from out of town are asking for our products, so we’ve started shipping to Ontario and Arctic Canada. I don’t know what the future holds, but I guess we’ll see. Eventually we want a website and maybe do mail orders, but for now we do that through Facebook.”

While competition is beginning to grow, Webb is proud of the variety of items available at Ouwah – even the “pancake hats” (flat berets) that are so popular with women in the community.

“The reason we’re here is to fulfill the needs of the people, specifically the customs and culture here in Chisasibi,” Webb concluded. “It seems the tradition of sewing and making garments, the things that were used in the Cree culture, were starting to fade. With this store, we might be able to bring them back.”

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