Back in March, Joan Alexis was signed up to attend an entrepreneurial business course. As COVID numbers began to rise, the evening before her first class was set to start, the course was cancelled.
With unexpected time on her hands, Alexis wanted to do something to help.
“I was wondering, now what do I do? They said, ‘make masks,’ so I did,” says Alexis, who’s a member of the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), near Vernon, B.C.
“I gave away a good 500 across Canada, and I was doing that out of my own pocket. I said ‘whoever wants it [I’ll make them],’ so then I got messages and started sending them out.”
Since March, Alexis says she’s made more than 3,000 masks, selling about half and giving away the other half. The masks come in all shapes, sizes, and designs, created to have a good fit and follow the standards set out by Health Canada.
Her biggest challenge has been accessing the supplies needed to keep up with the demand.
“I kept running out of material. I ran out of black and white thread, I went through about 30 spools of thread,” Alexis says.
Her ‘kookum’ masks, a floral designed mask, are particularly popular and orders have gone through the roof since she first advertised them on social media. Though with increased demand she has recently put new orders on hold so she can focus on her school work and her other passions, such as beading.
On Nov. 19, regional COVID-19 restrictions went province-wide, making it mandatory to wear a mask in any public building or retail space throughout the province.
As the demand continues to rise, Alexis focuses on ensuring the quality of her product.
“If some grandmother is wearing my stuff, it better be quality,” she says. “My name is on that so it has to be quality. Like, homie don’t play.”
Alexis offered her masks to those who might need them across social media, and the call was answered.
“I posted it online and whoever wanted them got them. It got a little overwhelming and I ran out of material,” says Alexis.
She then started taking orders after the initial wave flattened, and has been fulfilling orders since.
‘Taking care of our people is my priority’
While interest in her masks stretches far beyond the Okanagan region, she says her main priority is taking care of her community.
“It’s just to keep our people safe, I worry so much for everybody,” she says. “Taking care of our people is my priority.”
On June 1, 2020, research funded by the World Health Organization from16 countries, and six continents, showed that the use of masks in correlation with social distancing resulted in much lower COVID-19 transmission rates.
While masks have been, and continue to be a focus for Alexis, she also is working to support women more generally. She started a campaign to support female students whose funding for schooling was cut, leaving them in a dire situation.
“Some women weren’t getting funding, they were getting their funding cut from school and they didn’t get their letters until a week or two before school started so they had to pay with credit cards,” she says.
“You know how tough that is?”
Supporting other women is a cause close to her heart. Alexis has lost multiple women in her family to murder, including her mother, and she says her outreach was a way to give back and make a difference.
“Kwulenchuten (Creator) said, ‘do this,’ and I said okay so I’ll do this and if I can help out even a little bit,” says Alexis.
Alexis has since raised $300 for women who need the extra support this holiday season.
Her future plans? Alexis wants to open an all-Indigenous boutique in Vernon, B.C. that will support all Indigenous creators and suppliers.
“I want to sell all Indigenous products, I want makeup lines and to support other Indigenous businesses,” says Alexis while sitting in her crafting room, full of bright ribbons, beads, fabrics, and beautiful beading.
She says she wants to see more unity and openness in her community, saying that now is the time to come together.
“I would like to see our youth come together, we all have to open up our hearts and our arms to these young people,” she says.
“What it comes down to is we are all here for a short time and if we’re not trying to make it better than what are we doing here?”
You can follow more of Kelsie Kilawna’s reporting here.