Warm Hands, Warm Heart: Brenda Dragon’s Social Enterprise Heats Up the Fort Smith Economy
“I choose my own path because I am a creative person. That creativity, I think, is a talent, something that I was born with, but it's been developed along the time by positive experiences, people that allowed me to create and having that inspiration is because of little successes along the way,” Brenda Dragon relays.
She was born and raised in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, where her parents met. Her father was a French Canadian trapper in the Peace Athabasca Delta who met her mother, a Denesuline girl from northern Saskatchewan. She left her home community at the age of 20 for over thirty years before returning to found her company, Aurora Heat, six years ago.
Aurora Heat is a social enterprise that makes a biodegradable, sustainable product of sheared beaver fur that replaces disposable hand and foot warmers. “It's been very successful. There is no other natural, reusable product on the market so we're enjoying being a new-to-market product and all the early adopters that are picking up our product,” she explains.
As a high school student in Fort Smith, she wasn’t as successful, passing on the strength of her memory, despite her spotty attendance. School wasn’t a priority in her family, but she feels differently now. “I learned much later that that was really important. If I was to do that again, I would encourage everybody to go to school and make the most of that,” she reflects.
Dragon went on to help other people see things differently too, after becoming a medical eye care technician. She travelled all over the Arctic for eight years delivering primary eye care, something she excelled at until life changed. She loved her job, but it was incompatible with motherhood.
She homeschooled her kids until they were in fifth grade, taking university education courses to teach them better. Dragon wanted their education to include Indigenous culture and traditional skills. When her kids went to regular school, she volunteered there, then became a curriculum writer for Indigenous Education. It was an emerging field at the time and she developed innovative and creative on the land programming in Yellowknife until her kids graduated.
Her next destination was a career in Indigenous tourism, training at . I'm University in North Vancouver before returning to the North. Her career accelerated quickly̱̱. She wrote the strategic plan for Indigenous tourism for the Northwest Territories and developed hospitality programs.
Meanwhile, her father passed away and she pondered continuing his legacy working with fur. She developed a solution to help keep her son warm while he was snowboarding, then realized it had potential as a product. She knew there would be a strong interest from the 21,000 Asian tourists coming to Yellowknife each year to see the Northern Lights. She designed the product with them in mind, then expanded online to reach people outside her area.
Reflecting on her experiences, the advice she would give Indigenous youth would be to volunteer. “Volunteering, not only does it give you purpose in your life, and good feelings around contributing, it also arms you with a lot of skills,” she explains. While she didn’t attend school consistently, she enjoyed athletics, student council, debate team and volunteering.
Giving back is at the heart of what she does. “My business is a social enterprise, which means that I'm interested in what I'm doing to change the world and change the world in the way that people see. The worldview for Indigenous people is seven generations forward. My product takes a very simple process where we harvest beavers, we process them, we turn them into hand warmers, and they end up being purchased by people and used,” Dragon says.
Customers still use the warmers she made seven years ago, something that makes her business circular and regenerative. “It's very important, where we're facing things like the climate crisis, that we pursue these kinds of businesses that are not extractive, that fit well with our view towards sustainability and caring for future generations,” she continues.
At the age of sixty, she has no plans of stopping. “I'm going to continue with Aurora Heat, because it really does inspire me. I'm inspired by the people that work for me, we have good work with good pay. I'm also at that juncture where we're starting to scale and the decisions that I'm making are making a big difference and I find that really satisfying,” she shares with excitement. Dragon hired a manager to free up some of her time and allow her to spend more time with her family, which now includes a grandson.
“It's not all about money. It's about how I spend my time, who I spend my time with, and the difference that I make in the world,” Brenda Dragon concludes. She chooses her own path, because she is a creative person and what she’s created is a sustainable social enterprise that builds profits without impeding future generations. Continuing the legacy of her father in the community where she was raised, she’s on a whole new career journey that warms the hands and the heart.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.