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Native business owners face artistic hijacking

Despite a bumpy road leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Games did a great job of marketing aboriginal art, but designers say big business is threatening to take over

Local aboriginal small-business owners say the Olympic Games created a new demand for West Coast aboriginal artwork, but months later the payoff might not be so grand.

Vancouver-based Haida fashion designer Dorothy Grant said that while that exposure has opened new markets for aboriginal products, it also means large manufacturers have adopted native designs and are using them to market their own products.

In turn, Vancouver’s aboriginal business community may suffer because many small ventures lack the funds and marketing expertise to compete with large manufacturers.

“You have to look at it and ask, ‘Is this going to make this more universally acknowledged?’ Maybe so, maybe so, but at the same time it takes away business from the people who strive really hard like myself,” said Grant, principal of Dorothy Grant Ltd., a custom native clothing designer.

The issue first made headlines last year when Cowichan Tribes leaders accused the Hudson’s Bay Co. of using knock-off Cowichan sweater designs for the retailer’s 2010 Olympic clothing line.

The two reconciled before the Games, and the Cowichan were eventually allowed to sell their traditional sweaters during the Olympics.

Months after the Games, Grant said the issue continues for aboriginal business owners who struggle to find recognition for their art.

Alano Edzerza agreed.

“I’ll see my artwork on mugs in gift shops in Niagara Falls because people have gone online seen my artwork and copied it,” said Edzerza, who owns a gallery in Vancouver that specializes in First Nations artwork, jewelry and clothing.

Even though he has a legal right to protect his artwork, Edzerza said it costs too much money to pursue a copyright infringer, a situation that he said is felt by many aboriginal business owners.

“We don’t have that much for teeth because it costs money to do anything like that,” he explained. “We’ve had contact for what? Not very long. It’s only been 30 years since we’ve been able to [compete equally with other businesses], so to establish business and catch up with everyone who hit the ground running, we’re in the dust still.”

But he has a plan.

Prior to the Games, Edzerza was asked to design uniforms for the Dutch Olympic team, which brought new attention to his artwork.

Fortunately, he didn’t sign the rights to his art over to the manufacturer,

Now, he plans to bank on his Olympic success with a new clothing line scheduled for release later this year.

“Because of all the demand for those coats I’m working with a friend and redeveloping the line, and creating my own brand and redoing the jackets with the same art.”

Both he and Grant believe the “authenticity factor” is the trick to competing with large producers who use native artwork.

In other words, aboriginal business owners should market the authenticity of their products to attract buyers who prefer the “real thing.”

Clint Davis, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), said authenticity could make all the difference for small businesses that rely on the originality of their artwork for success.

“The aboriginal business can be registered as an aboriginal business by either the federal government or the CCAB,” Davis explained. “The business owner can then use this authentication as a marketing tool.”

He also said the benefits of Olympic exposure shouldn’t be ignored.

“Frankly, I see this as a positive issue. If more people are drawn to the aboriginal cultural product, that means a potentially larger market and a greater opportunity for business success.”