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She launched an Indigenous fashion week in Toronto and catapulted creative colleagues into the spotlight

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For years, the idea of an Indigenous fashion week in Toronto was just a seed rattling around in Sage Paul’s mind and waiting for the right moment to germinate.

She knew her seed had found its season when she finally announced the fashion week last year — and received more than 130 submissions from designers and vendors asking to get involved. In May, when tickets sold out a full week before the event, Paul realized her idea had bloomed bigger than she ever imagined.

But it wasn’t until the whole thing was over that Paul stepped back to appreciate what she had created. “It’s a living entity. It feels like it’s a universe, a movement,” Paul says. “I feel really proud; this was just an idea, and I did it.”

Today, the 34-year-old artist and designer is still basking in the afterglow of her creation. The inaugural Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO), a four-day celebration of fashion, art and dialogue that placed Indigenous people squarely in the centre of the fashion tent, was a runaway success. It attracted wall-to-wall media coverage and capped off a year of accolades for Paul, including a Design Exchange RBC Emerging Designer Award and recognition from the Ontario Minister of the Status of Women as a trail-blazing woman transforming the province. In September, the organization Women of Influence also named her one of Canada’s “Top 25 women of influence,” alongside the likes of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Olympic figure skater Tessa Virtue, and peace activist Dr. Alaa Murabit.

For many Indigenous participants, IFWTO was a revelatory experience. In an industry that has long excluded and exploited Indigenous communities, here was a high-profile fashion show in Canada’s largest city where diverse designers could showcase their work — without having to compromise or attenuate their Indigenous identities.

“(IFWTO) set the standard for this way that we can, as First Nations designers, show our work very authentically,” says Lesley Hampton, an evening wear designer in Toronto. “It was kind of also a slap in the face to the box stores who try to appropriate First Nation culture and design.”

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Months later, the impact of IFWTO continues to ripple. Young designers who participated — some showing their work on the runway for the first time — have emerged with exciting and profitable opportunities. Many have stayed connected since meeting at IFWTO, which midwifed a network of like-minded Indigenous creatives who have since become each other’s biggest supporters, collaborators and customers.

IFWTO also delivered a necessary jolt to the mainstream fashion industry, compelling it to take notice of Indigenous fashion and consider the lessons it can learn from designers like Paul.

“Sage isn’t only changing the fashion industry, she’s completely redesigning it,” says Ben Barry, chair of Ryerson University’s School of Fashion. “She’s not simply advocating for Indigenous fashion designers to be a part of the current fashion system … she is challenging the mainstream fashion industry to re-examine its practices, its principles, and completely overhaul the way in which it does things.”

Sage Paul Launched Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto to celebrate her culture’s fashion, art and dialogue. The event created opportunities and a support network for designers like Warren Steven Scott.

IFWTO was a convergence of art and Indigenous culture, two intertwining strands in Paul’s personal DNA. Her parents met in Toronto as college art students (her father is now a painter and her mother recently went back to school for her fine arts degree) and always encouraged Paul and her siblings to indulge their creative inclinations.

“We always had any kind of bead and fabric and paint and paper,” Paul recalls. “We had a huge wall that we would hang every single piece of our artwork.”

Many of her childhood creations centred around her Indigenous culture. Paul is an urban Dene woman and member of English River First Nation, and her father’s sprawling family tree is rooted in a northern Saskatchewan community called Patuanak. While her mother is a fourth-generation Canadian with British and Hungarian heritage, she wanted her children to have access to their Indigenous roots, and when Paul was a toddler, the family moved into Gabriel Dumont, an Indigenous community housing complex near Kingston and Galloway Rds.

This was a “hard part of town,” Paul admits, but Gabriel Dumont was also the backdrop to a happy childhood, a tight-knit community where she was surrounded by other Indigenous families and frequently participated in drum-making workshops, ceremonies and powwows. “I was always surrounded by native people,” she says. “So I’m very advantaged and privileged in that sense, where I never felt embarrassed or ashamed to be native.”

It was also where Paul started experimenting with fashion and design. From an early age, she was fashioning her own clothes and learning to make regalia for powwows.

“I was learning how to sew, I was learning how to do appliqué,” she says. “I just loved being able to share parts of myself through my regalia.”

But when Paul was 13, her family moved out of Gabriel Dumont and into a co-op near Queen St. W. and Spadina Ave., where it was harder to stay connected with her culture. A shy and somewhat anxious teen, Paul also struggled miserably with high school — an experience, she says, she “wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

After graduating, she decided to study fashion at George Brown College, where she first mulled over the idea of an Indigenous fashion week. While she loved what she was doing, Paul couldn’t see a path for herself within the mainstream fashion industry.

“I don’t know anyone in the fashion industry, I don’t have money, so it was really really difficult to produce in the way that I was taught at school,” she says. “Sometimes, it also felt like I was pressured by those outside of my community to (express) a stereotypical esthetic of being native.”

The profit-driven industry always felt antithetical to her values as an Indigenous creator. What Paul wanted to achieve through fashion was a connection with people and cultures — and a living wage, yes, but not billions of dollars in profits.

Fashion, she believes, can also be a vehicle for sustaining and reviving Indigenous culture, while creating economies and industries for First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. “It’s very important for sustaining our practices, which were given to us by our ancestors. I really believe that fashion, pottery and other utilitarian practices, for us, were art,” she says. “Indigenous design is about the process and not about mass production. We honour where things are coming from.”

An important turning point for Paul came one summer during fashion school, when she landed a job with the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival and found herself surrounded once again by dynamic and creative Indigenous people. Something inside of her reawakened.

“I felt that connection again, to my culture, my community, that I had as a child,” she says. “I saw new ways of being able to share the stories that we know — and just be native.”

Paul wound up working at imagineNATIVE for a decade, first as a programmer and later as director of events and communications. Throughout this time, she continued finding creative outlets for her fashion work, either by doing costume design for filmmakers or self-presenting collections at local venues like the Gladstone Hotel or Harbourfront Centre.

She also became an outspoken critic of cultural appropriation. Paul sees examples of Indigenous culture being appropriated all the time, whether it’s the “sexy Indian” costume at your local Halloween store or Urban Outfitters’s controversial “Navajo” collection, which got them sued by Navajo Nation in 2012.

The problem also extends to the high-end runways of London, New York and Milan, where — to name just a few examples — Victoria’s Secret has plunked headdresses on porcelain-skinned models, Canadian designers Dsquared2 once named a collection after an anti-Indigenous slur, and U.K.-based label KTZ was forced to apologize after allegedly copying a sacred jacket design created by an Inuit shaman.

“I (want) an economy that is led by us, where we’re profiting and it’s not major retailers who are taking our work and then giving us a small cut of it,” Paul says. “I really felt an infrastructure needed to be put in place before we could start running with it —and I thought I may as well do it, because I don’t know anyone else who’ll do it.”

After leaving imagineNATIVE in 2013, Paul co-founded a collective called the Setsune Indigenous Fashion Incubator, which supported the artistic work of Indigenous women and partnered with Ikea Canada to create a limited collection of kitchen accessories.

Then last year, Paul decided to quit her full-time job and devote herself entirely to making Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto a reality.

The timing finally felt right, not just for herself but for Canada, where the country’s understanding of Indigenous culture and history has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years.

Paul tapped into her now-extensive network of contacts, including Kerry Swanson, an art consultant and former associate director with the Ontario Arts Council, and Heather Haynes, an international programmer with imagineNATIVE and Hot Docs.

Together, they envisioned something huge that would “shake up the fashion industry.” Paul also made sure their fashion week would centre on Indigenous people and values. This meant paying rigorous attention to detail — for example, hiring Indigenous models of different shapes and sizes, or structuring shows around traditional phases of the moon. Meanwhile, Paul organized panels, where speakers like Kent Monkman and Jesse Wente addressed topics like cultural appropriation and using art to challenge colonial mythologies.

It was particularly important to Paul that IFWTO’s participants benefited from the show. So she created a marketplace, where vendors from Nunavut to Greenland could sell their wares at fair prices, and paid artist fees to every model and designer — something far from guaranteed at other fashion weeks, where models sometimes work for free or designers risk losing money.

And despite creating such a high-profile runway, Paul elected not to show her own designs during IFWTO. This was not the “Sage Paul Show,” she insists — it was about creating a fashion ecosystem for the benefit of all Indigenous designers.

“Sage reconceptualized what a fashion week should be. Fashion weeks are almost a monologue, just designers showing their collections on the runway; she transformed that really into a dialogue,” says Ryerson’s Barry. “It’s encouraging everyone to redesign the system altogether, in order to centre Indigenous values, principles and practices — which I think makes the entire fashion system a much more ethical, authentic place, and also allows a Canadian fashion identity to emerge.”

For many participants, IFWTO felt like a watershed moment.

For designer Warren Steven Scott, 29, a member of Boothroyd First Nation in British Columbia, IFWTO was the first time he ever showed a collection at a fashion week. His line also marked the first time he explicitly wove his Indigenous culture into his designs.

Scott has since launched his first business, selling the Salish-inspired earrings that he created for his runway show.

“We’re all still so excited that this event took place; that there was that space for us,” he says.

Story Behind the Story delivers insights into how the Star investigates, reports, and produces stories.

Paul is already knee-deep in planning for the next fashion week in 2020. In between various workshops and events — everything from hide tanning in Banff to speaking engagements at the Art Gallery of Ontario — she is also getting involved in fashion education, sitting on Ryerson’s School of Fashion’s first advisory board and developing a contemporary Indigenous fashion course at George Brown.

Her goal is to keep growing IFWTO over the next five or 10 years, to the point where it becomes a self-sustaining platform and no longer needs her at the helm.

Paul dreams of the day when she herself can apply to IFWTO to showcase one of her own collections on the runway — and hopefully, she says, humble as ever, “they’ll accept me.”

The Star is profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better. Next week we talk to patient safety crusader Dr. Nav Persaud.

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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