Designing a new vocation

Aboriginal artist and former lawyer finds joining art and law an award-winning – and money-making – combination

Shain Jackson, recently honoured for outstanding business achievement at the BC Aboriginal Business Awards, at his Spirit Works studio in North Vancouver

Arguing aboriginal law in the courts and carving Salish bentwood boxes would seem pursuits that are worlds apart to most people.

Not to Shain Jackson. He has found the two have come together in the wood he carves to create stunning works of aboriginal art.

Today, the objects he fashions at his North Vancouver studio, Spirit Works, are much in demand by those with an appreciation of native art and a budget to support it.

A doctor recently commissioned him to build a table with bentwood boxes as pedestals topped with a 350-pound slab of glass for $20,000. A "spirit hut" he built with clear cedar and topped with a coppered roof fetched close to double that figure.

Spirit Works is one of several businesses recently honoured at the annual BC Aboriginal Business Awards, which were launched in 2008. They were co-presented by the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and the BC Achievement Foundation, a non-profit organization established by the B.C. government in 2003.

Jackson, who wryly describes himself as a "recovering lawyer" after leaving behind a legal practice that left him too little time for his family, says it was a comment by an elder that made him realize the two fields are more related than one would think.

"I was at a community function – a bingo game, when one of the elders motioned to me and said, 'Hey smart boy, come here and talk to me about the law.' And you know whenever one of the elders calls you 'smart boy' they actually don't think you're all that smart."

Jackson, who practised law under well-known aboriginal law and treaty rights lawyer Louise Mandell, began to proudly rattle off the principles of English common law when the elder suddenly stopped him and pointed to aboriginal art on nearby walls.

"[The elder] said, 'There is our law,'" looking the carvings of thunderbirds and ravens and their stories. "I realized he was right, that our art is the way we codified our history and even our law."

Jackson, who employs four full-time employees, learned carving and carpentry growing up with his grandfather, a Sunshine Coast shipwright.

"My grandfather taught me a lot of fine joinery so I ended up blending it with carving to come up with an interesting art form. I make functional items as well, like doors and boardroom tables in the European style but with an aboriginal twist."

Eye in the sky


Teara Fraser, another outstanding business achievement winner, took to the skies to prove herself an entrepreneur. Her firm, Kisik Aerial Survey of Richmond, is the only certified aboriginal firm in Canada to provide photo services for mapping, engineering and other businesses. Her clients include all levels of government, universities and companies in the mining and forest industries.

Fraser, of Cree descent and a member of the Métis Nation, began the long journey of getting her commercial pilot's licence after getting a taste of flying in a small plane in Africa in 2001.

She built up her hours working for an aerial survey company in Canada before starting her own business three years ago.

"It was overwhelming," she said. "One of the huge challenges of starting a business is that there is a huge pile of work ahead of you and you don't have any money yet. And you only have a limited amount of expertise.

"It takes a lot of perseverance and a lot of resilience. You have to have a belief in yourself and what you are doing. Then you have to find other people who believe in you."

Fraser's company now employs seven full-time employees, and operates a twin-engine Piper Aztec, a six-passenger aircraft modified to accommodate large-format photographic equipment, which accounts for the lion's share of her capital costs.

A huge part of her success, she said, has been creating a space for a high-performing team to do their best work.

"We do that through our shared company values: joy, trust, excellence, adaptability, diligence and community."

Money is not the ultimate measure of success for her, she said.

"It is what kind of experience did we provide for the people here. What kind of ways did we give back to the community? How did we learn and grow? How did we come out the other side different?"

Other award winners included Shelley Stewart of SRS Trucking of Merritt, young entrepreneur of the year; Toolcomm Technology Inc. of North Vancouver, business of the year for a one- to two-person firm; Braker Electric Ltd. of Port Alberni, business of the year in the two- to 10-employee class; and Taba Enterprises Ltd. of Fort St. James, in the 10 or more employees category.

Named for outstanding business achievement were: Bizzybody Events of Fort St. John, Jobkat Excavating of Invermere, Kyahwood Forest Products of Smithers, Pentlatch Seafood of Courtenay, E and K Construction of Hope, Falcon Contracting of Prince George, Black Diamond Cygnus of Fort St. John and Canoe Creek Hydro Co. Ltd. of Nanaimo.

Duz Cho Logging Ltd. from Mackenzie was named community-owned business of the year, and Coast Salish Development Corp. of Ladysmith, joint venture business of the year.

Garry Reece, chief councillor of the Lax Kw'alaams Band, Port Simpson, was honoured for individual achievement. •