Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow is building a coffee business that gives back | Ontario Culinary
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Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow is building a coffee business that gives back


Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow founded Birch Bark Coffee Co. to draw attention to the lack of clean water on reserves in Canada.

As a child, Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow spent most of his summers with his grandparents on the Whitefish River First Nation, located on Ontario’s Birch Island. The reserve was life, he says. “It was alive with animals, comfort food, berries, fresh air and sunshine. My childhood was full of adventure because I was so mischievous and always up to something.”

Marsolais-Nahwegahbow has especially fond memories of going hunting during harvest season when the percolator was always placed on the stove. “There’s nothing like good food and great coffee over an open flame outdoors,” he says. These days, as the founder of Birch Bark Coffee Co., Marsolais-Nahwegahbow carries on that tradition.

He didn’t always plan to launch a coffee company, but nearly five years ago, he saw a need for change when he attended a water symposium hosted by the Assembly of First Nations in B.C. “That’s when the light turned on,” he says. “I wanted to draw attention to the problems in our communities.” So in 2018, he launched Birch Bark Coffee Co., an Ottawa-based fair-trade, organic coffee company with a goal: bring clean drinking water to every Indigenous home that is subject to a water advisory by providing and installing certified water purification systems. For every purchase of a 12-ounce bag of Birch Bark coffee, 50 cents to $1 is put toward the purchase of a certified water purification system for a home, giving a family access to clean drinking water. Through Birch Bark Coffee Co. and its social media, Marsolais-Nahwegahbow does his best to bring awareness to poor infrastructures in 635 communities across Canada. “We use our platform to educate people who want to learn,” he says.

Birch Bark Coffee Co. also supports Indigenous families in other parts of the world. Its growers are part of the SPP (Small Producers Certified), the first fair trade, farmer-owned certification system. “These farmers are part of a quest to provide better, more sustainable and ethical products while staying true to the word ‘organic,’” Marsolais-Nahwegahbow says – though he believes that word is overused. Most of Birch Bark’s premium coffee is grown and harvested in Latin America, specifically Honduras and Guatemala, and is blended with beans from parts of Africa. All of the beans are hand-picked, because the coffee mostly grows in mountainous areas that machines can’t reach.

“Business reconciliation plays a key role in change and is an integral part of Indigenous entrepreneurialism,” he says. “We just want an equal opportunity to show that we can play on the same field as some of the big companies.” Being recognized and heard is not just important in business, but in our life’s journey, he adds.

Marsolais-Nahwegahbow sees supporting social causes as a crucial component of the “Indigenous Inclusion Continuum” business model, which includes paying it forward and ensuring everyone succeeds. He’s noticed a positive shift occurring in the world as business models slowly evolve and people begin to move away from corporate thinking. “Our Elders have told us through prophecies that now is the time to speak up because our Elders are getting older and will not be around forever,” he says. “We must be voices for many. This is all important because, like walking in the snow and leaving footprints, there will be others that look to walk that same path in our next generations.”

When it is time for me to meet the Creator, I want to know I provided a good living for my family and did some good in my life – for my communities and for the world.

— Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow

He also believes in the importance of gratitude and uses his position to lift others up, “regardless of who they are or where they are at in their lives.” He advocates for self-care, too, because “if you’re not on your game, you are not at your best for your family and the community.”

Right now, Birch Bark Coffee Co. ships across Canada and internationally, and is sold in many retail locations throughout the country. In the future, Marsolais-Nahwegahbow hopes to have a manufacturing facility and distribution centre in his community to create employment opportunities that can extend to other nations.

His other biggest goal? To make Birch Bark Coffee Co. a household name. He wants to bring smiles to people’s faces as they sit around their table sharing cups of great coffee while talking about the legacy they want to be remembered for. More than anything, Marsolais-Nahwegahbow hopes to leave an amazing legacy. “When it is time for me to meet the Creator, I want to know I provided a good living for my family and did some good in my life – for my communities and for the world.”

Five places to grab a cup of Birch Bark in Ontario

BlackFly Grub Hub in Perth

Coffee and doughnuts are a match made in heaven. Pre-order a dozen homemade doughnut flavours, like maple bacon and lemonade stand, to avoid disappointment when you visit this sweet spot, which often sells out.

L’Autochtone Taverne Americaine in Haileybury

Celebrate English, French and First Nations culture with dishes like roasted squash risotto and herb-crusted salmon fillet at L’Autochtone. Finish with some coffee and a delicious seasonal trifle for dessert.

Salty Dog Bagels in Hamilton

Grab a cup of coffee and watch bakers prepare fresh, handmade bagels. Don’t forget to order a sandwich to go. (Options include porchetta and caprese.)

Loco Beanz Coffee House in Little Current

Enjoy a hot cup of coffee and take home your favourite Birch Bark beans from this café, which offers daily specials like bacon and cheddar egg bites.

PowWow Café in Toronto

This spot in Kensington Market is home to the much beloved “Indian taco” created by Anishinaabe chef, Shawn Adler. Stop by for lunch and refuel with a good brew.

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