Q&A: The Yukon Soaps Company

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Knowing that a single seed can flourish into a magnificent garden, maker Joella Hogan creates soaps and wellness products using local plants from the boreal forest to support her Mayo community. As the brains behind The Yukon Soaps Company, Hogan draws on her professional background as a heritage worker while remaining dedicated to honoring the land, knowledge, and culture of her Northern Tetchone First Nation ancestors. Living on her grandmother’s traditional territory for the past 20 years, Hogan strives to empower Indigenous people to engage with their land and seeks to create space for invaluable teachings to be shared between elders and the next generation. Operating with boundless generosity and optimism towards transformative goals, Hogan shares what inspires her, how she came to build a game-changing community hub, and what she’s working on next.

 

Have you always been a maker?
My professional background is in community development and environmental science. I worked for a long time for my First Nation doing heritage and cultural revitalization. Everything is related to Indigenous wellness, heritage culture, connecting people to the land. It’s all very community-focused, which connects back to my soap-making business because that's really what it's about — it’s not just about the soap.

 

How did you become the owner of The Yukon Soaps Company?
I bought the business just over 10 years ago. It was a well-known Yukon household staple, owned by two other women. I had been looking for a side hustle and had tried a few things because I'm crafty. It seemed like a cool opportunity — I had used the product and I was always interested in natural skincare, essential oils and all the plants. I bought the business, and started doing it slowly because I was burned out from my full-time job. Eventually I quit working full-time, stepping away for my mental health and to have more flexibility. That’s when I started to grow the soap business and own it. I wanted to make it a lot more Yukon-focused, and share products made through my eyes. I had no idea how much it would grow. About five years ago it really started to take off. Since then, we’ve gotten media attention from The Globe and Mail and FASHION and en route magazines — all of those things still continue to blow my mind. It all leads to brand awareness and sales, and more pride in my community. I hear so often ‘you've really put our community on the map’ and ‘we're known now for more than just trauma and suicide,’ which is a punch in the gut in a good way, right? 

It's been important to honor the teachings from my other work with heritage. So much of what I was learning by spending time with elders and knowledge keepers was that if we are not practicing our culture, and living our culture, then it's going to die.  

Behind the scenes, with how my ingredients are harvested, and how I create my team, I really try to lead with our Indigenous values and cultures, and then share what's appropriate with the consumer. Canadians and people globally are starving to know more about Canada's northern and Indigenous people. My work has become so much more of a storytelling business. On my Instagram and TikTok, telling the stories of this land and of our community is what engages people to keep buying, or to keep learning and support other artists. Amplifying the voices of other Indigenous artists is really where I see much of my role and my business going.

 

How does the Yukon inspire you?
When you are born and raised up here, you often don't know how different it is from the rest of the world. I finished high school in BC and then lived in a bunch of different places for university and I traveled around the world quite a bit. But I always knew I would come back here. In that time away, I really noticed how much my family spent on the land, not necessarily camping for fun or out hiking, but living and surviving. We grew up on moose meat, our family was always out hunting and picking berries. And all of those things were for survival, but I also realized how important it was, especially to my parents, to have that time. It wasn't a vacation to Mexico, Europe or Hawaii. They use their time off from work to do harvesting, to be able to provide, but I think also to recharge on the land. My dad was happiest when he was on the boat going down the river. My connection to the land, the rivers, the fish and the moose was about survival and learning, as well as that deep appreciation. 

I am still inspired all the time when I am out picking berries with my family or helping to cut fish or moose meat. It’s taking that time to step back from crazy everyday life and do something that will feed my body and my spirit while building relationships because we do it as a community, as family or groups of friends. It lets my brain rest and be creative in a different kind of way. That's how it feels. Self-care for myself as a maker is so important in creating that space in my head and heart.

 

How do you source the local ingredients that you work with?
For the plants, we have help from wild harvesters including friends and family, which is amazing. I can't get out near as much as I would like to be able to pick everything. People will drop off tons of Labrador tea and juniper berries, I'm so lucky. I'm working on developing community harvesters, because I would love to be able to employ people in my community through harvesting. I’m trying to figure out how to do it in a way that will go with our values and ethics, and to really acknowledge that time and effort. That time is valuable. There’s also knowledge and thinking that goes along with the process. For example, if you're picking dandelion you must put it in olive oil, shake it regularly, and get it to me as soon as you can. There’s also the ritual of prayer, in whatever way is appropriate for you, beforehand because we give thanks to the plants. It's not just ‘go pick flowers’, there's this whole knowledge and way of thinking that goes with that too. As the business grows, there's more and more demand for the plants, so I’m using that as an educational opportunity.

 

How has increased success impacted your sourcing strategy?
In my latest blends, I chose to use plants that are abundant, resilient, and have longer growing seasons. They’re also maybe lesser known because I want to honour all of the plants that are in the forest. Everything has a purpose. It doesn't all need to be Yukon Wild Rose, which is one of my top selling soaps but it's so hard to rely on because the petals are only on the branches for about two weeks. And if it rains, or there's fires, we're out of luck. From a business perspective, I need to think about opportunities with other plants that still offer benefits to the ecosystem, but also to skincare. I’m trying to incorporate that, but also share that part of it, too. It is not necessarily about the prettiest things out there.

 

What have you been making lately that excites you the most? 
The Grandmother line has four soaps, with matching essential oil blends. Each one is named after the word for grandma in a different Yukon Indigenous language. Ihtsu, which means grandmother in Northern Tutchone, is crafted with fireweed leaves and Labrador tea. Packaged in a beautiful granny hankie printed box, they’re intended to revive the sacredness of cleansing and bathing. These soaps are crafted with plants our grandmothers once harvested following cultural teachings. Through them, we honor the knowledge, joy and humor brought by grandmothers. And wherever our grandmothers walk, there is brightness. At $20 a bar, they’re a more high-end offering and they’re selling very well. I strongly believe that Yukoners deserve access to good, safe and natural products, too. And I don't want to make a product that is completely inaccessible to Northerners. On the other hand, I know that I need to respond to the market demand of elevating Indigenous products and makers. I'm hoping to expand the line next summer with another four blends.

 

What’s been your biggest accomplishment in community-building?
This spring, I built and opened a new facility in our community so that I could get it out of my house, finally. And there are also three apartments in there. The goal was to create a hub in our community — I really saw a gap for a positive space. Nobody was investing in our community at all privately, other than government. I saw an opportunity to get my business out of my house, create a new building, and create housing which is critical across Canada, but especially in the North and in Indigenous communities. Now we've turned it into this language, culture, connecting hub, with people coming through all the time and kids hanging out after school. It's like the ‘in’ thing at the elementary school to work for The Yukon Soaps Company. That is what feeds my spirit. 

I also have to balance all of that with trying to make money. It is so incredibly difficult to have a manufacturing production business in the North, especially right now with rising prices, and shipping being terrible. I swear, one day a week, I'm ready to throw in the towel and do something else, because it's a huge, huge barrier. But, on the other hand, people keep wanting to shop.

 

How do you envision the future of your maker journey?
As an Indigenous women-owned business I want to occupy the supply chain. I have no desire to really stay small, unless, like, that's what my business needs. But I don't need to have a ‘small batch’ business, because I actually still think it is small batch. If my business can grow and still be successful, and Indigenous-owned, it doesn't need to be limited in any way. Most recently, I’ve been exploring opportunities to export to the US.  

When I think about my vision and my purpose, it is always about trying to create a better future for future generations, while honoring the elders and people who have worked so hard to create what we have here. When I am out of the Yukon, it's about connecting people, and it's about connecting with people. It's about raising awareness about what it's like to be in the community, because there is either a lack of information or misinformation and it's exhausting to always be asked ‘do you live in an igloo?’ I’m trying to shift the conversation to what it's really like, to break the myths and stereotypes, but not gloss over it all. 

On the community building front, last year I received a big innovation prize through Grant Challenges Canada. My project is creating a land-based wellness development program, mentorship for people from my nation and other nations in central Yukon. My soap business has changed my life and that I have a responsibility to pass on that knowledge and skills. I get so many questions, like ‘I want to make lip balm. How do I do it?’ Or ‘I'm making slippers, how do I price them?’ People are hungry for this knowledge. I strongly believe that when you're connected to land and culture, it can change your life. I’ve built a team and we're working to develop a curriculum that has videos and podcasts of our elders speaking and sharing the teachings. And it’s designed to be accessible, whether people want to make something to sell, or whether they want it to be a part of our cultural economy, which includes re-gifting, potlatches and cultural galleries.

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