A café in Maskwacis, Alta. is not only serving up good food, it’s also giving a hand up to young adults in need.
Nipsis Café is located in the basement of the Samson Cree Nation Band Office. What was once a dated cafeteria was turned into a hip café, gift shop, art gallery and event venue.
A year and a half ago, a few dozen young adults, between 15 and 30 years old, were brought on board by the Change It Up employment program to give them trades experience in renovating the café.
When they were done their program and the cafe opened, staff helped them transition to jobs off reserve – mostly in Wetaskiwin, Alta.
Since then, Nipsis Café has been putting dozens of other young people through training to learn skills they need to be in the workforce.
“It’s more than just a café or a restaurant. What we are trying to do here is focus on the youth in the community and try and better their lives,” manager Kayla Minde explained.
The people that work at Nipsis Café come from various backgrounds – some dropped out of school, while others relied on social assistance. The manager says the goal is clear.
“Getting them workplace training so they can maintain a job off reserve. So we can lower the number of people on social assistance and increase the number of employed people on the reserve.”
Students are paid through government employment grants – they are currently making minimum wage.
Before getting accepted to train at Nipsis Café, Tia Omeasoo didn’t know what to do with her life.
“After I graduated high school, I did nothing for two years. It was my mom who made me join the program,” she laughed.
“I was really shy, I couldn’t talk to people,” Omeasoo said. But that changed when she became a waitress at Nipsis. “I realized that I like working with people. I like meeting new people.”
Now, she can’t get enough of her job.
“On weekends, I actually want to come to work. Just because I love coming to work. Like, I actually do. I think, when I stayed home, I was so used to doing nothing. I would clean up and stuff, but when I came here, it kept me busy and kept my mind occupied.”
It’s the same for Matthew Crane and his twin brother. They started out wanting to work in the trades, maybe in construction.
That’s since changed. After working in the kitchen at Nipsis, they’re hoping to go to culinary school.
“The environment and the people are good. We always have a good time here,” Crane said.
That’s exactly what Minde wants to hear.
“Seeing from the beginning of the program to the end, somebody who totally comes out of their shell and embraces who they are and starts to really feel good about themselves, makes me feel really good,” she said.
There’s also an art gallery at Nipsis, thanks to local artist DayOne, whose real name is Christopher Carlson.
When the café opened, DayOne said he’d reached a plateau, unsure of how to grow his business and sell more artwork.
“I wanted a platform here… there was nothing. There was nowhere to do a show, there was no one who would host a show, there was no gallery,” he recalled.
He brought in his own pieces, as well as art from other Maskwacis painters, and put it on display in the café.
“It took being it attached to the cafe for it to be successful because each business fed off each other. People would come in for art or they would come in to eat and then they would see art.”
Many of DayOne’s paintings have sold at Nipsis since then, helping him grow as an artist. He returned home to Maskwacis Friday to lead guests in a paint night.
Another unique aspect of the café is an aboriginal giftshop run by Doyle Buffalo.
She came to the café after four years of sitting at home, suffering from Lyme disease.
“I was doing nothing. I was basically just living my life aimlessly. Not knowing what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. I didn’t have a passion.”
Buffalo quickly moved through the ranks over the last year, from a line cook to an entrepreneur. Buffalo sells her Red Cloud Botanicals and Buffalo Nation Regalia and Designs, as well as products from other local artisans.
She calls her co-workers her second family, saying they gave her self-confidence.
“That’s one thing I’m thankful for. They gave me a title and a sense of pride in where I’m from because with all the negativity that’s going around here, I’m glad I found my purpose.”
Nipsis Café is located in the Samson Cree Nation Band Office in Maskwacis and is open Tuesdays through Fridays.