Nanaimo carver Tom Simpson

First Nations entrepreneurs think outside the box

Simpson started on the path to the unique business nearly a decade ago

When Tom Simpson called Campbell River aboriginal economic development consultant Tom Sewid, he was simply looking for some help promoting his budding business.

What he ended up with was an expanded product line.

Simpson is the owner of Cedar Journeys Caskets, which creates a range of burial caskets made from western red cedar. A member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, one of the many Coast Salish tribes of B.C., Simpson began adorning custom caskets with Coast Salish artwork.

Earlier this year, Simpson approached Sewid, a consultant who operates a website devoted to promoting aboriginal tourism and related cultural businesses. As the two discussed ways to promote Cedar Journeys Caskets through an online presence, Sewid volunteered to paint one of the caskets in a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw orca design.

“As one can see, it added a whole different First Nations tribal art dimension to our caskets,” said Simpson. “The different nations or regions of the Island and the coast have their own art forms, ceremonies and practices.”

He has also found a willing partner for his venture in Sandy Poelvoorde, owner of Boyd’s Funeral Services in Campbell River. An independent business, Poelvoorde has his “orca” casket on display in her shop — the only funeral home that currently does so.

“Sandy is willing to think outside the box,” Simpson said. “She’s unusual on the Island, because she sells out of her shop without marking my (caskets) up.

“She’s willing to work with my affordability model to make these available to First Nations families on the North Island.”

Simpson started on the path to the unique business nearly a decade ago, while making pre-funeral arrangements for his mother. In discussions with a local funeral director, he learned there were no suppliers of cedar caskets, which he wanted as a way to pay tribute to his mother’s culture and life story.

“It’s not strictly traditional; it’s a contemporary version,” said Simpson. “But I wanted to work with red cedar because of its historical importance to the peoples of the coast. There was no part of our lives that was not touched by cedar. We were swaddled in it when we came into this life, and we went out in it.”

A year later, he suffered a stroke and, during the next year of recuperation, recalled that discussion and decided to try filling the need.

“I started this as something therapeutic,” said Simpson. “I needed something to do while I was still in recovery, to keep my hands busy and give me focus.”

A former logger, Simpson taught himself to create and assemble his own caskets. Initially, the caskets were plain red cedar, but eventually Simpson began incorporating traditional art into the designs, including silkscreened linen panels bearing the First Nations sun or hummingbird designs and handles carved in the shape of canoe paddles.

When Simpson began, his caskets were made for friends, family and other Coastal First Nations customers. Now, word has spread up and down the coast, and he is turning out 30-36 caskets each year simply through word of mouth.

The expanded interest in the caskets beyond the Coast Salish nations has led to more collaborative efforts with other artists.

To keep up with the increased demand, Simpson took on apprentice Justice Moreno, a Vancouver Island University student of Nuu-Chah-Nuulth and Coast Salish descent. Sewid, whose ancestry is Kwakiutl on his father’s side and Cree on his mother’s, worked with both of them on the Kwakwaka’wakw casket.

“The got me involved doing the native painting and design outlines,” said Sewid. “But there were three different First Nations working on it.”

Simpson’s workshop contains both pre-painted caskets and unpainted models that can be finished by the artist of the customer’s choosing, with their own family crests or other personal images.

For more information on Cedar Journeys Caskets, call Simpson at 250-816-0464 or email simpsontg@gmail.com.