Over the past 20 years, Nathalie Coutou has taken her Wakefield store Khewa Boutique on Chemin Riverside from a mostly empty boutique – just 13 paintings when she first opened – into a Wakefield institution celebrating Indigenous art, craftsmanship, and fashion, and a legacy her children can be proud of.
“That was my motivation,” explained Coutou, who said she was living on social assistance with her two children without a permanent roof over her head at the time.
Coutou, who had grown up on a farm and kennel housing over 800 sled dogs, said she combined her mothers Mi’kmaq ancestry and her Franco-European father’s “entrepreneurial spirit” to open Khewa on Sept. 9, 2001, to celebrate Indigenous art from across North America.
What began as a handful of Coutou’s own art pieces is now a collection of work from Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit artisans covering every inch of the space’s interior.
In 2018 Coutou also launched her own fair trade clothing line, “The Coutou Collection”.
As Coutou spoke to the Low Down before opening her store on Dec. 3, sitting on her father’s handmade rocking chair and surrounded by the culture of her mother’s Indigenous heritage, it can be easy to forget that there was a time – and still is in some places – where opening this kind of business was incredibly risky.
“When I first opened, people were against it … they thought it would be a tourist trap,” Coutou recalled. “They didn't want an ‘Indian store’ in the village.”
Coutou admits that there were nights when she thought about giving up, but persevered because she said it was too important to show her children the positives and the resilience of their culture.
While the boutique may have gotten off to a rocky start – the grand opening was also held two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks – Coutou has nothing but thanks for a community that has fully embraced Khewa since then.
“I really want to thank the community for supporting us through those years and welcoming us,” Coutou said, giving special thanks to the many volunteers who helped put on the boutique’s harvest festival for eight years.
“I think the key to our success is perseverance,” Coutou said about Khewa, though her comment could just as easily have been directed to the cultures adorning its walls. “If you have in you the ability to bring from intention to reality something that could inspire others, this is possible here.”
Khewa is open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. everyday and is located at 737 Riverside Dr. in Wakefield.