Customers of Courage Cookies enter and leave the pop-up shop in Toronto on Saturday, October 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Customers of Courage Cookies enter and leave the pop-up shop in Toronto on Saturday, October 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

As the COVID-19 crisis cuts jobs, Canadians cash in on hobbies with ‘side hustles’

Side hustles such as mask-sewing and cooking capitalize on what is often treated as women’s unpaid labour

For Chelsea Hearty and Ian Moores, the recipe for success began with a midnight snack.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Hearty and Moores, who had worked in food and hospitality, were among the hundreds of thousands of workers who found themselves out of a job and with little to do during lockdown.

Moores decided to fill some time — and a late-night sugar craving — by baking. He got off the couch and put on an apron with a mission to make “the best cookie anyone’s ever had.”

After about an hour of tinkering with a family recipe, Moores had baked up what Hearty described as a “perfect little angel pillow” of a treat.

A few bites in, Hearty and Moores knew they had a buttery hit on their hands.

“We’ve always wanted to work for ourselves,” said Moores. “This was our opportunity to do that.”

As the pandemic prompts employers to slash jobs, a number of crafty Canadians are turning their hobbies into “side hustles,” supplemental sources of income that often double as a creative outlet.

From thrifting to mask-sewing to jewelry-making, almost any artisanal enterprise can find a customer base online.

Etsy Canada, an online marketplace that’s popular for side businesses, says new shop openings increased by more than 250 per cent during its most recent quarter, compared to the same period last year.

Some critics see side hustles as a symptom of a precarious labour market that leaves workers with no choice but to enter the gig economy.

But business owners like Hearty and Moores, whose snack led them to found Courage Cookies, credit the pandemic with giving them the push to abandon the daily grind for a shot at self-made success.

The “angel pillow” was the first flavour in their Courage Cookies repertoire. The operation has since expanded from the best-friends-turned-business-partners’ kitchen into an online delivery business operating out of a commercial space, and a semi-permanent pop-up store at Toronto’s Stack’d market.

The pandemic brought Jamie Rajf’s career in the music industry to an abrupt halt. But it also pushed her to follow a childhood passion for hunting down “treasures” in unlikely places by opening up an online vintage shop.

In between job applications, the 29-year-old spent months scouring garage sales and hole-in-the-wall stores for mid-century housewares, carefully curating each decades-old find to appeal to Instagram buyers.

Since launching Good Day Vintage, an Instagram business operated out of her Toronto home, in August, Rajf said she’s sold most of her inventory, turning a profit of a few thousand dollars.

“I have really learned from this that it’s important to have something that you work on that you have total control over,” said Rajf, who found full-time employment over the summer. “I can get out of it what I put into it, as opposed to working for someone else.”

Jeff Donaldson, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, said today’s workers need multiple streams of income as a form of “insurance” against industrial disruption.

“Side hustles are not meant to replace your main source of income,” said Donaldson, who specializes in emergency preparedness. “They’re meant to provide insulation.”

Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Management and Innovation, noted that while some side hustles are passion projects, others are “survival jobs.”

“These are often short-term solutions, particularly for those … who haven’t necessarily chosen to work in the gig economy,” said Brail. “In a way, it’s chosen them, because it’s the last possible option.”

She pointed to women in the workforce who have shouldered the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic, particularly mothers who have been tasked with taking on extra caregiving duties.

Statistics Canada reported last month that employment among mothers with school-aged children had nearly returned to pre-shutdown levels. But the agency said the number of mothers working less than half their usual hours in September was still 70 per cent higher than before the pandemic in February.

Brail noted that many popular side hustles, such as mask-sewing and cooking, capitalize on what is traditionally treated as women’s unpaid domestic labour.

As Azure Johnson stitches together a sewing business from scratch, the mother of four has been thinking about what she’s lost and what she’s gained since March.

Johnson, who is Plains Cree from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., said her identity was wrapped up in her work helping vulnerable people build life skills at an Edmonton non-profit.

But when the shutdown left her without childcare, Johnson made the difficult call to take a leave of absence so she could look after her boys.

“I didn’t know how my bills were going to get paid, or the next time I could go get groceries,” she said. “All I knew is that we were home, and we needed to be safe, and we needed to have a backup plan.”

Then, Johnson ran into a problem that would lead her toward a financial solution.

Her right ear isn’t fully developed as a result of a congenital condition, so she can’t wear traditional masks. Instead, Johnson pulled out her sewing machine to create masks that tie at the back of the neck.

At first, she sold the masks to family and friends, then word got around she was making face coverings for people who needed different styles and sizes.

RAED MORE: Canadian companies uncover market for mask accessories amid COVID-19

Customers started placing so many bulk orders that her sewing machine couldn’t keep up, Johnson said, so she found a distributor. By late October, she estimates she’d sold a total of about 8,000 masks.

But Johnson didn’t stop there. She’d always had a flair for putting an “Indigenous twist” on familiar items. And her sons, who had dutifully helped her sew, trim and sweep, had some ideas of their own.

Azure and Co. has grown into a family business offering products ranging from teddy bears clad in traditional prints to T-shirts encouraging Indigenous men to take pride in their braids.

When she left her job, Johnson felt like she lost her “position in the community.” But she’s since found other ways to give back, including volunteering and making specialized masks for First Nations schools.

It’s not the same as what she had, but it is her own, and Johnson is looking forward to seeing where Azure and Co. can take her.

“I’ve come to a point where I think it just may be a choice for me to actually not return to work nine-to-five,” she said. “I’ll just do my own thing and help in my own lane.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after cancellations on Friday due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

(Black Press Media file photo)
Saanich police seek suspect after woman nearly robbed while getting out of vehicle

Incident occurred before 7 a.m. Feb. 17 in parking lot off Cordova Bay Road

Saskatoon resident liajah Pidskalny poses with his bike near the University of Victoria after putting on thousands of kilometres to raise awareness of the overdose and mental health crisis. (Courtesy Iliajah Pidskalny)
Saskatoon cyclist winds up mental health and overdose awareness ride in Victoria

Iliajah Pidskalny braves prairie winter conditions to get word out to communities

Gabriel Swift, 23, is one of three Victoria filmmakers chosen to receive $20,000 Telus Storyhive grants to produce Local Heroes documentaries. (Courtesy of Gabriel Swift)
Three Victoria filmmakers producing ‘local heroes’ documentaries with $20,000 grants

Telus Storyhive providing $20,000 to 40 Western Canada productions

Goldstream Food Bank president Gayle Ireland is the Goldstream Gazette’s 2021 Local Hero as Community Volunteer of the Year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Two-week stint at Goldstream Food Bank turns into 35 years of volunteer service

Goldstream Food Bank’s Gayle Ireland is the 2021 Community Volunteer of the Year

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Most Read