Shaelene Demeria has worn a lot of hats during the past eight years, among them mom, foster mom, program co-ordinator and employment counsellor. The 28-year-old Winnipegger can now add fairy godmother of date night to the list.
Demeria, who is Métis, and her fiancé Mike Ross, whose family is from Lake Manitoba First Nation, are the owners of Backyard Bookings, a spanking-new operation that rents out everything you need for a romantic getaway in the comfort of your own backyard: precisely, a posh, teepee-style tent attractively furnished with a double foam memory mattress, throw pillows, champagne bucket, floor mat… even your preferred munchies and board games.
Maryn Conrod, 22, discovered the venture on Instagram in late June, days before its official launch. She reached out to the couple within minutes, convinced Backyard Bookings would be the ideal way to toast her and her boyfriend’s 18-month anniversary, which fell in mid-July.
"The first thing that caught my eye was the setup, just how cool and classy it looked online," Conrod says when reached at home in St. Andrews. "Secondly, although I’m Métis, I grew up without learning too much about my culture, something I’ve been trying hard to rectify the last couple years. When I saw it was a teepee we’d be spending the night in, and read the reasons why they had chosen to go that route, I was like, ‘OK, this is something we need to do.’"
Conrod calls the experience "super amazing," start to finish. Demeria showed up at her place at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. She spent 90 minutes arranging everything, going so far as to string white lights around an oak tree, under which she placed a three-piece bistro set. During their initial conversation, Conrod mentioned wanting to learn more about her Métis roots. When Demeria returned the next day to pack up, she brought Conrod a bag of sage, and gave her a quick smudging lesson.
"I told her what a wonderful time we had, how I felt closer to the earth sleeping in the teepee and how she was the honest-to-goodness, fairy godmother of date night. She laughed, saying that had a nice ring to it."
Seated in Kildonan Park, blocks away from their West Kildonan abode, Demeria and Ross, together for four years, refer to their family as blended with a capital B. Each has a son from a previous relationship — hers is six, his is nine — plus they have a two-year-old son together and a 13-year-old foster daughter.
Demeria, a Sisler High School grad who took applied counselling at Red River College, has worked for various charitable organizations, including the Native Women’s Transition Centre and the Aboriginal Health & Wellness Centre. Most recently she was with Ka Ni Kanichihk, where she assisted young moms interested in furthering their education or entering/re-entering the workforce.
She was on maternity leave with her youngest in February 2020 when she and Ross agreed it would probably be best if she stayed home with him when her leave was up. Little did they know COVID-19 would strike a month later, and that their older children would soon be around morning, noon and night too, unable to attend school in person.
By December Demeria was feeling slightly overwhelmed, that her life was a never-ending cycle of cooking, cleaning and ensuring homework was getting done. She wasn’t keen to return to a 9-to-5 existence, necessarily, but thought if there was something she could do from home while Ross, a utility arborist, took a turn with the kids, it would give her life... "some passion," she says, pausing to choose her words carefully.
She loved to bake; perhaps she could sell cookies? Nah, that would just mean slaving over a hot stove more than she already was. She considered purchasing a Cricut, a computer-controlled cutting mechanism, and turning out personalized apparel. Forget it, more laundry.
It wasn’t until she began planning a birthday party for Ross, who turned 30 in June, that the seed for Backyard Bookings was planted.
She wanted the event to be outdoors — God knows they’d spent enough time together indoors, she says, playfully poking him in the ribs — and became excited when she read about a company that offered backyard glamping gear. Only problem: it was based in Calgary. That’s OK, she assured herself, there was probably something similar in Winnipeg. Learning that wasn’t the case, she broached the topic with Ross over dinner: what if the two of them started a glamping biz of their own? Except instead of conventional bell tents like the type the Alberta firm made available, they would incorporate their culture by renting teepees exclusively.
Demeria and Ross currently have a pair of 120-square-foot tents for rent, both of which come with a host of accessories and adornments. Their goal is to have seven tents all told, one for each of the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers, a set of traditional Anishinaabe lessons on human conduct.
"Our first is called the Eagle Tent, eagle being the teaching of love, and the one we’re about to introduce is the Wolf Tent, for the teaching of humility," says Ross, a regular participant in sun dances and pow wows while growing up. (The other five teachings are: truth, taught by the turtle; courage, the bear; respect, the bison; wisdom, the beaver; and honesty, the sabe or sasquatch.)
In the short space of four weeks their tents have been booked for birthdays, engagements and even a movie night where the parents erected a makeshift screen for their kids to view from the confines of the tent, which transforms into a bug-proof, mesh unit when a protective rain cover is removed. They’ve been contacted by interested parties as far west as Brandon and as far east as Lake of the Woods, and don’t see why they can’t keep things going "until the snow flies." If that means supplying a few extra blankets, so be it. (After picking up their tent and accessories, Demeria and Ross spend hours washing all the linen and steam-cleaning the mattress and pillows.)
Also, while their company name implies the tents are strictly for at-home use, some mention how great it would be to rent a campsite at, say, Birds Hill Provincial Park, and have one of the couple’s dwellings, along with all the trappings, waiting for them, when they pull up.
"They comment how much simpler it would be to have things set up ahead of time, versus them getting off work at five, racing home to pack then trying to get the tent up and supper going before it gets too dark," Demeria says, mentioning 20 per cent of their July earnings — the present rate is $199 per night — was donated to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
They’ve only been at it a month, but Demeria is already convinced their decision to become entrepreneurs was spot-on. A few weeks ago she spent an afternoon chatting with Ross’s grandmother, peppering the older woman with questions about what it was like growing up on a reserve, the significance of sweetgrass, how to braid it; their conversation went on and on.
"It felt so great listening to all her stories that it got me thinking about how else we could grow the business, how we could perhaps use it to pass knowledge on to others," she says. With that in mind, she and Ross are hosting a free-of-charge community event Aug. 8 at a pre-determined location, during which they’ll demonstrate how to pick sage and how to smudge, along with other activities. Elders and knowledge-keepers will be on hand to provide teachings and answer any questions attendees — Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — might have. To register, go to instagram.com/backyardbookings.
One more thing: because Ross works days and isn’t always around to help with the setup, their 13-year-old foster daughter has been pumped to pitch in as needed.
"Through this we’ve become an even stronger mother-daughter duo; having her has completely changed my life and views on Indigenous youth in care," Demeria says. "We won’t be renting tents during the winter, obviously, but I’m hoping to use our down time to work with other Indigenous businesses and artists to give Indigenous kids all the support they need."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.