The Writers’ Block, Chapter 2: Carrie Armstrong

We could all use a little more Mother Earth in our lives—and Métis entrepreneur, teacher and author Carrie Armstrong wants to help. 

Her first book, Mother Earth: Plants for Health & Beauty, offers recipes and tips to make teas, balms, and lotions based on Indigenous knowledge of herbs and plants found in Alberta and western Canada. Plants such as sweetgrass, sage and willow bark.

The 144-page guide is the latest in Armstrong’s growing list of successes. As the founder of Mother Earth Essentials, she also sells her own line of herbal teas, candles and bath and beauty products at her store, located at 12316 111th Avenue, and online. Sales have doubled during the pandemic and soon, Rexall will start selling Mother Earth Essentials in some of its pharmacies.

“It always struck me that there were shampoos, lotions and soaps with Japanese plant knowledge, Hawaiian plant knowledge, you name it,” says Armstrong. “But where’s ours? That became my mission when I started the business. We need to have our plant knowledge out there, front and centre, to showcase the beauty of our Indigenous Canadian people.”

Carrie Armstrong inside her Mother Earth Essentials store.

Vibrant, abundant and giving  

Armstrong launched Mother Earth Essentials in 2006, inspired by her Cree grandmother Mary Belcourt as well as students at Edmonton’s amiskwaciy Academy, Canada’s first Indigenous public high school. Armstrong is an instructor at the Academy, teaching about health, cosmetology and Indigenous plants. 

“Working there is a gift and a huge part of my journey,” she says. Naturally, Edmonton also plays a big role. She moved here from Hinton in 1982, worked in the spa/cosmetics industry, studied at the University of Alberta, married and raised three children, and eventually started Mother Earth. 

“Edmonton is vibrant, abundant and giving,” says Armstrong. 

“I love the vibe here, I love the people, I love that we have an interest, spark and reverence for Indigenous culture and I’ve seen that grow since 2006. People are super supportive of buying local and now buying Indigenous. They’re just really open here. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible to grow my business without being in a major centre.”

Grandmother’s remedies 

You could say Armstrong was always destined to start Mother Earth Essentials. As a child, she used to collect soap. She concocted her own skincare lotions and sold them in old Noxzema jars. She also made scrapbooks featuring a mix of magazine articles and herbal remedies based on her grandmother’s teachings. 

“She always had remedies as far back as I can remember as a child,” says Armstrong. “She had teas, potions, and little brown paper bags on her shelves filled with plants. She always had something brewing. When we were camping, she’d show us which berries and plants to pick.”

Mary Belcourt, Carrie Armstrong’s grandmother.

A healing journey

Mother Earth: Plants for Health & Beauty includes dozens of recipes, as well as information about herbs, shrubs and trees, including the four sacred plants of the Medicine Wheelsage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco. 

The book also explores Armstrong’s life and family history. In her 30s, she learned her mother and two aunts had been taken from their parents and forced to go to residential school. 

“That was eye-opening–it explained so many things in my life,” she says. “The dysfunction, the addictions, the way we grew up, it just made no sense. 

“Part of my healing was actually writing this book. I went to a therapist and she said: ‘You don’t need therapy. Just go outside and put your hands on that willow tree.’ To me, the plants are my teachers and my healers. I’m not a Medicine Woman, but I strive for that. Every plant is a being and has a spirit. Every plant has a purpose.”

Carrie Armstrong’s mom as a child.

Mentorships and collaborations

Armstrong wants to share her knowledge as much as possible. At amiskwaciy Academy, she helps her students start their own businesses—from making health and beauty products to selling Indigenous-patterned basketballs. 

She also mentors young Indigenous startups and collaborates with companies such as Indigenous Box, which features products by Indigenous entrepreneurs; and Kanatan Health Solutions, which uses Mother Earth’s essential oils in their hand sanitizers. “We’re infants,” says Armstrong. “There are very few of us doing this and I think there needs to be more of us.” 

Sharing Indigenous knowledge 

Her next goal? To launch an Indigenous urban classroom, where she can host tea and cultural workshops with the help of Elders, storytellers and Knowledge Keepers. Armstrong says there’s a growing demand for these workshops as more Canadians want to learn about Indigenous culture and take steps toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. 

“In my store, I’ll get school principals coming in and saying: ‘I need help. I have an Elder coming in, what do I do? What do I say? What do I give them?’” says Armstrong. “So we’ve sort of become known as the educators and it’s become part of the business. I want to find a space that has a beautiful classroom—we can have schools come to it and have a separate space for packing and retail for Mother Earth.” 

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows copies of Carrie Armstrong’s book, Mother Earth: Plants for Health & Beauty, in her store, Mother Earth Essentials on December 2, 2021.