Stacey L’Écuyer and Philippe Choinière founded Oneka personal care products over a decade ago. Patience and learning remain at the heart of their journey.
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On my way to Frelighsburg, I opt for winding country roads that ferry me from one orchard to another. The fruit will soon be ready. Summer is drawing to a close, and gardens are overflowing. I’m reflecting on the plants we sow and tend versus those that freely grow. I’m thinking about their places in our subconscious hierarchy, and of the ongoing life cycles of nettle, dandelion, and burdock—precious but underrated flora.
I’m about to discuss plants and flowers with Stacey L’Écuyer and Philippe Choinière, founders and owners of Oneka personal care products. Their office is located in an old house flooded with light, nestled in the heart of the village of Frelighsburg. The space is also home to plant processing facilities (which will soon be moved to a farm a few kilometres away) and the apartment where the couple and their two children live. The floors creak; the air is redolent with cedar and sage.
The tone is set from the beginning of the interview: Philippe, chatty and exuberant, spontaneously proffers images illustrating his view of things; Stacey gives herself time to reflect before replying, with soft gestures and a perceptive gaze.
Whenever either of them speak, the other hangs on their words. They make all of their decisions together: the next steps for the company, when to harvest plants, which herbs to add to the shampoos and soaps they sell all across North America.
Long before they founded Oneka, Philippe and Stacey harboured a desire to improve the environment and human health. Thanks to a chance meeting with a chemist in Western Canada, their project found its form, and Oneka was born in 2008. A few years later, the couple purchased the farm where many of the perennial and native plants used in their products are now grown.
Though they’re guided by the principles that led them to create their company, Stacey and Philippe don’t pretend to have the answers to every problem. They’re simply a team that’s mindful of the paradoxes behind the natural products industry.
Plastic consumption—among other things—is something they’re constantly researching and questioning. Though some retailers allow customers to refill their bottles, the problem is far from solved. The pair tries to avoid performative activism, and the company’s social media presence is understated. Yet the list of causes they support, from tree-planting organizations to groups fighting for access to clean drinking water for Indigenous people, is long.
Throughout our interview the couple’s two girls, Camille and Rafaëlle, scurry into the room. Our conversation continues, punctuated by wiping a little nose and brushing back a lock of hair. The couple’s thoughtfulness and goodwill extends far beyond their children: every one of the company’s 15 employees, whether they work on the farm or in the office, is seen, heard, and considered. Stacey and Philippe are emphatic on this point: the company would not exist without the network of people who believe in what they do.
Philippe grew up in Frelighsburg with its village school, country lanes, and lush orchards. After a career in professional hockey, he sought the countryside, not to escape the city, but to come home. The family orchard where he grew up taught him, from a young age, about ethical work, resilience, and patience. It also taught him that running a traditional business depends on many external factors—including a market that values only economic growth, favouring the use of synthetic chemicals.
Wanting to do things differently, Philippe and Stacey embarked on a long journey with no clear destination in sight. “Our education took a different path. Instead of learning through an MBA, we learned from our mistakes!”
The past few years have been marked by pitfalls in between victories big and small. “If there’s no challenges, it’s too easy,” reckons Stacey. “It’s a way of learning, as if life is checking in and asking us, ‘Hey, are you still there?’”
Stacey spent her childhood in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and her summers with family near Nestor Falls, Lake of the Woods. She explains that “to the south, we had to cross the lake to reach the nearest community; by land, that meant several hours of driving. We lived in a bit of a bubble, surrounded by nature.” The scents, colours, textures, and sounds of those places no doubt shaped the woman standing in front of me.
The Oneka farm unfurls across a windswept valley. Rather than the soybean crops so common in the Québec countryside, their farm hosts rows of gently swaying calendula, sage, echinacea, sweet- brier roses, oats, lemon balm, and wild bergamot.
Next to their farmland lies the family orchard, which will soon be fully owned by Philippe’s younger brother Gabriel, who runs Choinière ciders. The siblings share a storehouse, one part of which is dedicated to cider production and the other to drying and processing plants. They’re currently working on salvaging downgraded apples to transform into cider vinegar, a sought- after holistic care product. Fourteen years after its founding, the natural product company has converged with the family orchard. Philippe reflects on everything coming full circle, but it seems likely that the brothers were always journeying in the same direction—they simply took different paths along the way.
No one would have the energy for this kind of project without taking care of themselves too—you’ve surely heard this dictum before. The same principle is embedded in Oneka’s perspective on agriculture: to work with the soil rather than exploiting it.
Philippe and Stacey follow permaculture principles, but their project extends far beyond sticking a label on their product. Of the 170 acres of land they tend, most is intentionally set aside as uncultivated plots where nature can run its course, so they can study the flora and fauna and establish their crop areas with care. It’s not a matter of siphoning off the land: the couple is working with the natural cycles of the soil and plants. Some people would be surprised to see carefully sown dandelions next to calendula blossoms, but on their farm, all plants are noble, and every one of them has its role in the ecosystem.
When asked about how their project has changed her over the years, Stacey pauses to think. “You can’t force anything: that just leads to wasting energy and resources. I’ve learned to honour local, indigenous plants, to listen to and observe nature.” It’s a matter of experiencing time, rather than it being inflicted on you; of staying true to the original journey, as the project grows and develops. ■
Juliette Leblanc left Montréal to settle in the countryside, where she spends most of her time conversing with her dog, chickens, and plants. In addition to her writing and research work, she is an early childhood educator, which lets her cultivate her capacity for wonder on a daily basis.
Founded in 2008 in Frelighsburg, Québec, Oneka is an all-natural personal care products company. A Certified B Corporation, Oneka strives to pursue sustainable business practices and have a positive impact on society and the environment. The company endeavours to reduce the need for single-use containers by promoting refilling services. As of January 1, 2021, Oneka has committed to removing three plastic bottles from the ocean for every product sold, notably from the coastal areas of Haiti and Indonesia, through their partnership with Plastic Bank. The company also works with tree-planting organizations Taking Root and Arbre-Évolution to offset more than 100 per cent of its CO2 emissions.
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