Life has come full circle for Diane McMillan. For the social worker turned confectioner, candy making is bred in the bone. "I come from generations of women who were outstanding bakers and candy makers. I baked and made candy as a child with both my mother and my grandmother, who sold her candy to Eaton's and The Hudson's Bay Co. in the 1920's and 30's."
Equally natural for McMillan is her desire to help others. "Growing up, I faced a lot of adversity--including dropping out of high school--and so I became quite independent. But along the way, I found a couple of mentors, and very early on, I recognised that one good person crossing your path can make all the difference."
It was having that experience--in particular being taken under Winnipeg's influential social activist Anne Ross' wing--that led her back to school and ultimately to social work. Diane spent the next 20 years making her own mark on downtown Winnipeg, counselling women in conflict with the law through The Elizabeth Fry Society, working in child welfare and drug and alcohol counselling for families and youth, and finally as Executive Director of the Fetal Alcohol Family Association of Manitoba.
As gritty as one might imagine that work to be, McMillan loved her job, and starting a candy business wasn't even on the horizon. But that began to change in 1987. "Sweet Truth Candy Co. had its beginnings with the birth of my son, Lee. He had so many allergies, some of them life-threatening. It was when he was 5 or 6, when I was searching for a treat he could actually eat, that I came back to making my grandmother Damey's recipe from the 1890's."
By now, McMillan was a single mom, working nine to five, and cooking up small batches of candy at night for Lee to take to school, and for her to share with co-workers. Everybody loved it, and one day, Diane thought, "Oh my God, this candy could make me rich!"
At 45, with the encouragement of her second husband, Robert, she finally decided to give up her day job, and make the switch from full time social worker to full time candy maker. And she's loving it. The road hasn't been an easy one, but McMillan's a tough cookie, and no stranger to hard work. "I was one of those sandwich people, with both a young child and ailing parent to look after. For a full year I'd get up at 4:30 in the morning, make the two hour drive to a government run incubator kitchen, cook until 7:30 in the evening, then drive straight to the hospital to visit my mom who had suffered a serious stroke. By 11 I would collapse into bed and be up at 4:30 to do it all over again."
Fuelled by determination and sugar, McMillan went from making a few batches of toffee for her allergic son, to churning out 7 tons of the sweet stuff in 2008--still by hand, still one batch at a time. And though she's often approached by the big boys to sell-up or join forces, she stays true to her vision. "I don't want to be that big, and I don't want to compromise. This way, I'm still making it, I'm still in the kitchen, and it's very lucrative."
Now at 54, she really enjoys the lifestyle that owning her own business allows, but says, "I really miss that intimate connection with people." And that's why McMillan has always added a few words of wisdom on a card found at the bottom of every tin. "I can reach so many more people with the candy, offer some inspiration, and that's the essence of who I am." But with tongue in cheek she adds, "It's nice to be able to make life a little sweeter for people without having to hear about all the years of abuse they suffered."
And as for the name, Sweet Truth? "I wanted to choose a name that would be really meaningful and I think that's what we are all seeking all the time; the truth, our truth. Ultimately, everything else falls away."
-- Signe Langford
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