Growing up in southwestern Ontario, far from her Anishinaabe people, Chelsee-Marie Pettit has never seen indigenous syllabics outside of museums and history books.
But walking around Toronto one day, he saw on someone’s shirt what he thought was a writing system designed to transcribe many indigenous languages across Canada.
“I was so excited,” she says of the brief encounter on a downtown street. But, as the person got closer, “and I passed by, I realized it was just a triangle.”
However, that experience proved profound for Pettit as it inspired her to create aaniin, a streetwear brand with syllabics, in 2021, and eventually to launch a fashion boutique selling merchandise from over 20 other Indigenous clothing lines.
Not only is Pettit using entrepreneurship to reclaim his language, he’s also making space for other Indigenous designers.
“I feel a lot more obligation to guarantee what fashion is,” she says of her commitment. “And for me fashion is sustainability, handmade, very creative and stirs emotions”.
Located in Toronto’s Stackt Market, aaniin sells brands like Kookum Scrunchies, Future Kookum, Good Intentions Creative, and Big Nish Brand.
There are racks of jewelry created by Running Fox Beads and floral jackets by Lesley Hampton alongside stacks of Pettit T-shirts, sweaters and aaniin hats with syllables written on them. Most recently, aaniin acquired Good Intentions Creative’s ‘Trust Creator’ streetwear which features unique and indigenous graphic designs.
“Our growth has been rapid, and so have my goals and vision for this company,” Pettit wrote on the aaniin website.
While starting a business hasn’t been easy, Pettit explains that she draws inspiration from her Anishinaabe language and heritage to overcome the challenges she faced growing up, such as growing up away from her community and facing racism as she began to reconnect with the culture of his people.
She documented her journey and built a following on Indigenous fashion and entrepreneurship on aaniin’s TikTok and Instagram pages. From the beginning, she says, her goal has been to make connections with Indigenous communities and fill a void that she and too many other urban Indigenous peoples have faced for too long.
“If you have a favorite coffee shop or if you have a favorite clothing store,” says Pettit, “it seems like you don’t really have those things as an Indigenous people.”
A member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation — a community where her father, a Walpole Island First Nation native, was adopted — Pettit grew up in Sarnia, a town she describes as “undiverse.”
“Growing up, I was always trying to fit in as a white kid, you know?”
Pettit explains that “you always get those typical comments and things, (people asking) where are you from.” She says comments like that annoyed her.
After moving to Toronto, she says she was amazed by the city’s diversity, calling it a “breath of fresh air.” But she, she says, Indigenous entrepreneurs still have a lot of work to do in creating Indigenous spaces.
Pettit aims to have a “fully functioning corporate company within the next five to six years” by expanding across Canada. He plans to achieve this by “acquiring retail space” and creating a thriving online store. But he doesn’t just think about money.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to create a corporation, and I’m also trying to show society that you can indigenize the corporate world.”
Citing the need to be wary of Indigenous representation in the fashion industry, Pettit turned down a pop-up opportunity with a US-based sportswear mega-retailer on National Indigenous Peoples Day, saying “to me, didn’t really feel like they were a good fit.
“Of all the ways they could have helped me,” she says, “I feel like it wasn’t the way I was supposed to be taken into space. I feel like my values didn’t align with what they were trying to accomplish.
By creating an internship program through her aaniin platform, Pettit wants to mentor Indigenous entrepreneurs, designers and stylists and help them overcome industry barriers. One obstacle in particular is the lack of indigenous leaders in the corporate world.
He points to a 2021 report by Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP that found that of the Toronto Stock Exchange’s (TSX) 2,200 corporate board members, only eight were indigenous.
“If you compare that to Indigenous people in federal prisons,” he says, “32 percent of the inmates are Indigenous.”
Pettit says “stunning stats” like this serve to motivate her.
In January, Pettit plans to move to a new location, though he hasn’t said where yet.
“We believe in education and showing the world that Indigenous culture is alive, woven into Canadian society and should never be confined to history books.”
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