Aaniin is how to casually greet someone or say hello in Ojibwe and as of June 10 is officially the name of Tkaronto’s (Toronto) first Indigenous department store.
The store’s founder Chelsee Pettit wants people to view Indigenous products, art, fashion and design as more than simply souvenirs at a gift shop or gas station on your way through an Indigenous territory and is doing so through aaniin. aaniin is in Toronto’s Stackt Market — an artsy, industrial-chic complex with trendy shops and eclectic eats and drinks.
TRT caught up with Chelsee the day before aaniin’s grand opening last weekend to chat about her goals, ideas, and plans to have Indigenous-owned businesses and products hit mainstream shopping in a modern light.
Check out www.aaniin.shop to view products available online and @aaniin.hello on Instagram.
TRT: Why did you pick aaniin as the name of your department store?
Chelsee: People know how to say hello in so many different languages but a lot of people don’t know how to say hello in traditional Indigenous languages. That’s why I decided to focus on aaniin. Being that the goal is to start a conversation, what better way to start a conversation than with a very casual hello?
TRT: What is the difference between a department store and renting space in a commercial shopping centre?
Chelsee: My goal is to create a brand experience that shows Indigenous businesses and brands in a more modern light than what people are used to. I want people to come in because they view it as similar to Nike or another established brand. I’m creating a mainstream approach to people supporting Indigenous brands and businesses. That type of approach can be intimidating to a lot of non-Indigenous people who want to support Indigenous businesses. Making it look like any other store that’s out there accomplishes that. My long-term vision is to make something that people like and think is cool. Then they come in and realize it is an Indigenous business.
TRT: Where are you from?
Chelsee: I’m from Sarnia, Ontario and I am a member of Aamjiwnaang First Nation.
TRT: In what ways do the places you call or have called home influence the way that you want your business to operate?
Chelsee: I left Sarnia because I felt very excluded. I left when I was 18 years old for Ottawa. That is where my soul fits; small-town vibes in a big city. And the people there are aware of a lot of different issues. I’ve lived in London, Ontario too but I think Ottawa is where I fit in the most.
Toronto has brought me the most opportunities. I don’t think I would have started this business venture if I still lived in Ottawa. I think being recognized as a Toronto brand will draw more people in and garner a lot more attention. I want to have authentic representation of Indigenous people in mainstream society as opposed to bringing us in for Indigenous history month or a Truth and Reconciliation Day event. I want to have a brand that supports people and that people feel comfortable coming to 365 days a year.
TRT: The soft opening held on June 7, how were you feeling moments before it started?
Chelsee: The whole store was a complete mess. We got it cleaned up and ready to go maybe 20 minutes before people started arriving. So I did not have much time to take it all in. I was getting emotional and overwhelmed when it all came together because I thought, “Holy shit, it’s done.” It’s weird not being able to hold space for yourself while you hold space for so many others. But I’ll get better at that.
TRT: What were you feeling after the event?
Chelsee: So overjoyed. I felt so proud of myself. It was just such a cool feeling. I do what I do for moments like that where I can be in a room with all my favourite people and see how worth it all the hard work was. I’m not looking at it as if we are going to be in malls across Canada in five years. I look at it more like, these are my friends that I can uplift and support and we are all going to continue growing together. That is what keeps me moving forward.
TRT: What are you feeling right now one day before the grand opening?
Chelsee: I feel uncertain. The opening could go really well. Or it might not be what I’m expecting. So you have to adjust your expectations. It is crazy to leave your success and open up your work and vision to other people, but, I’ve done what I can. I feel like I’m giving a sports interview — we gave it our all and it’s all out on the field now.
TRT: How are you planning on remaining true to yourself, your business model, and the cultural mindset that you want as you’re inviting such a range of other cultures into one small space?
Chelsee: I think about that all the time. This is an Ojibwe business now but I want to include all Indigenous languages going forward. We just have to get funding for that first. I want to be able to get funding before I can start hiring elders and language teachers to start supporting the business. Those steps are easy for non-profits but because we are a for-profit business, we don’t have those types of connections and opportunities that a non-profit would have. It has to be from either myself, revenue from the business or third-party investors.
TRT: What sort of products can shoppers expect?
Chelsee: You can come in and walk out with a whole outfit. Whether you’re going out for dinner, or you just want to lounge around at home we’ve got it. We also have beadwork by 16 Indigenous designers that are based mostly in or around the GTA. We also have products from a designer based in Arizona and another in Oregon. We are starting to grow those connections across the nation. Across Turtle Island. We have blankets and candles too but are much larger than a gift shop. Often when people think of Indigenous business they immediately think of souvenirs, magnets, things like that. In my opinion, Indigenous products are so much more than souvenirs when you visit Canada or an Indigenous territory.
I’m wearing a tracksuit from here right now. So, in the same way, you can go to Nike, Adidas, or Hudson’s Bay Company and buy a tracksuit, you can come to aaniin and walk out with the same quality pieces.
TRT: What are you excited about having non-Indigenous customers see and experience in a store like this for the first time?
Chelsee: I think just knowing that it’s the first time for everyone is exciting. We don’t have these opportunities currently anywhere for any of us. So they’re experiencing it for the first time but we’re also experiencing it for the first time. We can be excited together. We include QR codes on the bottom of all of our apparel. If anybody asks you what the translation is you can scan and pass on the information.
TRT: Why is it important for there to be more stores similar to this on Turtle Island?
Chelsee: Best case scenario one of us makes it big and allows others to profit off of our success. I think that the money should always end up in Indigenous hands. Other people have profited off of our land and our resources for the last 400 years. So it is time for us to take ownership and take back what is ours. I think we can do better things than non-Indigenous corporations. So I’m just trying to lead by example in hopes that one-day similar corporations will follow my lead.
I didn’t have like a traditional career path in terms of going to college, getting a degree, and getting a job, I dropped out of three college programs and got myself in a large amount of debt by the time I was 20 years old. I paid that all off in four years by working multiple jobs and then I realized I didn’t need to have school to have a positive impact on my own life. So I became a sponge as I worked my way up the corporate ladder in management and retail. I want to show other Indigenous youth that if school doesn’t feel right for you, it’s not the only option.