This article is a part of Animikii’s Indigenous Innovators series in which we profile Indigenous leaders, activists, artists and entrepreneurs to better understand the challenges and opportunities Indigenous Peoples face in Canada today.
Justin Louis never set out to be a political activist; although his work is often read as political, for him it’s “just about giving a voice to people, using something as simple as a t-shirt to spread or share a message.” Justin is the co-founder of SECTION 35, the streetwear brand based on Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver, BC. His work is politically provocative and inspired by the challenges, successes and resilience of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island.
Justin is Cree, and is from Maskwacis, Alberta (formerly known as Hobbema). He grew up on the Samson Cree Nation Reserve and lived there until he was 18 when he left to attend California State University Stanislaus. Justin graduated from Cal State Stanislaus in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science (Business) and started working professionally in marketing, business development, and commercial real estate development. He lived and worked in California for about 10 years before returning to Canada. He moved from California to BC, to live in Vancouver and work in Aboriginal Relations - before co-founding SECTION 35. Justin’s co-founder is non-Indigenous but is a Community ally and believes strongly in the messages shared through SECTION 35’s products. He runs a print shop in East Vancouver and is the product expert on the team.
“For me it’s more about just giving a voice to people, using something
as simple as a t-shirt to spread or share a message.”
The brand name, “SECTION 35” comes from Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act. This is the Act that recognizes Indigenous and treaty rights. Justin and his co-founder chose to use “SECTION 35” as their brand name as a way of recognizing these rights and at the same time “using it as something creative and positive.” The brand logo represents a talking feather (see right). SECTION 35 was launched in 2014, and has built up a brand following largely through social media and digital marketing conducted by Justin.
It’s important to Justin to create art that is both authentic and accessible - including to non-Indigenous customers. While the brand often utilizes Indigenous imagery and political messaging, SECTION 35 is a streetwear brand positioned towards the broader market and attracts customers from Canada, the USA and around the world. More than anything else, SECTION 35’s customers are brought together by shared values. There’s definitely political and “social consciousness to what SECTION 35 does” and as a result, customers tend to be “like-minded individuals.”
Ultimately, Justin’s goal for SECTION 35 is to open a bricks-and-mortar store in Vancouver and to potentially “have a presence in boutiques around Turtle Island.” Further, once the company grows, Justin hopes to implement social initiatives through the organization - particularly centred on the arts community. Right now, he’s focused on the idea of using his future SECTION 35 store as a community arts workshop or gallery where local, Indigenous artists can host exhibitions or events. Brainstorming effective ways to give back to the arts community, was “one of the first things [Justin did] when [he] started SECTION 35.” Music, art and photography are all important elements of the SECTION 35 brand; in fact, SECTION 35 has worked with Indigenous artists like Blaire Russell to create unique pieces that celebrate Indigenous culture and artistic expression. Further, SECTION 35 has collaborated with musicians like Nahko Bear for social media campaigns.
“A lot of what we do is surrounded by art, and art brings people together.”
While Justin acknowledges that there are other brands putting out similar types of Indigenous-focused streetwear - like The NTVS, based in Minnesota and OXDX, based in Arizona - he doesn’t see these brands as competition for SECTION 35, but rather as complementary brands that help bring awareness to Indigenous issues. By bringing Indigenous art and messaging into the mainstream, brands like SECTION 35, can help to change the conversation and general perception of Indigenous Peoples in North America for the better. Rather than trying to sell exclusively to Indigenous customers, Justin sees value in positioning SECTION 35 as inclusive to everyone; he chooses to use SECTION 35 to foster inclusivity, not divisiveness.
SECTION 35’s brand statement spells out this desire for inclusivity of all Peoples:
“Our art and clothing will embrace our differences. We will bring you many different lenses and world views. Yet through it all our hope is that you will find that we are more alike than different.”
Because SECTION 35 is a small business - the two co-founders are the only current employees - Justin’s daily work consists a "little bit of everything"; he’s always working on order fulfilment, administration, marketing and, of course, developing new product designs. By the time a new product release is out, Justin is already thinking of the next release. In order to grow, Justin wants to diversify the types of products sold through SECTION 35 and the team is always “trying to find new and creative products to bring to the marketplace.” One of SECTION 35's most recent product collections to be released is a collaboration with SANTIAGOX called, "Kill Mascots Save The People.”
While the company is small, Justin is not looking for any outside investment right now. For these two co-founders SECTION 35 is “about doing something that [they] want to do, business-wise and creativity-wise.” They continue to develop distinctive products and want to be able to control the direction of the organization. To Justin, success means being able to “create something that allows you to follow your dreams or to do what you’re passionate about, while also supporting yourself and your family.”
“You always have to stay ahead of the curve; once you put something out
you’re already working on something for the next time.”
To Indigenous youth wanting to pursue entrepreneurship, Justin’s advice is to “take a class, or talk to somebody who’s doing it.” For Justin, one of the most difficult obstacles to face when getting started as an entrepreneur, was facing the fear of failure. He noted that “it’s really easy to doubt yourself and to worry about people not liking [your products]” but ultimately, it’s about creating work that you can be proud of. As he was starting his business up, he relied heavily on his previous experience in business as well as his education. However he still relied on support from a few close friends and his fiance - all of whom run their own businesses. Justin acknowledges that “there are a lot of challenges with being a business owner in a small business. It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it’s very rewarding.” He also believes that in order to achieve your goals, “you have to be willing to go 'all in' or it just won’t work.” He advises youth to talk to small business owners and to “learn a little bit about what inspired them and how they got started.”
While Justin’s business is small, it carries a lot of brand value. Building up a digital presence is essential for an online business like SECTION 35, and Justin is expertly using both his experience and his instincts to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Title Photo Credit: Red Works PhotographyArticle published November 1, 2016.