Shani Gwin

Sovereign Storytelling: Shani Gwin Shares Indigenous Perspectives Through Public Relations

Once upon a time, Shani Gwin heard a lot of stories about Indigenous people that turned out not to be true. They were based on stereotypes and bore little resemblance to the beautiful culture she was so proud of. Now she’s helping Indigenous people share their own stories, taking control back of the narratives that have distorted the truth for too long. Using new media to share long-held traditions, she’s bridging gaps in understanding and building bridges to new relationships through public relations.

Shani Gwin is based in Edmonton, a sixth generation Métis with connection to the Cunningham clan, with First Nations and settler heritage. Her mother’s family is from the Métis settlement in St. Albert, Alberta and her paternal great grandfather, St. Pierre Ferguson, ran the Hudson's Bay fur trade stop in Grouard, Alberta. He married her great grandmother, a descendant of Michel First Nation. 

“[My children] inspire me a lot and push me to keep going because I want their world, obviously, to be a little bit more harmonious than it is today,” she dreams aloud. Gwin got into this work and founded her company, pipikwan pêhtâkwan, because growing up she was proud of her culture but didn’t have as much access to it as her parents did. She was also swayed by her family history and childhood experiences.

Her grandfather, Chester Cunninghamm, started Native Counselling Services of Alberta and her mother had a strong connection to her Métis culture. Her dad lost his own father young and was raised by his Cree mother and her parents who only spoke Cree. Her mother worked in Corrections, providing ceremonies to incarcerated Indigenous people and helping them with reintegration. Her father helped Indigenous people access vocational skills, training and employment. People who were reintegrating, in need of access to health care, or looking for housing stayed in her family home.

Watching all of this growing up, Gwin gained a different perspective on Indigenous people that broke from the stereotypes and an appreciation for the beauty of her culture. “We're so funny, loving, kind and honest,” she smiled. When she got into school, she started to feel shame from those stereotypes but she found a tool that could help: public relations.

“When I found out about public relations, I was like, ‘Oh, how could I use this tool, if I became really good at it, to have Indigenous people take ownership back of our narrative, of our stories, of our truths, of our true history with Canada. And it turns out, it was needed because we are very, very busy,” Gwin shares. She loves empowering Indigenous people, being a helper, encouraging strategic thinking and honouring people’s autonomy, sovereignty and truths. She loves making sure that their voices are heard in the way they would like.

Gwin explains her work as being helpers to prepare people to share, receive and act on information, storytellers translating complex ideas into plain language using a variety of mediums from social media to video, graphic design and ad copy, and strategists who help organizations reach their goals. She helps people understand who they are talking to, the best way to reach them, and the most effective message to relay. There’s a lot of writing, conversations behind the scenes, event planning and something new to do every day.

Her favourite part is watching people’s confidence grow as they overcome their fears during a time where people are expected to react and respond immediately.  “I think watching Indigenous leaders, entrepreneurs, and youth become more confident in sharing their truth, and in a way that feels good for them, is just really rewarding for me. Seeing the success, seeing the coverage and how people receive it, too, is rewarding, because we're seeing less have some of those negative reactions,” Gwin beams.

Watching her team of two dozen staff get more confident and seeing more people open to hearing from them also encourages her.

When it comes to getting into a career in public relations, her advice for people considering it is, “be prepared to be not in control of much at all.” The reality is that one can never know for sure how a message will be received and even with the best laid plans, things can go wrong, she explains. It’s not all bad news, though. “If you're creative, you like to do new things, you like people, and you're okay with not being the star of the show, then communications is really, really rewarding, I think, especially when it's something you're so passionate about,” she reassures.

Thinking of her hopes for the future, she dreams of a collective shift in perspective. “I would like to see more organizations thinking about people over profit…. I think people need to remember why they created something in the first place. It's hard to stay humble sometimes when things are getting successful, and lots of people want a piece of you, or they want to interview you, and tell you how great you are. But I think it's important for all of us to get our opportunity to shine. It's also important for all of us to have an opportunity to live full, safe, comfortable lives,” she muses.

The future she envisions is less capitalistic, more oriented to people and the land, less quick to cancel others, and more forgiving of mistakes. “Everyone's scared to make a mistake… the only way we learn is if we make mistakes, take accountability, apologize and move on and get another chance,” Gwin confides. “Let's hold the people that need to be held accountable, accountable. But what are we holding them accountable to? And what do we want them to do to return? I think there's more room for forgiveness, kindness, and honesty. I think we have so much potential as a collective if we work together as a whole,” she continues.

Before she was the proud founder of a public relations firm, Shani Gwin remembers how once upon a time, she heard a lot of stories about Indigenous people that turned out not to be true. Now, she’s breaking down stereotypes and sharing the beautiful culture she loves and helping other Indigenous people do the same. In taking back control of the narratives that have distorted the truth for too long, she’s using new media to share long-held traditions. Bridging gaps in understanding and building bridges to new relationships is a family tradition, one she gets to take part in every day through public relations.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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