This is Part One of a Two-Part Series on Lao Home and Fashion Pioneers, A Million Elephants.
“There are a lot of people who don’t even know that Laos exists.”
“As a person of mixed ethnicity, I’m always asked, ‘what are you?’. Every time I said my dad is Lao, nobody knew what it was. So I used to say that I’m Thai. But as I got older, I decided I’m not going to say that. I’m going to say ‘Lao’ so that people know what it is.”
Brittany Petrie grew up in a small city in Ontario, Canada. Surrounded by a large Lao community, she was never short on cultural experiences or friends who shared her love of sticky rice and laap. But despite that, she longed for a deeper connection with her roots, to celebrate her heritage and pass it on to the next generation. And that’s how A Million Elephants got its start. A Million Elephants, a Canadian company, sells handcrafted products, all of which are created in Laos. Working with talented artisans, Brittany offers a wide selection of housewares, handwoven textiles, and jewelry made from recycled bomb materials.
At the surface, it’s a simple retail endeavour. But A Million Elephants makes a huge impact on both sides of the world. Social consciousness is top priority for Brittany. So she offers fair wages for the families she partners with. Her business also helps weavers preserve a generations-long tradition that’s in danger of dying out.
In 2018, many are still unaware that the US dropped around 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos between 1964-1973. These heavy bombings occurred every 8 minutes during the Vietnam War, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history. 45 years later, unexploded ordnance (UXOs) remain buried. They explode randomly, injuring or killing people nearby.
After demining, many artisans melt down UXOs and turn them into spoons, jewelry, and other trinkets. In addition to selling some of these products, Brittany uses A Million Elephants as a vehicle for sharing this history. After years of pretending to be Thai, she’s found a way to help put Laos on the map.
We had the pleasure of talking to Brittany about her inspiration, growing up in Canada, and of course, her favourite Lao food.
So tell me about your family. How did you get to Canada?
I feel like my family history is the same as a lot of refugee families. My dad is Lao. He is the third youngest of 12 siblings, who were sponsored by different churches and groups. They came at different times; I have a lot of family in California. My dad started in Vancouver, and came to Ontario as he got older. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of contact with his family. But we’re getting in contact more and learning more.
What was it like growing up in Canada?
My parents have been separated since I can remember. My mom, who is French and English, is actually remarried to a Lao guy. My sister and I grew up eating sticky rice every day. He comes from a huge family who lives here. We were always surrounded by our Lao side. We had so many Lao friends. We’d go to the temple for Lao New Year.
Have you ever been to Laos?
I’ve been twice, both times last year in 2017. My first trip was in January. I went solo, for 2 weeks. I’m separated, and figured I should just start embracing it. So I booked a trip, even though everyone told me I shouldn’t. I only packed a backpack. And it was so nice. I have an uncle who I’ve only met a couple of times when he was randomly visiting California. I got a chance to get to know him and meet some of my cousins for the first time. My family took me all over Luang Prabang.
That was when I got the idea to start A Million Elephants.
Can you tell us about that experience?
I was out by myself at a night market, walking around. There was a boy who reminded me of my own son, about 7 years old. He was just sitting there with a sign, selling products made with old bomb material. It’s what they did to supplement their income. I bought some souvenirs for my son. When I brought them home, I told him they were made from a bomb dropped in Laos.
And what was his reaction? What about the rest of your family?
I think anyone who has ever met my son would say he’s the most inquisitive child they know. He asked questions like, where did the bomb come from? Why did this happen? Who did it? Did people get hurt or die? I always do my best to be honest with him because although he’s only 7, when we had this talk, he didn’t need anything sugar coated. But I told him in a way that was appropriate for his age, stressing the dangers of weapons and war and the importance of peace and love for everyone.
When I showed my sister, she said, That’s so cool! We didn’t know they were doing that. Where’s mine? Then I thought that if they wanted them, maybe other people would too. I’ve always wanted to start a business relating to Laos.
Let’s go back to that moment in the night market. What was going through your head when you met that young boy?
First, I was shocked. He was the same age as my own son. And could I see my son working anywhere? No, and not at a night market by himself! As a mom, it was a concerning feeling and almost a guilt.
But when I started to talk to him, I was so inspired by what he was doing and the story he was telling. They have so much talent. And these products hit so close to home. I always heard stories from my dad about how hard it was to come here, how he came from nothing. I didn’t really appreciate the impact of the war until I went over there and saw it first hand.
It was amazing to see them take something negative and turn it into something positive.
So that’s where A Million Elephants came from. I want to share Laos’ story in North America, and promote their handmade market. If we don’t pass these things on, we’re going to lose our history and culture.
What was the process for starting the business?
I made a business plan and booked my second trip. I went back in November, and ended up staying for a month. This time, I brought my son. I’m lucky because I have family with experience. My uncle in California imports exotic woods in the US and he’s very business savvy. We met in Bangkok and went to Laos to meet my other uncle. He helped me source products, and they ship everything. Here in Canada, my sister is very crafty. She makes all the necklaces. Even my son wants to get involved. My family are all very supportive and I’m so grateful for their help and expertise.
Do you have any prior business experience? What did you do before A Million Elephants?
I have a background in environmental management. Before this, I was a program manager for a company that does sustainability tracking and reporting for other companies and corporations. We would essentially help businesses and individuals lower their carbon footprint. I actually just got accepted into a post graduate program for September. I’ll be continuing my studies in climate risk management in the fall, part-time.
I left my last position to help my children’s father. He started a boutique store, supporting Canadian designers. We took his idea and turned it into an actual business. I had no retail experience before, but I learned a lot from that. It taught me how to be a buyer.
So how did that work affect what you do now?
It made me more conscious and aware of the bigger picture of things. I’m looking for things that are sustainable. The products are all made from woven bamboo. The jewelry is upcycled materials. I’m trying to incorporate my background and my love for the planet into what I do, and be a conscious consumer. I want to encourage people to buy gifts that are meaningful, and not wasteful.
So how did you connect with artisans to partner with?
My uncle asked, what do you want to sell? And we took it from there. We found weavers in Luang Prabang, and went to Vientiane for the wood products. The recycled bomb products were the hardest because they’re from a very rural, northern village. But I was adamant. We hired a driver and took a 2 day journey. Everything was so slow, but I just had to go with the flow. The road was so bumpy, it was tough.
We ended up finding a village with less than 30 houses. We get there, and find a handwritten sign in Lao and English with a phone number. We just went into the house, and they were melting down scraps and making spoons. They couldn’t speak any English, so my uncle translated. They were super excited to partner. I purchased stuff that was already made. Everything is their design, and products they’ve been making. But I’ve taken some and put them on necklaces or earrings. They were just keychains before. It’s cool, because now they might do that too. On my next trip, I’m going to bring my own designs. I’ve got plans for things like gemstone bracelets.
Do you know where the shrapnel that’s used for the recycled bomb products comes from? Do the artisans find it themselves?
This is something that I want to dig deeper into for my next trip. When I was there, I did quick interviews and asked where everything came from. The artisans told me they get it from professionals who safely remove it. They buy it by the kilo. So, no, they don’t find it themselves. If they did, I wouldn’t buy from them because I wouldn’t want to encourage civilians to go and put their lives in danger.
Next time I go to Laos, I want to look into it more. There’s an organization in Laos called the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). They’re actively working in Laos on demining efforts. We stopped at their office during the last trip. But no one was there because they were all working in the fields.