Shining armour Sean Rayland-Boubar lost years of his life sitting in jail; today his Red Rebel Armour streetwear biz is turning heads: ‘I’m shooting for the moon’
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Six years ago, Sean Rayland-Boubar was sitting in jail, a place he had been in and out of for years, when he made a decision.
“I started (learning) about colonization and how that’s playing a role in our communities. I understood the intergenerational trauma I was dealing with,” he said. “When I was released, I (was) like, ‘OK, I can’t be part of the problem anymore. I have to be part of the solution.’”
Fast-forward to 2022. Rayland-Boubar owns Red Rebel Armour, an Indigenous streetwear company funding training and employment for people who’ve left the criminal justice system. One staffer recently left Stony Mountain Institution and Rayland-Boubar hopes to hire more.
Hiring former inmates keeps them from returning to prison and using government dollars, Rayland-Boubar said. He estimates he’s saved Ottawa more than $100,000 by preventing a re-entry into the criminal justice system.
“Instead of spending money on keeping them locked up, we could spend money on healing,” he said.
Rayland-Boubar, 35, was raised in Winnipeg’s north and west ends.
“Growing up here in the inner city, there are a lot of things that are missing,” Rayland-Boubar said. “One of them is love. The other one is belonging.”
He faced discrimination as an Indigenous child, he said.
“You have low self-esteem. You’re poor. Then you see people that have money, they have a bit of power… they look like they take care of each other,” Rayland-Boubar said. “I wanted to belong to something, I wanted to have money, to have things I never had.”
Rayland-Boubar became a father at 18 years old. Shortly after, Child and Family Services took away his child, and he joined a gang, he said. He was in prison before turning 19. It became a pattern — some time in, some time out — for nearly a decade.
Addiction painted the time period, as did a lack of self-worth, socio-economic barriers and a desire to be tougher than peers.
“It’s almost a goal to go to the penitentiary,” Rayland-Boubar said. “It’s glorified. It’s like, ‘Hey, I want to be tougher than my cousin that went there, so I’ve got to go there.’”
At some point, he began questioning himself.
“I was like, ‘This ain’t normal. Why is all my family here? Why are my cousins here? Why are we treating (this) like this is normal?’” Rayland-Boubar said.
Then he met an elder and the conversation turned to intergenerational trauma. It launched a journey of healing.
He ended up in prison once more, in 2016, but that time, he was embarrassed. Connecting to culture — becoming a sundancer and participating in sharing circles — has helped guide his transformation.
“When I decided to change my life, I’m like, ‘How could I still sell something? I’m used to it… I’m a natural entrepreneur,’” he said.
He got out of the Winnipeg Remand Centre in 2018 and started Red Rebel Armour while working as a stock boy. He built the brand while taking an Indigenous social innovation program at Red River College Polytechnic and began running the company full-time last year.
Kale Bonham started designing prints for Red Rebel Armour’s clothing in 2020. Sometimes the pictures are nature-based — like the fruit and flowers covering the popular Strawberry Sage hoodie — while others might depict a teepee or chief head.
“There’s a dance,” Bonham said. “If you want to sell T-shirts, you have to make images for people who are buying them.”
Non-Indigenous customers largely avoid Indigenous prints to dodge cultural appropriation, Bonham said.
“As an Indigenous person, I am totally cool with non-Indigenous people wearing Indigenous images,” she said. “If you’re wearing the shirt, and you’re a cool person… it’s perpetuating the culture. People are talking about it.”
The business won’t grow if limited to an Indigenous customer base, Rayland-Boubar said.
Red Rebel Armour is currently a four-person team in the North End’s Social Enterprise Centre with some part-time staff. Its wares are sold online and through partner vendors like Hudson’s Bay Company and Teekca’s Boutique.
“I’m shooting for the moon,” Rayland-Boubar said, adding he’d like a warehouse and more jobs for people leaving the criminal justice system.
“There’s so many artists that are in prison,” he said. “There’s engineers, architects, scientists. They just haven’t had the opportunities.”
Former inmates face several barriers to employment, according to Katharina Maier, a criminal justice professor at The University of Winnipeg.
“We talk about the criminal record as a form of invisible punishment,” she said. “It can make it very hard to rejoin the community.”
“We talk about the criminal record as a form of invisible punishment. It can make it very hard to rejoin the community.” – Katharina Maier
People re-entering society may not have adequate housing, transportation and access to basic needs, Maier said. They may face discrimination and anxiety upon returning home.
“You’re just going to go back to what you know, whether that’s selling drugs or robbing people,” Rayland-Boubar said.
Twenty-two per cent of adults returned to provincial custody within two years of their release from the criminal justice system, according to Manitoba 2020-21 data.
“If you know there’s a job site or an employer that’s… welcoming, that can make a big difference,” Maier said. “Re-entry is also about rejoining the community and finding spaces of belonging.”
Red Rebel Armour is currently vying for $25,000 in the Pow Wow Pitch, a competition spanning North America. It’s been selected as a semi-finalist.
Rayland-Boubar said he’d use the money to scale up his business.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.
Updated on Friday, August 19, 2022 9:39 AM CDT: Corrects references to Rayland-Boubar