Two-spirited people from Eeyou Istchee and other First Nations of Quebec were invited to address their unique struggles in Montreal March 21-23 at the second Eeyou-Eenou 2-Spirited Invitational Conference.
After six years of discreet events in Mistissini to avoid public bullying, the conference “came out of the closet” last year, as organizer Mathias Jolly – aka “Maloose” – put it, to include powerful messages of support from top Cree leaders, including Grand Chief Abel Bosum.
With double the funding this year, organizers were able to open up to the wider Indigenous LGBTQ2S population and add a third day of workshops. New this year was a day focused on training for frontline workers, such as social services, student counsellors and others involved or interested in helping youth in First Nations communities.
“Instead of going into the communities, we invited them to come to our conference and get involved,” Maloose told the Nation. “We organized a day fully concentrating on training about two-spirited people because in the past youth expressed that social workers in the communities do not understand them.”
This lack of understanding often results in two-spirited youth feeling they have nowhere to turn when they encounter violence, exclusion and other struggles. According to a 2012 report by the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO), two-spirited adolescents were twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to have considered or attempted suicide.
“In Eeyou Istchee, it’s a taboo subject in many communities because everybody knows each other,” said Maloose. “Two-spirited people try to fight their identity so internalized homophobia emerges. They start hating themselves and all that because of the indifference and because they don’t truly understand themselves.”
While a lack of awareness and acceptance persists at the local level, the fact that respected leaders like Bosum are directly confronting this taboo sends an important message. This year’s speakers included Cree School Board Chair Sarah Pash and Anglican Reverend Jean-Daniel Williams.
“I think most people were uncomfortable with a reverend speaking at a conference of this nature, but at the end people enjoyed his speech,” Maloose said. “He explained that there are no sinners – God created everyone and everything.”
Much internalized homophobia comes from two-spirited people being told they will go to hell, likely a legacy of residential school repression and the influence of more conservative churches in some communities. Some churches in Eeyou Istchee allegedly still send kids to conversion camps, a widely discredited practice of attempting to change sexual orientation.
During Gina Metallic’s training for frontline workers, she explained that two-spirited people were respected community leaders prior to European contact and colonization.
Maloose estimated that about 20 people attended the grassroots training and another 40 participated in the conference. Some new faces, such as Chisasibi youth healer Irene Bearskin House, were a particularly welcome surprise.
“This is an Elder speaking, something unheard of in the Cree Nation,” Maloose enthused. “It was a very moving statement she made. We really appreciate every single support that we get, especially from someone of her stature.”
Another change is the growing participation of people in their 20s and of women, who outnumbered men for the first time this year. This shift isn’t surprising to Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, who has witnessed more two-spirited youth advocating for greater inclusivity in her current work with the Cree Health Board in Mistissini.
“Of course, what Maloose is doing is such important work,” said Labrecque-Saganash. “It’s helping to show that two-spirit is not a single identity – it’s plural.”
She feels fortunate to have grown up with a supportive family, where two-spiritedness was normalized. While she doesn’t often discuss her sexual orientation with her parents, she said her mother’s best friends are lesbian and she sometimes marches in the Pride parade with her father, NDP MP Romeo Saganash.
“After my parents moved to Quebec City, when my dad was negotiating for the Cree Nation government, the first people they met were at my mom’s hair salon and it was mostly queer people,” Labrecque-Saganash recalled. “As far as I can remember I was surrounded by that.”
She knows most kids aren’t so lucky and regularly sees young people struggling with two-spirit identity issues. She believes that bands and community organizations have a responsibility to educate themselves and demonstrate acceptance so nobody feels judged and excluded.
“I think the big organizations and entities at a regional level have to provide services and show everyone that they are in a safe space,” said Labrecque-Saganash. “The statistics are there – it will save lives. We have to take that step forward.”
With shifting attitudes in popular culture and more Cree leaders speaking out on two-spirit issues, there is a growing awareness that two-spirited people occupy all types of roles in society.
“Now kids can see that we’re everywhere,” Labrecque-Saganash said. “I’m not only defined by that. I do my work and I happen to be like that. That’s why these gatherings are important – you see the thousands of faces of two-spiritedness.”