SPIR­ITED AWAY

A cul­tural geno­cide in Canada al­most de­stroyed one of his­tory’s most pro­gres­sively LGBT- friendly com­mu­ni­ties

Attitude - - Contents - Words & pho­tog­ra­phy Markus Bi­daux

Canada’s First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties

Igrew up in Saskatchewan, a prov­ince in Canada 2 ½ times the size of the UK, with a pop­u­la­tion of just over a mil­lion peo­ple. It has one of the largest First Na­tions ( in­dige­nous) com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try, mak­ing up about 16 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, but I never felt this was refl ected in my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Grow­ing up in Saska­toon, the prov­ince’s largest city, it felt as if al­most ev­ery­one was white. My el­e­men­tary school had more than 400 stu­dents, but I can only re­mem­ber one First Na­tions pupil, while in his­tory class, there was next- to- no men­tion of First Na­tions his­tory or cul­ture. My work­ing­class neigh­bour­hood was pre­dom­i­nately white and dur­ing my many years work­ing as a life­guard across the city’s eight pub­lic pools there was only one First Na­tions life­guard. But when I worked at the Rivers­dale pool on the far west side of the city there were lots of First Na­tions fam­i­lies in the water.

I al­ways knew there was a large First Na­tions pop­u­la­tion in Saska­toon, but it felt far re­moved from the rest of the city.

The term First Na­tion was in­tro­duced in 1980, two years be­fore I was born, but

I don’t re­mem­ber be­ing aware of it un­til the late 1990s.

Ev­ery­one con­tin­ued us­ing the term “abo­rig­i­nals” or the po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect “In­di­ans”.

First Na­tions peo­ple were viewed by many as be­ing poor, lazy, drunks or crim­i­nals. But I knew that any­one in that sit­u­a­tion was there be­cause of a sys­tem that had pur­pose­fully tried to as­sim­i­late them — us­ing the cru­ellest of meth­ods.

I re­mem­ber be­ing hor­rifi ed watch­ing a movie about res­i­den­tial schools. These were board­ing schools built across

Canada for in­dige­nous chil­dren who were forcibly taken from their com­mu­ni­ties. They were not al­lowed to speak their an­ces­tral lan­guage, re­li­gion was forced on them, and many were sub­jected to phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse. These schools, which aimed to as­sim­i­late chil­dren into so­ci­ety, ran for more than a cen­tury [ from 1870]. The last one to close was in Saskatchewan in 1996.

This barely scratches the sur­face of the many sys­tems of abuse that the gov­ern­ment infl icted on the fi rst peo­ple of

Canada. To­day, there are rec­on­cil­i­a­tion eff orts but there is still a very long way to go. In re­cent decades, First Na­tions peo­ple have been re­claim­ing their cul­ture.

Their un­der­stand­ing of the sex­ual and gen­der spec­trum was far more pro­gres­sive than most cul­tures to­day. Saskatchewan has 70 diff er­ent First Na­tions alone and there are far more across Canada, as well as down through Amer­ica and South Amer­ica. Most of these com­mu­ni­ties em­braced LGBT+ mem­bers and had up to six gen­der terms.

Coloni­sa­tion and re­li­gion tried to strip this cel­e­bra­tion of sex­ual and gen­der di­ver­sity away from these vi­brant cul­tures, in­clud­ing an un­der­stand­ing of their an­ces­tral her­itage, and tol­er­ance. There has been some­thing of a come­back but it was only in 1990 that a group of First Na­tions peo­ple coined the term two- spirit to en­com­pass those in their com­mu­ni­ties who carry both mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine spir­its and prac­tise the tra­di­tional cer­e­monies such as sun dances and pu­rifi ation rites in sweat lodges. These cer­e­monies have specifi c gen­der roles and two- spirit peo­ple of­ten per­form the role of the op­po­site gen­der to the one they were born. It’s a term that typ­i­cally in­cludes gay men, les­bians, trans and in­ter­sex peo­ple.

The fi rst time I heard the term two- spirit was dur­ing Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s speech to par­lia­ment in Novem­ber 2017 apol­o­gis­ing to Canada’s LGBTQ2 com­mu­nity for their his­tor­i­cal un­fair treat­ment.

On a re­cent trip home, I met six peo­ple closely con­nected to the two- spirit com­mu­nity. It was proof that lan­guage can be as fl uid as gen­der and sex­u­al­ity be­cause even within the First Na­tions com­mu­nity to­day it seems ev­ery­one has a slightly diff er­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what two- spirit means. Their sto­ries shed light on what it can be like to grow up both First Na­tion and LGBTQ2 in Canada.

BUILD­ING BRIDGES:Saska­toon First Na­tions pop­u­la­tion was al­most in­vis­i­ble

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