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