30 years after coming out, two-spirit elder hopes to inspire others to do the same

Ojibwe-Cree author Ma-Nee Chacaby will be one of six Grand Marshals at Montreal’s Pride parade.

Ojibwe-Cree author Ma-Nee Chacaby will be one of six Grand Marshals at Montreal’s Pride parade

Ma-Nee Chavaby copes with trauma through her art. She also channelled those same experiences into an autobiography, A Two-Spirit Journey. (Anouk Lebel/Radio-Canada )

From an early age, Ma-Nee Chacaby felt she was different.

Her kokum (grandmother) took her aside and explained what it meant to be two-spirit. She told her that she was gifted, and warned her that she would face criticism because of it.

"She told me it was a very spiritual being where there's two people inside of you. There's your male side and your female side," she said.

"She said I was going to have a hard time with my life because of who I was."

While some people use the term interchangeably with the words gay and lesbian, Chacaby thinks of it more as her spiritual identity than her sexual orientation.

The Ojibwe-Cree elder identifies as both two-spirit and lesbian. Growing up in Ombabika, Ont., she was bullied and had to hide who she was. In 1988, she decided to come out publicly during a televised interview at an LGBTQ event in Thunder Bay, which led to years of backlash.

But on Sunday, she'll be one of the six Grand Marshals leading the parade capping off the week of festivities at Montréal Pride.

Before colonization, two-spirit people were honoured in Indigenous communities, and given special roles as medicine people or protectors of the community. She said they were ostracized and began to hide their sexual orientation as settlers arrived to Canada.

Now, Chacaby hopes to encourage LGBTQ youth to come out, and to ensure that they feel better supported than she was.

As a child, several of Chacaby's close friends were snatched away by the Sixties Scoop, leaving her feeling isolated. She survived years of sexual abuse and had nowhere to turn, leaving her with severe nightmares and flashbacks as an adult.

She began coping through art, painting nature-inspired imagery with water paints. She later on channeled those same experiences into an autobiography, A Two-Spirit Journey.

"I continued to use my art as my way out of my body to get them out into the air, into the outside of my body that way I didn't have to carry the heavy load," she said.

"One person can't carry all that stuff in your body. It becomes sickness."

She hopes her work will inspire self-compassion in younger generations.

Chacaby was a little nervous about accepting the role of Grand Marshal in such a large parade, but she decided it was a good way to show others that they should be comfortable being themselves.

Listen to Chacaby speak on CBC Montreal's Homerun.

"I'm just being truthful," she said. "And if people don't like it, they can stuff it up their noses."

"If they don't like me because of that, then that's their problem. It's not mine."

Chacaby joins Anan Bouapha, Danny Godbout, Val Desjardins and Monica Helms Wilson Cruz as one of six Grand Marshals of Montreal's Pride parade Sunday.

With files from Jennifer Yoon and CBC Montreal's Homerun