Nfld. & Labrador

Q&A with Jack Saddleback: 'Excited about the future' for trans, gay, indigenous people

Jack Saddleback is giving a talk at Memorial University's Grenfell campus to provide a look at his story as a Cree, two-spirit, transgender, gay man.
Jack Saddleback will be speaking at Memorial University's Grenfell campus Monday evening. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

A motivational speaker is in Corner Brook Monday to speak about overcoming barriers in his experience as a Cree, two-spirit, transgender, gay man.

Jack Saddleback, who is also president of the student union at the University of Saskatchewan, will be giving a talk called "There are no closets in tipis" Monday afternoon at Memorial University's Grenfell campus.

Jack Saddleback has been overcoming barriers in society since he was born. He's a Cree, two-spirit, transgender, gay man, and he's in Corner Brook to give a motivational talk to students at Grenfell Campus. It's part of Indigenous Peoples Week. 7:17

But early Monday morning, Saddleback was in CBC studios speaking with the Corner Brook Morning Show

Here's Saddleback's conversation with host Lindsay Bird.

Q. First off, you refer to yourself as two-spirit. What does that mean?

A. The term two-spirited was actually coined in 1990 in Winnipeg by a group of aboriginal individuals who wanted a term that acknowledged a historical acceptance of queer aboriginal people in First Nations cultures. Hence the term two-spirited, which acknowledges the intertwined cultural and gender and sexual diversity of every individual.

Q. Your talk is called "There are no closets in tipis." What kind of message are you bringing to Grenfell?

A. Talking about the term two-spirited and looking at the historical acceptance of queer aboriginal people in First Nations cultures, I'm looking at first off the history side of things. And then for myself, with the role of residential schools in First Nations cultures, there has been a kind of a disconnect between that respect for all individuals regardless of their gender and sexual orientation due to a number of different events that have taken place over the years, which has created quite a rift in our First Nations cultures. That has included homophobia and transphobia.

For myself, being a person of many identities, that can be a struggle to go through my own community, but on top of that we're looking at the wider societal look of homosexual individuals, as well as transgender individuals, and the barriers that are taking place.

My talk is sort of my own story of overcoming these barriers. I'm not one to boast about anything, but it's been a large struggle throughout my life and I'm more than just grateful to finally be in a position to let people know there are some issues that are taking place in our society. We have to break those down. Regardless of your background, you can rise up and you can do whatever you want to do in your life and create change for the better.

Q. What kind of challenges did you face for you to get to this point?

A. Some of the struggles that I will be talking about today are regarding mental health issues. When you have a society that you're having to face, it can be quite daunting. And for my own life, I had succumbed to the pressures of our society and depression had taken quite a toll on myself growing up, and a subsequent suicide attempt, which I have been able to overcome because of my family and because of my community and because of my culture.

I would not be here if it wasn't for those individuals and for those ceremonies that kept me here and grounded with my people. So for myself, it's looking at mental health issues, it's advocating for that as well. There's also a lot of other things that we'll be talking about, but I don't want to spill the beans just yet.

Q. In terms of identity, that must have been a huge thing to be finding your own way and finding your identity in a society that maybe you don't see yourself reflected all that often.

A. Growing up, I think one of the largest issues that I found was that I could not see myself in society, I could not see a First Nations person in leadership roles or in large mainstream positions. I could not see myself as a gay individual, nor could I see myself as a trans individual.

So when I think about those struggles that I was going through, those struggles of isolation, of just not being able to connect with society, I think about those other young individuals who are out there right now wondering, 'Where do I fit in this world?'

And they do fit in this world. I fit in this world. Everyone does, but we have to break down those barriers that are in our society today to be able to encourage people to simply be and celebrate themselves.

Q. What kind of sense of that do you get for the future of people finding their identities going forward?

A. I am very much excited about the future. When we look at how far we've come within these past few generations, I can only imagine what it's going to be like in the generations to come.

And as a First Nations person, what I was grown up and taught time and time again from my elders was those seven generations before you, they love you regardless if they knew you. They didn't know what you were going to grow up to be, they didn't really care, but they loved you as a human being, and for myself that's what I have to keep in mind at all times: how can I be a loving ancestor to the seven generations to come?

Q. This talk is part of Indigenous Peoples Week at Grenfell, so what is it like to contribute to the conversation?

A. I'm super humbled by this. It's very interesting … I'm personally just very humbled by the invitation to be out here, I look forward to meeting everyone and to learning a little bit more about Corner Brook and all the folks that are out here.