'In no way did I intend to hurt anyone': Nunavut MLA clarifies comments on 2-spirit people

Recent controversial comments made by Cathy Towtongie, MLA for Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet, about the two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (2SLGBTQ) community has prompted a conversation that spans Inuit generations, old and new worldviews and language barriers.

On March 5, Towtongie said 'we know that having 2 spirits is not from Inuit culture'

A file photo of Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie. Towtongie’s comments on the term 'two-spirited' in the Nunavut legislature on March 5 were quickly met with a backlash online from some Nunavummiut. (Beth Brown/CBC )

Recent controversial comments made by Cathy Towtongie, MLA for Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet, about the two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (2SLGBTQ) community, have prompted a conversation that spans Inuit generations, old and new worldviews, and language barriers. 

"In no way did I intend to hurt anyone. I was expressing our own worldview and our own terms," Towtongie told CBC on Tuesday. 

Speaking in support of a motion for a violence-free Nunavut in the Legislative Assembly on March 5, Towtongie said: "We know [hurting people] is bad and we know that having two spirits is not from Inuit culture. Procreation and having babies continues today." 

Two-spirited is a term used by some Indigenous people for an individual with both a male and female spirit. The term has gained wide acceptance across Canada to refer to many variations of gender, sexuality and relationships. 

In her motion, Family Services Minister Elisapee Sheutiapik named the 2SLGBTQ community as a group targeted by violence.  According to Statistics Canada, members of that community are twice as likely to be victims of violence and some are nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted. 

If you make comments that hurt other people ... you have to apologize for the damage that you've done.- Anna Lambe

Support for the motion was unanimous in the House. 

"Let me be very clear, I'm totally against violence, including [against] the [2SLGBTQ] community ... But the term in Inuktitut, two-spirited, it is not an Inuit concept," Towtongie said Tuesday.

Comments 'alienating and stigmatizing'

Towtongie's March 5 comments were quickly met with online backlash from some Nunavummiut. 

Anna Lambe, a 19-year-old from Iqaluit currently in Ottawa, wrote an open letter to the assembly March 9. 

A file photo of Anna Lambe. Lambe, who identifies as an 2SLGBTQ individual, wrote that Towtongie's comments were 'alienating and stigmatizing.' (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

Lambe, who identifies as 2SLGBTQ, wrote that Towtongie's comments were "alienating and stigmatizing" and suggested members of her community are less deserving of protection from violence. 

"I was quite disappointed and quite upset about the comments ... and that prompted me to write the letter," Lambe said.

Although her personal communication with Towtongie over this issue has left her "unsatisfied," Lambe said she hopes a constructive conversation can ensue. 

Towtongie explained on Tuesday what she learned growing up with a grandmother, who was a midwife, conflicts with the two-spirit concept. 

"We have sipijuq [for females] and sipiniq for men, but that occurred at birth, when the baby came out," Towtongie said. 

Some online comments questioned why Towtongie felt the need to make this point in response to a motion on non-violence. 

"I wanted to be very specific that our worldview was included, and it wasn't," Towtongie said. 

When asked if 2SLGBTQ ​​​​​​individuals have a right to express themselves in Nunavut, Towtongie said the closest Inuit concept she thinks applies is one that translates to "non-interference."

"Inuit do not use the word 'right.' They use the word 'responsibility' ... Let them rationalize their own thought, however they may be." 

Members of the Legislative Assembly on March 5 standing up for a recorded vote to support a motion towards a Nunavut that is violence-free. Support was unanimous. (Beth Brown/CBC )

On the topic of procreation, Towtongie said that is how Inuit have survived thus far. 

"But I can't speak for others. That's their choice. As an Inuk, we never say we speak for this person. We say, 'ihumaanik,' it's up to him." 

But Lambe said Towtongie alienated some of her own Inuit constituents who, especially among younger Inuit, identify as two-spirited. 

"We may not have a historical term [for two-spirited], but if there's an Inuk today who wants to identify as two-spirited they're completely within their right to do so," said Lambe, who is working to reclaim Inuktitut with the help of other Inuit. 

Gulf between older and younger Inuit

Lambe acknowledged the gulf between many older and younger Inuit, in terms of life experiences and worldviews. 

Lambe said Towtongie "acknowledges that she was raised in a colonized system, and a lot of young people now are working to decolonize and reclaim a lot of aspects of Inuit culture that were shamed and almost lost."

Even though Towtongie did not intend to hurt anyone, she should still be accountable for her words and their impact, Lambe added. 

"If you make comments that hurt other people, you have to acknowledge that, and you have to apologize for the damage that you've done."

Lambe said she wants to steer away from shaming Towtongie since that is counter-productive.

"I don't stand with any shameful comments that are being made, even if they are in favour of my arguments ... I'm one to look to building someone up rather than tearing somebody down," Lambe said.