Coming of age: N.W.T. elders host gender-inclusive rite of passage camp

A special rite of passage camp was held for LGBTQ, two-spirited and gender-fluid youth last weekend near Fort Providence. The coming-of-age ceremony broke the norm and sparked conversations what it means to transition into adulthood without enforcing traditional gender roles.

Gender-fluid youth ‘very happy’ to participate in important cultural ceremony

Ari Cardinal Lennie, 12, who identifies as gender-fluid and pansexual, participated in a rite of passage at a camp on the land outside of Fort Providence last weekend. These rites traditionally enforce gender norms, a practice that does not accommodate all youth. (Submitted by Sarah Wright Cardinal)

A special rites of passage camp tailored for LGBTQ, gender-fluid and two-spirit youth transitioning into adulthood was held in Fort Providence last weekend.

For Ari Cardinal Lennie, 12, who identifies as gender-fluid and pansexual, the camp was a chance to participate in an important cultural ceremony in a way that made them feel safe and accepted by their community. 

"I'm very happy that there was a rites of passage camp that was good for me instead of just learning the female teachings because, I mean, I need to know both," said Cardinal Lennie. "It makes me feel safe with all the people. It makes me be able to trust more people."

Cardinal Lennie was the primary attendee at the camp, with other youth attending throughout the four-day ceremony. 

Coming-of-age rites are Dene tradition

Dene rites of passage are important for youth managing their way through puberty, as they establish their identities and move into adulthood, says Beverley Bagnall Hope, who helped lead the camp with her husband Frank Hope. The ceremonies tend to differ for boys and girls, with boys focusing on hunting and other on-the-land activities, while girls are taught about mindfulness, cleanliness and essential skills such as sewing.   

Ari Cardinal Lennie, left, and mom Sarah Wright Cardinal are navigating through what it means to be and raise a gender-fluid youth while honouring their Cree and Dene heritage. (Submitted by Sarah Wright Cardinal)

"In all First Nations or Indigenous communities, rites of passage was something that was commonplace," said Bagnall Hope. "That was a time where young people moved into their womanhood and into their manhood. And today, as we recognize, into who they are as a person regardless of their gender."

Every individual deserves the right to know who they are- Beverley Bagnall Hope

When first approached about holding a rites of passage ceremony for youth who identify as LGBTQ, gender-fluid or two-spirit, Bagnall Hope said she didn't hesitate. 

"I didn't even question it," she said. "When I was approached my heart said, 'Absolutely.' Every child, every person, every individual deserves the right to know who they are and to know their authentic self in a cultural and a meaningful way."

A learning process for all

Beverley and Frank consulted with their mentors and elders, who gave their blessings and reminded them to let the youth lead the way through the process. 

"For myself also, it's been something of a learning process because, if you remember that there has been an interruption of that natural transmission of traditional knowledge and values and principles that were handed down to us … by the residential schools," said Frank Hope.

"So particularly those rites of passage, there's a lot of unlearning and re-learning and being aware of a lot of these values and principles that we've lost and picked up again.

"This youth has also been our teacher," he said. "We facilitated the process but this is also a learning process for us too — a continual learning process. And yeah, it's been just a really beautiful experience."

Rites of passage to mark the transition through puberty into adulthood are commonplace in many indigenous cultures, including Cree and Dene. Camp facilitator Frank Hope says he and other traditional knowledge holders continue to re-learn these practices in the aftermath of colonization. (Submitted by Sarah Wright Cardinal )

Cardinal Lennie says they have always felt outside of the gender norm, but chalked it up to, "Oh, I'm just a tomboy, whatever." During a trip up north to stay with an aunt before their 11th birthday, they discovered a lot of things about themselves and the language to describe who they are. 

"When I came home, I told my mom, 'I identify as gender fluid. I'd like you to use my pronouns they and them,'" they said. 

"It's been really powerful and I've had to really think about what I understand as our teachings," said Ari's mom, Sarah Wright Cardinal. "I had to really think about why we go about things in certain ways, how colonization and the church has influenced how we how we do things. So, I've been challenged to really rethink gender and sexuality. I'm very proud of our kids."

Based on interviews by Lawrence Nayally