Proud to Shine: John R. Sylliboy
Mi'kmaw educator and advocate ensures two-spirit representation is present at Pride events
Note: John R. Sylliboy does not identify with English pronouns. Sylliboy prefers the use of nek'm — a Mi'kmaw word meaning both she and he. We have used nek'm here.
At the IKEA in Halifax, among the displays of fake living rooms and idealized bathrooms, there's something refreshing: a glimpse into what a modern Mi'kmaw home might look like. The space is bright and airy, decorated with art, baskets, and artifacts reflecting Mi'kmaq culture and heritage. It was designed in partnership with researcher and advocate John R. Sylliboy — who also owns most of the art and objects loaned to the space.
"Our house is a modern, urban, Haligonian house. And inside our house is all the beautiful artifacts that we have on the wall, in our shelves," Sylliboy laughs. "I just took what I know, what we have in our house."
Collaborating on this space was important to Sylliboy for a simple reason: there's a lack of understanding in Nova Scotia (and North America at large) about Indigenous people, their culture, and the way they live. While every Mi'kmaw person's home and life is unique, Sylliboy — who grew up in Millbrook and Eskasoni First Nations — says people often have a singular and outdated view that needs to be dispelled through exposure.
"That's an important component of addressing, for example, racism, or changing people's perspectives and stereotypes and biases around who Indigenous people are," Sylliboy says. "We live like you. We are like you, but we also come from a very strong culture and celebrate that through the images and the music and the art, and, you know, these cultural items."
What we want people to understand is that there are unique needs and unique perspectives that we have around gender and sexuality, that often intersect with spirituality and cultural identity.- John R. Sylliboy
This anecdote — one where Sylliboy becomes invested in a project for the sake of understanding and representation — speaks to much of the researcher's life. Nek'm co-founded the Wabanaki Two-Spirit Alliance (W2SA), a non-profit organization that supports Indigenous two-spirit and LGBTQ+ people in the Atlantic region.
Sylliboy is also a PhD student in education at McGill, studying Mi'kmaq perspectives on sexuality and gender as well as ways to promote better mental health among two-spirit folks.
"What we want people to understand is that there are unique needs and unique perspectives that we have around gender and sexuality, that often intersect with spirituality and cultural identity," Sylliboy says.
Nek'm stresses the importance of intersectionality and representation, saying that understanding towards two-spirit people starts with exposure.
"Our float had these beautiful colors, and we had brought people that were dressed in regalia, that were dancing and drumming and chanting, all these beautiful things were happening," Sylliboy says. "People that were watching this were witnessing a resurgence, if you will — a recentering of Indigenous people right before their eyes."
This year, the W2SA is once again partnering with Halifax Pride to host a series of workshops at the Garrison Grounds. They'll also be hosting a (virtual) regional gathering.
ABOUT PROUD TO SHINE
Proud to Shine highlights 2SLGBTQ+ folks who are making a difference in their communities, industries and everyday life. Throughout the summer, we will be sharing some of their stories. Check back here for updates, and you can also find the stories shared on the CBC East Coast Instagram channel.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER - STOO METZ
Stoo Metz is a full-time freelance photographer, social media coordinator and actor. You can find their photos and connect with them on Instagram at @stoometzphoto or on their website www.stoometz.com.