Nova Scotia

Eskasoni two-spirit lawyer honoured for social activism

Tuma Young co-founded the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance in 2011 after a rash of suicides in several Mi'kmaw communities that involved members of the gay community.

Tuma Young is a Mi'kmaw lawyer and co-founder of the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance

Tuma Young has received a lifetime achievement award from the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to justice, equity and human rights for LGBTQ people in Nova Scotia. (Submitted/Nick Honig Photography)

A Cape Breton lawyer who has spent decades working to make life easier for members of the LGBTQ community is being honoured for activism.

Last weekend, Tuma Young received a lifetime achievement award from the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project.

The award is named in honour of the late Leighann Wichman, who was a longtime executive director of the Youth Project, a support organization for LGBTQ youth.

Young, who prefers the use of nek'm — a Mi'kmaw word meaning both she and he, rather than English pronouns, grew up in Malagawatch and Eskasoni First Nation. In 1988, Young was among a group of about 75 people who marched in Halifax's first Pride parade. 

Helping 'a passion of mine,' says Young

About a decade ago, Young co-founded the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance with John Robert Sylliboy after a rash of suicides in several Mi'kmaw communities in the province that involved members of the gay and lesbian community.

"It's just been a passion of mine," said the 55-year-old Mi'kmaw lawyer. "It's just who I am, it's just what I was taught as a two-spirited person. You have to help and you have to be of service to the community and to everybody who requires help."  

Young's volunteer work throughout the years involved stints with the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project and its predecessors. This included being an active member of GLAAD at Dalhousie University in Halifax back in the 1980s. In June, Young was appointed the first Indigenous president of the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society.

Lifetime achievement

"I've been doing this work or involved in stuff for close to 40 years now. I was very pleased and very proud that they've recognized all of our contributions," Young said.

"But I didn't do it by myself, there were a whole lot of people that helped along the way. And also, there's a whole lot of people we lost along the way because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic."

There have been many inroads made in the LGBTQ community since Young's childhood, the lawyer said. Coming out in the late 1970s, Young said there was no one else around with whom to identify. 

"The only resources I had was stories in true detective magazines that said that gay men were, you know, mentally ill and that lesbians were men-hating killers," Young said. 

"Those are the only resources that I had until I started going to Halifax and finding other gays and lesbians in and around here that were out and about."

'We've come such a long way'

Young will always remember a conversation in We'koqma'q First Nation several years ago. A man spoke about his transgender daughter. Young was doing legal work at the time.

"He said, 'It was easy for me to accept my daughter as trans because I thought of ... you just being yourself and not hiding it,'" Young recalled.

"I'm not going to say that everything's all hunky-dory, but we've come such a long way, and we've made it easier for folks to stay in their communities and be who they are.... Folks don't have to kill themselves to be who they are."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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