Life on the rez for 4 2SLGBT Indigenous people

Generally, the narrative about 2SLGBT life in Canada is that you have to live in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, or another urban centre to access meaningful 2SLGBT spaces but what does that mean for 2SLGBT Indigenous people who call northern communities and the rez home?

'We have the right to be healthy in our homelands and to be accepted, says Melody McKiver'

Hanna Waswa flies the Eabametoong First Nation flag in British Columbia in 2019. (Hanna Waswa/Facebook)

Riley Yesno is one of two recipients of the 2021 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada's major media and community outlets.

Hanna Waswa, a queer, Anishinaabe, member of Eabametoong First Nation in Ontario, remembers feeling nervous moving home to the rez after about half a decade of being away.

"I wondered, are people going to accept me?" she said. 

"Then I looked around, and I was like, wow, everyone is gay. Like, I'm surrounded by gay people constantly." 

When people picture two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (2SLGBT) visibility, the backdrop of that picture isn't often a community like Waswa's.

Generally, the narrative about 2SLGBT life in Canada is that you have to live in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, or another urban centre to access meaningful 2SLGBT spaces but what does that mean for 2SLGBT Indigenous people who call northern communities and the rez home? 

For Waswa, who uses any pronouns and appreciates variation in their use, it wasn't until they left for university that he remembers meeting an openly gay person; but she said things are different now. 

More than ever, 2SLGBT Indigenous people are addressing longstanding barriers and reclaiming space in their home communities, but many say there is still more work to be done.

Common struggles

Janine Frogg, a member of Wapekeka First Nation in Ontario and Nishnawbe Aski Nation's Oshkaatisak (All Young People's) Council, recalls hearing homophobic sentiments from religious community members growing up, though they were never said to her directly.

Frogg said she would hear things like, "'Gay people go to hell' . . . really bad, scary things like that."

Frogg recalls a mix of explicit homophobia and silence about 2SLGBT topics and said she understands why so many 2SLGBT youths can feel isolated in their communities. 

The national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) recognized these conditions in its 2019 final report, stating that 2SLGBT people "are often forced to leave their traditional territories and communities . . . to find either safety or community." 

Of course, there are healthy and vibrant 2SLGBT Indigenous lives in urban centres, but how can isolated and rural communities embrace 2SLGBT kin who want to return home and create conditions for them to thrive so they don't feel leaving is the only option?

Youth assert their place

Clint Tootoosis is from Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and has worked for decades in community organizations in Saskatoon. 

Clint Tootoosis speaks at a Pride event in Saskatoon in June. (Clint Tootoosis/Facebook)

Tootoosis said the calling to return home is becoming more and more common and is a sign of the community's healing from colonization. 

"I think we're very much a part of the circle and the circle is not complete without our presence. It's a very special place, and it's a gift," he said. 

Melody McKiver agrees with Tootoosis that times are changing. 

McKiver, a musician and composer who uses they instead of the gender-specific pronouns she or he, has been living in Sioux Lookout, Ont., for several years, acting as a youth worker for some of that time. McKiver said many people, especially young people, are self-identifying as 2SLGBT and asserting their place in the community.

'Our communities have the ability to be as loving and affirming as I believe that our values have always taught,' says two-spirit Anishinaabe youth worker Melody McKiver. (John Paillé )

"I think my generation's approach would have been to just run to Winnipeg or Toronto as quickly as possible," McKiver said.

"There are such high numbers of queer youth now. They are vocal and impossible to disregard." 

Some Indigenous leadership are already supporting and centring the voices of 2SLGBT people in their communities. 
McKiver said communities within Treaty 3 have created a two-spirit council to be a part of their governance on the same level as the women's, youth, men's, and elder's council.

The chiefs of the Grand Council of Treaty 3 passed a resolution last year to incorporate a new 2SLGBT council into its governance model. (Grand Council Treaty 3)

McKiver hopes it will create a precedent for other communities to follow and foster more community-based services and supports.

McKiver said they and their partner have done a lot of work supporting 2SLGBT youth over the years, and while the work was fulfilling, it was unpaid and in such demand that it could have been a full-time job. 

Despite that demand, they said there's an absence of community support or funding for creating 2SLGBT-supportive spaces in Northern and remote communities.

The MMIWG Final Report and recently released National Action Plan also highlights the gaps that exist in appropriate 2SLGBT health care, security and safety, media representation, and access to housing.

The next generation

At 50, Tootoosis said he has seen improvement from generation to generation.

"Our youth are developing a little more completely than in my generation, through nurturing and being appropriately loved. So our roots are a little more solidly grounded," Tootoosis said.

McKiver said these 2SLGBT futures are for the betterment of entire nations.

"I don't like that narrative of [because], you grow up gay in the North, you have to move as quickly as possible. I think that's harmful. We have the right to be healthy in our homelands and to be accepted," McKiver said.

Waswa echoed the gravity of authenticity. 

"It's something that I fought really hard for, in fact, is that sense of belonging at home ... the atmosphere and the experience of being myself and being very queer here. As many times as I leave, I will come back," Waswa said. 


Riley Yesno is a queer Anishinaabe scholar and writer from Eabametoong First Nation. She has written and provided commentary for some of Canada’s largest media outlets, and her work focuses on Indigenous brilliance and liberation everywhere. Find her on Twitter @Rileyyesnomaybe.