This two-spirit advocate uses TikTok to push past reconciliation — and towards action
Kairyn Potts says Indigenous representation on creative social media platforms is literally lifesaving
Kairyn Potts doesn't think of himself as famous — but his nieces insist he most definitely is.
"I love them. They're totally, like, my biggest fans and are like, 'Oh my God, my uncle's famous!' And that's so funny, because I'm not," Potts, 29, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
But the internet star's reach and influence are undeniable.
A youth advocate and former social worker from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation near Edmonton, he has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitch, and TikTok. He also co-hosts the Snapchat series Reclaim(ed) with Marika Sila, which explores Indigenous culture through a gen-Z perspective.
His videos are equal parts entertainment and education, mixing comedy, slice of life, activism and information. And he's one of many Indigenous creators who have built large audiences on these platforms.
"I've known that Indigenous people were creative my entire life, but it seemed like the public didn't really get a chance to see that," Potts said.
"It's not a stretch to say that representation, like the kind of representation that's happening on social media for Indigenous young people, is lifesaving. Because, for once, we get to kind of see possibilities."
Those possibilities have been evident across the country. Jocelyn Joe-Strack, a TikToker from Inuvik, N.W.T., told CBC North the platform helped her get through the pandemic and remain sober. Michelle Chubb, a Cree TikTokker from Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Manitoba, told CBC Winnipeg it allows her share her culture with an audience of thousands. Hovak and Braden Johnston, an Inuit mother-son TikTok duo, say creating videos together helped them grow closer.
For Potts, the representation is doubly important as a two-spirit person.
"The biggest teaching that I got as a two-spirit person is that I'm somebody who builds community. I'm one of those inbetweeners, as they say — somebody who kind of bridges gaps and brings people together. And I really take that seriously."
Potts sat down with Köksal in Toronto, where he now lives, just a few days before Canada's second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a federal holiday to remember the atrocities committed against Indigenous children in Canada's residential schools.
Asked whether platforms like TikTok can be a place for reconciliation, he said: "Yes and no."
"Even the word reconciliation, I call it the R-word. I don't know if I even like that word," Potts said.
"I really have preferred calling it reconcili-action, because there's kind of this weird dichotomy online where there's a lot of learning and a lot of content that's being pushed out … but somebody can just keep scrolling and then, like, nothing really changes, right?"
WATCH | Kairyn Potts and Marika Sila on making their Snapchat series:
When he posts content about social justice issues, he typically ends with a call to action — something to read, a cause to support, a place to donate.
"I don't know what it is, but I'm really sick of, like, inaction when it comes to things that are super, super important. And where there's a lot of people willing to help — I like to call in that help, because it's long overdue. And, you know, Creator knows we need it."
The enduring impact of child welfare
In one of his most viral videos, Potts describes in excruciating detail the story of a young boy being taken from his family, stripped of his culture, forced to learn Catholic teachings, and abused by those who swore to protect him.
"By now, you're no doubt thinking that I'm talking about the Indian residential school system here in Canada. Except I'm not talking about that," he says in the video's twist.
"That boy in that story I was referring to? That was me. All of that happened in 2000. And it continues to happen today."
He's referring to his experience in the child welfare system.
"That video has hundreds, if not thousands, of comments of people just being like, 'This happened to me. This happened to my siblings. This happened to my best friend,'" Potts said.
Indigenous people are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada, and account for 7.7 per cent of children under 14. Despite this, 53.8 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, according to 2021 data from Statistics Canada.
"Everybody who is Indigenous knows somebody in care," Potts said. "And that's not even a stretch to say, and that's really sad."
I think that young people, we believe that life is worth living and that it's going to get better. But sometimes you just need to hear it, and sometimes you need to hear it from somebody who's also been there.- Kairyn Potts, youth advocate and content creator
As a youth-oriented content creator with a massive platform, he says it's important for him to connect with young Indigenous people about their struggles — because they are his struggles too.
He's dealt with addiction in his family. His father left before he was born, and his mom died when he was young. As a result, he was in and out of the foster system, and experienced homelessness as a teenager.
"So just kind of the whole range of adversity that a young Indigenous person goes through," he said.
"One of the most brave things I've ever done in my life was to continue when I didn't want to. And I know that every day that I'm here is a privilege, and that growing old is a privilege denied to so many Indigenous young people.
"I think that young people, we believe that life is worth living and that it's going to get better. But sometimes you just need to hear it, and sometimes you need to hear it from somebody who's also been there."
'Laughter is medicine'
But his content is not all dark. Far from it, in fact.
In one video, he spoofs a famous scene from The Devil Wears Prada through the perspective of an Indigenous aunty — one of his regular characters.
In another, he invites his viewers along as he sings and jigs his way to Harvey's for a bite to eat.
"We've said it a million times. Laughter is medicine. Laughter is one of our sacred medicines," Potts said.
It's even in his bio: "Laugh hard and often."
"Indigenous laughter is the goal," he said. "And that's something that I do a ton in my life, is laughing."
Potts is expanding his repertoire beyond social media, too. He co-founded an Indigenous gaming organization called Neechi Clan. He's working on a serialized web series, which he's hoping to release next year. He's writing a feature film.
And as he does his work, he wants to help other young Indigenous people explore their own creativity and tell their own stories.
"There's so much out there that I am experiencing that I just want to, like, funnel all of that info to the young people who are from my community, but also just in Turtle Island at large, because our Indigenous young people, they literally are the future," he said.
"There are so many opportunities out there that are within reach. And they shouldn't be dreams; they should be goals."
After all, it was his young nieces who first convinced him to join TikTok. And they're what matters.
"They're the ones that I want to impress, you know. They're the ones that I want to look at me and say, like, 'I want to be like that,'" he said.
"So it's an honour, honestly. I feel really blessed to be able to be that person for them."
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.
Interview produced by Morgan Passi