Several key leaders of the Cree Nation, including Grand Chief Abel Bosum, came together Saturday to deliver a powerful public message of acceptance to two-spirited members of their communities.
"We all know that people of different sexual and gender identities have always been part of our story," Bosum told attendees at the Cree-organized conference.
"I believe our inclusiveness and our diversity … includes all our Eenouch/Eeyouch, whether they call themselves straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or two-spirited."
The Two-Spirited Community Support Conference was held in Montreal on February 16 and 17.
"Two-spirited" is used by some Indigenous people to describe someone who has both a masculine and a feminine spirit.
Bosum's message had never before been uttered publicly by a James Bay Cree grand chief, according to conference organizer Mathias (Maloose) Jolly, adding it's a message young Cree who might be questioning their sexuality desperately need to hear.
"When I was a child I never heard any of my leaders say, 'It's OK you are two-spirited,'" said Jolly, 39, who now lives in Montreal.
"This is very important because hearing your own leader accept you is something we want to hear. Never in my life did I ever believe they would even acknowledge my invitation [to the conference]. It's a big deal for everybody in Eeyou Istchee."
High suicide rates
A 2012 report by the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) into suicide prevention said that suicide rates among Indigenous two-spirited people in Canada aren't known, but are higher than among heterosexual Indigenous people.
Suicide rates for First Nations people are at least twice as high as the general Canadian population. The NAHO report also pointed out that two-spirited people were respected leaders in their communities prior to contact with Europeans and colonization.
Bella M. Petawabano, chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), was another prominent Cree leader who spoke at the weekend convention.
"We all know that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is still strong in most of our communities," Petawabano said. "This needs to change."
Petawabano was recognized by conference organizers as an ally to LGBTQ and two-spirited people in Cree communities.
Petawabano shared the story of how her household in Mistissini was a safe place for people to go, and how her daughters would bring home two-spirited friends who were struggling.
"There were a few times in the summer when someone [would bring] in a friend saying, 'We found him or her at the river, wanting to drown themselves.' That's how it was," said Petawabano.
Petawabano hopes to create youth clinics across the Cree territory as safe spaces for the two-spirited community. She also pledged to create a discrimination and bullying-free work environment at the health board.
"[Cree communities] still have a long way to go, but I believe we are moving in the right direction," she said.
Speak out and stand up
Kathleen Wootton, chairperson of the Cree School Board, attended all the weekend workshops, and said she'll take back what she learned to build better support systems for two-spirited people in Eeyou Istchee's schools.
"In our schools and in our education system I hope we can be more open-minded in terms of providing the emotional support our youth need," Wootton said.
All three leaders expressed a desire for two-spirited people to feel accepted and needed by their nation, and to fully manifest their talents to help build the Cree Nation.
Jolly, the conference organizer, said it's important for his people to publicly speak out and stand up.
"In the past we used to do [this conference] in a discreet fashion, to avoid bullying from the public," said Jolly. "For the first time we did it openly, we publicized it."
Jolly would like to see the gathering grow into a regional meeting to include other First Nations.