OTTAWA — Ojibwa-Cree elder Ma-Nee Chacaby says coming out nearly 30 years ago was like unzipping her skin so she could reveal her true self.
It was a moment of relief after years of pain.
"I've been happy since that day," she said in an interview from Thunder Bay, Ont. "I admitted to myself who I was and what I was about."
Prior to 1988, Chacaby said she was bullied and injured for identifying as two-spirit — a term she uses to describe carrying both a female and male in her body at the same time.
"It really hurt me to be beaten by my own people because I was First Nations and two-spirit and then it really hurt me to have white people beat me up because I was brown and I was two-spirit," she said.
Discrimination persists today toward indigenous people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, queer and two-spirit, said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett — an issue experts say is connected to the youth suicide crisis.
"There's a big hesitancy just around the indigenous suicides in Canada for the leadership to recognize that some of those suicides are related to oppression around gender identity or sexual orientation," said Albert McLeod, the co-ordinator of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba.
"It is a taboo conversation."
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Bennett said she heard concerns raised by young people attending the Feathers of Hope — an event supported by Ontario's child and youth advocate that includes delegates from northern communities.
"When you hear it directly from the young people, I think it really does just break your heart," she said.
"It was almost also the same response of kids who were describing suicidal ideation —that they weren't allowed to talk about that out loud because they would go to hell."
Experts say there is a clear link to suicide among indigenous youth.
Sen. Murray Sinclair, who spent six years documenting Canada's church-operated, government-funded residential school system, agrees there is a undoubted connection.
"They are not going to go to hell, but they might be treated like they are in hell," he said in an interview. "That's a real fear."
Evangelical foundations often speak out strongly against traditional values and beliefs, particularly around two-spirited people, Sinclair said.
"That is a direct result of the Christian foundations of the residential schools," he said.
Bennett said the federal government heard stories about the need to flee bullying in communities as part of discussions held ahead of the national public inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, adding individuals said they had also been targeted in urban centres.
One of five commissioners for the inquiry — human rights lawyer Brian Eyolfson —identifies as two-spirit.
"I hope that it might make some people feel more comfortable to tell their stories to the inquiry if they know there is a two-spirited commissioner," he said. "I come to this work with that life experience, but I am an impartial and neutral commissioner."
Eyolfson said it is critical to hear about different experiences to shed light on what contributes to violence against indigenous women and girls, including transgender and two-spirit people.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who plans to march in Toronto's gay pride parade in June, said respect needs to be restored for two-spirit people, traditionally viewed as sacred by indigenous peoples.
"If there is discrimination, if there is intolerance, if there's racism toward our two-spirited people, that has to end," he said.
There are signs of hope, Bellegarde added, pointing to a two-spirit pride festival held last June by Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Kevin Seesequasis, a 34-year-old, openly gay councillor, approached his band colleagues who were enthusiastic about holding the event — an experience that was touching for him personally.
"It was really a fantastic demonstration of support but more than that, it really was understanding ... that people in our community do face barriers who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirit," he said.
"If there's any way as leaders we can demonstrate that compassion, love and understanding, it starts with us."
It is critical for leaders to recognize the importance of showing respect to two-spirited children, Sinclair said, noting young people need to be given a sense of validity about who they are.
The issue is personal for the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman — he has daughters who identify as two-spirit.
"I ... tell them they are special," Sinclair said.
Chacaby also delivers a message of acceptance when she speaks with young people.
"If people could just stop and listen and encourage them and just love them as they are, maybe things would be ... better," she said.
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press